One person’s damnation is the whole public’s event of the season. Leave it to writer-director Yeon Sang-ho to mutate ordinary concepts into outlandish fun, most notably that 2016 mega-hit where a high-speed train to Busan becomes the perfect buffet line for zombies. Hellbound, however, is something else. Not only does it rock your socks off, it can get your brain working with the same amount of force. Only three out of six approximately 50-minutes-long episodes of the series are shown at TIFF, but there is enough in them to have you believe in a satisfying-or-beyond landing — and that Netflix is in possession of the next made-in-Korea bingeable sensation.
Much like Kingdom, Hellbound has digital comic origins — though as a webtoon (one vertical strip) rather than a webcomic (numbered pages). It also has the source material’s creators on the writing front — every Kingdom episode thus far is from Kim Eun-hee of Kingdom of the Gods; all of Hellbound credits director Yeon and illustrator Choi Kyu-seok who created Jiok (itself an update of an animated short Yeon made in 2003). Where they diverge, of course, is in their focus; Hellbound has zero undeads and usurpers but many sinners and sects, notions that aren’t as clear-cut as you’d reflexively think.
Yet as cathartic it can be seeing people who have committed anti-social behaviour paying their price here, what always follows is the question of whether the punishment fits the crime. Does a person labeled “bad” really deserve to be chased, thrown, dragged, pummeled, mauled, and then holy-light incinerated by three burly creatures in broad daylight and before everyone’s eyes — like that terrified man in the coffee shop seen in the series’ opener? The prologue is pretty much a frame-by-frame play of the webtoon’s, short of being a direct lift since Yeon has added more fear, intensity and cinematic flourishes. On the latter: With alert lensing from Space Sweepers’ Byun Bong-sun and thoughtful editing of Parasite’s Han Mee-yeon & Yang Jin-mo, the scope as well as inescapability of the termination of sinners are noted. Resoundingly so.
What is used to better illustrate the point is also what will help viewers navigate Hellbound — an ensemble consisting of the widowed detective Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-joon), kind attorney Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo) and cold cult leader Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in). Two more people are yet to be introduced, TV producer Young-jae (Park Jeong-min) and his wife So-hyun (Won Jin-ah), but who we meet in the first three episodes still grant us access to the series’ primary conflicts. As established early on, the café man’s hyper-overt judgment isn’t the first of its kind — although he is the most local sinner to be visited by a disembodied giant head of an Angel, hear a dated & timed demise, and c’est la vie. Being the messy, far-from-godly beings that we are, Hellbound’s populace don’t interpret these events in the same way, be it in tense discussions or a hilarious-but-toxic livestream, and the result is absolute chaos which Yeon will capitalise on.
To Kyung-hoon, all of this is investigatable, not unlike the murder case that took his wife’s life many years ago. For Hye-jin, there is no way to be sure, even if her clients are the sinners, even if they are mainly those decreed by youthful, unruly vigilantes of one Arrowhead group rather than the Angel. With Jin-soo, nothing else is more empyrean, so here he is, through Yoo’s arresting performance that is a blend of chilling magnetism and restrained humanity, constructing a new religion called The New Truth. The deeper into the grim journey one goes, the more these differing views can challenge your answers to “What is good?” or “What is bad?” or “Is this the kind of immediacy you’d like justice to have?” You are free to form one, but you will not get the confidence to claim it as correct. That’s the shrewdness of Yeon and Choi’s work. Try and “work out” Hellbound, you naturally would, only to realise you have about as much agency as the sinners.
Of the three, episode two is the best because Yeon and Choi go all-out communicating this aspect. Through the principal three’s interactions with the newest sinner, Jeong-ja (Kim Shin-rok), a middle-class mom of two, we will see how no plans are easy or uncostly. Yet, without a doubt, they will twist your innards à la the emotional beats of Train to Busan and validate how hell is both real and other people. Blame fear, sure, but is that a prompt to some folks to pay a fortune to have front-row seats to your death? Is that an invitation to exercise your brand of justice and righteousness? Doesn’t it make you a sinner, too, beating up sinners? Will they be damned, too? It’s all fittingly apocalyptic, conveyed through excellent build-up and on-point audiovisual instead of colour grading. There’s a possibility that the workings behind the curtain will be known, but let’s hope Yeon and Choi can stop themselves beforehand.
As dark as it is to say this, the audience will be better off staying in the dark on the moral and existential fronts of Hellbound, whether its longevity is limited or ongoing (if so, five-or-under seasons, please!). The fun to be had in this state is so great, any elaboration, if not careful, will ruin the illusion — and, unfortunately, the link to reality. It will make the only-moderate quality of our main audience surrogate, Det. Kyung-hoon, more noticeable. Then again, if the initial episodes have proven anything, everything can change or double down in the final three. For once, mystery is favoured. Something about hell fills the body with hope. Something about being damned is synonymous with spectacular. Whoops, there goes the guiltless card.
Hellbound, all six episodes of it, will be on Netflix TBA