The vision of a ghostly face appears out of nowhere and issues a decree as to when you’re going to die. “In three days, at five.”, wrapping up with a “You have been condemned to hell.” No biggie, then when the day arrives, three gigantic Hulk-like monsters appear out of the blue, pounce on the victim, beat the living beejeebus outta him, then pulverize him into ashes. That’s the kind of scenario to expect from the latest South Korean show, ‘Hellbound’, now available on Netflix. But don’t let the intro put you off, because behind this older-than-time-itself premise lies a series with much more to say and a message far more important than may appear on the surface as it wields the rendering of God’s wrath to make a poignant and in-depth analysis of today’s society, especially about how easy it is for certain discourse knowingly exploit despondency, frustration and fear to place leaders on pedestals overnight who then claim to be our saviors, those who can fix the system. Someone captures the monsters on video, the video goes viral on social media and is initially received with skepticism. “It has to be fake,”, one character says, referring to the increasingly blurred line between actual reality and post-editing suite reality.
But that critical eye soon becomes blinded by another very different reading nourished by a group calling themselves The New Truth, which will soon become the standard, the only interpretation possible. Their leader assures everyone that the monsters are complying with God’s will, doing the supreme being’s bidding to convince humanity to get with the program and abandon their sinful ways. Before long, the detective in charge of the case encounters a veritable pressure cooker situation where certain gangs of minors take it upon themselves to execute divine justice, instigated by a QAnon inspired wacko livestreamer as he delivers the marching orders to target specific people. And all of a sudden, what started out like a series about fantasy monsters turns into a tale of monsters, yes, but of the human kind. The baseball bat wielding kind who livestream the beatings thus unleashing a litany of raw violence director Yeon Sang-ho (‘Train to Busan’) mercilessly pummels audiences with, in such a way that there are several moments bordering on the satirical in one scene, before becoming the stuff of nightmares. A kind of ‘Black Mirror’ and its perverse use of technology meets the youthful and automated sadism of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ with street gangs that could have been taken directly from Akira. The first three episodes rock audiences to the core on two levels, sparking reflection on the human condition and the recourse to the use of explicit violence.
Up to this point, ‘Hellbound’ explores in great depth all the ramifications of its starting point, all the while maintaining a constant tension. That said, a leap in time in episode four takes the wind out of its sails as it presents a new scenario extrapolating the point of departure even further and featuring several scenes that are even more disturbing, while also significantly slowing down the pace and blurring the connection between what the show portrays and the present day, something that had been key during the first half. The loss of several more charismatic characters with better developed backstories than those introduced in this second half of the season also takes its toll on the home run, perhaps unnecessarily as it devalues the overall result. In the end, season one culminates with a cliffhanger without having addressed the elephant in the room, namely what the heck are those monsters about, and why they do what they do. Maybe we’ll get the answers in season two, but it didn’t have to be like that. As was the case in ‘The Leftovers’, what’s important isn’t the answer itself, but instead how humanity as a whole loses the plot.
Inevitably, the series is compared to ‘Squid Game’, not just because they hail from the same land, but also as both share the same mixture of violence and unambiguous social criticism. But that’s missing the point, as ‘Hellbound’ adds an additional pinch of both ingredients to the broth. Here the analysis of modern capitalist society is much more complex and weighs far heavier on the storyline than in ‘Squid Game’, inviting a more open-eyed reflection, thus resulting in a more thought-provoking product. Every new character brings their own fresh perspective and angle for addressing issues around topics such as justice, fear, faith and human frailty. When it comes to violence, ‘Squid Game’ had an aesthetic component utterly lacking in ‘Hellbound’, where the brutality and bloodshed is nasty and unpleasant, so if you come expecting the feelgood factor, you’re going to be disappointed. You’ll be feeling the slow afterburn from this show for some time to come.