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Train to Busan director takes on God in Netflix’s visceral series Hellbound

It’s a miracle

Netflix

Hellbound starts with a smoke monster dragging people to hell, then ups the ante. Over the course of the new Netflix drama, creators Choi Gyu-seok and Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho push through plot lines and human body parts with the same devil-may-care attitude of the opening, balancing social commentary with the ever-mounting tension that comes with a world where you might be brutally sent to hell at the drop of a hat. Miraculously, Hellbound manages to pull it all off for the whole six-episode season.

The stakes are set by episode 1: As the clock strikes 1:20 p.m., an otherwise unassuming man fearfully is ruthlessly torn apart by demonic, ape-like monsters who leave only charred remains in their wake. From there, Hellbound moves methodically to interrogate the moment. Detective Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-june) is assigned to investigate the “murder,” as well as the New Truth, a YouTube-based religious sect claiming that the creatures are in fact angels acting on the divine will of God. In the eyes of New Truth chairman Jung Jin-soo (Burning’s Yoo Ah-in), these sinners got what was coming to them, and the rest of the world would be wise to wake up to God’s new strategy.

Neither the chairman, nor the detective, nor even Min Hyejin (Kim Hyun-joo), a lawyer for the accused sinners, holds the show’s focus for long. Rather, Hellbound morphs from police procedural to social media outrage thinkpiece to religious soliloquy to Greek tragedy, narrowing the lens with each jump in order to tighten the screws of what living with such merciless judgment really means. That could leave the show feeling unfocused, but instead it just feels like intentional chaos, eschewing anything that would let the story be too neat. In the same vein as Akira, the narrative simply jumps between characters as they’re responding to the central events, providing whatever is the most interesting lens on the story at the time.

From the perspective of a sinner condemned for their sex life, Choi and Yeon expose how it’s all too easy to run afoul of hysterical puritanism (a plotline Hellbound wisely sets without a whiff of “cancel culture” discourse). As the New Truth and their extremist counterpart the Arrowhead raise the profile of those who have received “the decree” — and subsequently dox the “sinner” and their family — the show interrogates how public perception changes the stakes of judgment. But it’s the initial pairing of religious leader and police officer that’s most interesting across the first season. Both believe in a higher power, be it God or the state, and perhaps overvalue the autonomy an average person has within those systems. They both desire an acceptable justice for transgressing, they just disagree on who should dole out that punishment. In the end, their opposition is the result of both of them watching the establishment as they know it collapse on top of them. And they’re both just as helpless in the face of otherworldly ape monsters as the rest of us.

Monsters in Netflix’s Hellbound perform a ritual in the opening scenes of the show Photo: Jung Jaegu/Netflix
The Arrowhead leader in the Hellbound series under blacklight in a still from the show Photo: Jung Jaegu/Netflix
A character in Hellbound being restrained by his fellow police officers Photo: Jung Jaegu/Netflix

None of the other characters are quite as captivating as the pairing of detective and demagogue. If Hellbound has any major blindspots it’s the running problem that the powers behind the New Truth and the larger concept of belief — particularly fervent, violent belief — aren’t worth interrogating, or at least aren’t complex enough for a show devoted to highlighting the layers of “bad” decisions seems glaring across the six-episode season. A faceless mob eager to do violence in the name of the Lord is just comes off as pure evil.

But a taut narrative is able to pull its viewers along even through those difficulties. The world of Hellbound, marked as it is by Old Testament judgment, provides just enough subjective perspective a puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together, until it does. The gray industrial locales and moody atmosphere create an almost noir Seoul, encouraging scrutiny of the narratives being presented. Indeed, it’s no accident that Yeon and Choi frame every pang of danger like a monster movie. The attacks feel animalistic and brutal, much more tangibly violent than, say, Sam Raimi’s brand of playful gore. The choices add up to a tone that never allows the audience to feel at peace with their place in the narrative, no matter what the New Truth says. Yoo Ah-in is particularly inspired casting, letting his chairman be just as virtuous as he is shifty, immovable in his low-key fanaticism. It’s on his shoulders that the rest of the players can build their respective roles — the damaged cop, the dogged attorney, the questioning parents — without ever feeling simply drawn.

That’s Hellbound’s greatest trick of all. In adapting seven installments of his own Webtoon comic, Choi is able to build a dynamic world, constantly and cleverly laying out the groundwork for the next step, and in the execution, Yen never lets up. The series takes swipes at for-profit religion, a public’s appetite for violence and redemption, and how crimes are often just the tip of the societal iceberg, always finding a new corner of the world to land its hits. By the end of season 1, Hellbound’s many focused narratives fuse into a startling new reality, once again overriding the rules the world seems to be functioning by. There can (and probably will) be more mystery to this story in future seasons, and I’ll be devouring them with all the intensity of a supernatural smoke ape.

Hellbound season 1 will be released on Netflix on Nov. 19.