Netflix TV review: Hellbound
3 / 5 ( 5 votes )
Written by Arthur
Rating Yeon Sang-ho’s thought-provoking tale of horrifying retribution is a chilling study of belief, judgement and justice.
Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho delivers another propulsive slice of genre thrills with this atmospheric series about a strange phenomenon in which people are warned by a ghostly figure that they’ll die and be taken to Hell on a future date – only for that to apparently happen when monstrous CGI figures appear from the ether and do the nasty deed.
Yeon drops us into the chaos immediately, as we follow a guy in a coffee shop as he sprints down the street – followed, in turn, by three gorilla-like terrors who are far from afraid to get hands-on with their capture of him. A nasty, violent showdown later and he’s scorched to ashes, before the trio jump back into thin air, leaving behind a bloody mess. It’s an unnerving, scary start to the show, and it sets in motion a Ringu-like atmosphere of mortal dread: from the moment someone is given their due date, there’s an eerie foreboding around what appears to be an inevitable fate.
That gives the whole of Hellbound an unsettling tension that never lets up. Rather than race through encounter after encounter, though, Yeon uses that forward-looking momentum to give him room to slow down. What begins as a terrifying tale of mortality turns into a more complex drama about retribution and guilt.
Our main way into this moral quagmire is Jin Kyeong-hoon, a world-weary detective played with a downbeat humanity by Yang Ik-june. A widower who’s felt the pain of justice not being delivered, he’s a fascinating figure, haunted by his wife’s killer, desperate to protect his daughter, Hee-jeong (Lee Re), and not afraid to do some digging around this strange wave of killings that’s spreading through Seoul.
That noir-tinged investigation – think Seven, but with more paranormal goings-on – puts him on collision course with Chairman Jeong Jin-soo, the leader of a movement known as The New Truth. After impressing Burning, Yoo Ah-in plays Jin-soo with a beautifully eerie confidence, at once a charismatic speaker and self-proclaimed prophet and also a slightly shady, sickly man.
Together, they navigate a maze of conflicting viewpoints and ideologies, with the New Truth group looking to build on its appeal to consolidate its influence and Jin Kyeong-hoon looking to stop his daughter being caught up in their messaging. In between them are a range of reactions, from a single mum who will do anything to keep her kids safe to people willing to pay others to live-stream their “demonstration” (as these encounters become known) for everyone to see.
The second half of the six-part show sadly leaves these strands behind to focus on a different group of characters, but that widens the scope of the drama, which takes us away from the visceral immediacy of the premise and allows Yeon to open up a bigger debate about social media hysteria and conspiracy theories. The New Truth becomes more powerful, but also give birth to a more extreme cult movement called The Arrow Head, which encourages followers to unearth the “sins” that these damned figures must have done to earn their warning and demonstration.
The result loses some of its focus, but an eye-boggling finale suggests that more excitement and chaos is on the horizon if a second season is greenlit. Nonetheless, Hellbound remains an intriguing tale of escalating fear and uncertainty, which doesn’t shy away from the grim consequences of humanity attempting to join in judging others. As the mythology surrounding events becomes more opaque and ambiguous, the behaviour and decisions of each person on screen makes for thought-provoking commentary, with a world where an online society prescribes a black-and-white view of justice still able to contain mistakes and mysteries. Underneath it all is the chilling question of what humanity would do if the cost of sin were explicitly shown in the street – and the more chilling suggestion that, rather than make people change their ways, it would only make everyone worse.