Ten minutes into Hellbound and I spat my drink of water all over the table. It was one of those moments where you get a hunch that this is going to be either garbage or genius.
The scene in question proffered the sight of three oversized, overly sunburnt emissaries from hell, who had come to the physical world to execute a condemned person. The man is distraught, confused, and possibly filling his slacks with as much pee as his bladder could muster. He’s hardly a specimen of prime human sinew, but these three oversized hulks are pummelling him into the ground, WWE style. Like the 18 Bronzemen beating Stephen Chow to a pulp with folding stools; it’s a visual farce of epic proportions. The difference? Only one was trying to be funny. Or at least I thought it was.
It took me three days to finally stop tittering and finally, I picked up Hellbound from there. Turns out it was neither garbage nor genius, but boy, it certainly was one hell of a show.
In the world of Hellbound, its inhabitants are discovering a new phenomenon. People are starting to be visited by horrific apparitions – later referred to as angels – that condemn them to hell and proclaim their exact moment of reckoning. To be pedantic, it’s the moment where the three trolls (referred to as demons) – literally and figuratively – teleport in, proceed to do a long run-up towards the victim and then start to beat the living crap out of them like it was a Looney Tunes crossover. After a few interminable minutes of cringe, the victims are thankfully incinerated. So many questions – I mean, why is the ass-kicking even necessary? Do you not already have a tight schedule? Why can’t I let this go?
None of it makes any sense; not even the timing of the decree. The damned can have twenty years to think about their life before they are finally taken away. In one particular case, the damned had a mere thirty seconds. I kid you not. Long story short, I cleaned up the water on the table once more, but I took a little longer to compose myself after yet another bout of uncontrolled giggling. Perhaps someone in admin had dropped the ball. Still, I’m glad they managed to squeeze in another appointment at the last minute – quite literally, too.
Jokes aside, it’s a little unfair of me to mock the very nature of the demons as we know nothing about how they work. It seems to me that this is deliberate and their only role in Season 1 is to be the spark that sets the whole barn on fire. While clues are few and far between, the show does drop a couple. One of which is the oddly specific timing of the decrees, which might actually be significant in piecing clues together when Season 2 (hopefully) comes along. And of course, watch till the end for an absolute banger of a plot twist. But back to the hapless people in Hellbound we go.
If you think I’m exasperated, imagine what it’s like for them. When science fails to answer questions, people inadvertently turn to the supernatural for the answers. And in Hellbound, that call is answered by Jeong Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in), the charismatic founder of the New Truth, an organisation that seeks to spread the ‘truth’ about what God demands from his subjects.
When Park Jeong-ja (Kim Shin-rok), a single mother, receives the dreaded decree, Jin-soo persuades her to let them broadcast her reckoning in exchange for financial help to secure her children’s future. Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo), a lawyer who is handling the legal details for Jeong-ja, and Jin Kyeong-hoon (Yang Ik-june), a detective investigating the spate of mysterious deaths, are uncomfortable with how events are unfolding, as well as Jin-soo’s increasing influence on public opinion. The pair are drawn together by their doubts about Jin-soo’s motives, and they set out to uncover the true nature of the New Truth.
Abetted, albeit at arm’s length, by a vigilante group known as Arrowhead, the New Truth starts to amass an uncomfortable number of followers through a potent cocktail of fear and more fear: shall I get my ass kicked by horribly-rendered CGI monsters or shall I get my ass kicked by horribly-dressed adolescent monsters? The fear of death is, after all, the best deterrent in many situations, and things start to get Orwellian hairy as the police begin to lose control of the situation.
The second arc takes place a few years after the events of the first, and is centred around Bae Yong-jae (Park Jeong -min), a producer at a local TV station and his wife Song So-hyun (Wong Jin-ah), whose baby receives the decree, and consequently, the attention of the New Truth. In terms of action, this is where the series starts to pick up. Where there was previously doubt and uncertainty about the New Truth, we now know definitively who the true villain of the piece is.
The idea of using monsters and zombies to bring out the true devils of the world – ourselves – has been played out to death, so there’s nothing particularly striking about the premise behind Hellbound. But being able to pull it off satisfactorily is not something many can claim to do, and it seems that the Koreans are doing a banging job in this department of late. I suppose we can always make room for one more entry.
All the more so when the performances are commendable, but I have special mentions for three minor parts: Ryu Kyung-soo’s chip-on-his-shoulder performance as Yoo Ji, the sinister deacon of the New Truth, is delightfully revealing of a man who is as vulnerable as he is menacing; Shin-rok’s heart-wrenching performance as a loving mother who fears losing her children more than death is almost painfully personal; Kim Do-yoon’s turn as a fanatical live streamer and Arrowhead member Lee Dong-wook, who constantly stokes the fires of discontent among the youth, is as hilarious as he is chilling for his misplaced sense of self-worth. Do-yoon is enjoying himself way too much, but I suppose he too, recognises that much of the nonsense he spews could well be copied verbatim from our daily social feeds.
Hellbound is ultimately an allegory about the inherent power structures that we are a slave to. Do we truly have free will when our decisions carry the threat of death at every turn? Be it the rule of law or the power of religion, people in Hellbound are failed by one and imprisoned by the other. It is a classic tale of the power struggle between forces beyond the comprehension of the common folk, and how we are caught in the fallout regardless of what we do. There is a price to pay, even if it is for the greater good.
The biggest strength of Hellbound, no doubt, is its ability to keep things bleak and leaving you to cling onto a sliver of hope. The first season is effectively two story arcs and I’m thankful for that – the time skip eases up on the tension just long enough so you can prepare yourself for one more run. You have to endure hours upon hours of doom and gloom before Hellbound dispenses any form of catharsis for its viewers. And dare I say it – the payoff is worth every minute of it.
The truth is, Hellbound feels more like a crime thriller than a horror flick, and it is far stronger for it. The supernatural world is far less destructive than what the real world can spit out, and perhaps, this is what makes Hellbound work: the not-so-subtle cliché that earth is where hell is. Enjoy the ride.
Hellbound Season 1
Verdict - 9/10
Dodgy CGI aside, Hellbound more than makes up for it with a compelling narrative and excellent performances. Bleak at its peak.