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Hellbound: Episodes 1-3 (Series review)

Netflix is really going all in on the Korean drama front. Their newest original offering Hellbound is a dark take on fanaticism and the notion of evil. Mysterious creatures begin viciously killing people and condemning them to Hell, ushering in fear, confusion, and chaos. On one side is Yoo Ah-in, the proselytizing religious cult leader claiming it as a sign of divine retribution. On the other are the skeptics, police officer Yang Ik-joon and lawyer Kim Hyun-joo who take the cult and its fanatics head-on. It’s a grim, wild ride that isn’t shy on the brutality. But if you’re a fan of horror, cult stories, and examinations of the darker side of human nature, this one’s worth a watch.

 
EPISODES 1-3 REVIEW

We open on an average day with people milling about the city and discussing whether JUNG JIN-SOO (Yoo Ah-in) is crazy. He’s famous online for his videos showing executioners (Korg-looking demonic rock monsters) who come to collect those bound for Hell. Jin-soo claims they arrive after an angel issues a proclamation stating the day a person will be taken to Hell.

The drama wastes no time letting us know we’re in for a brutal story. We get our first proof that Jin-soo may not be crazy when a terrified Joo Myung-hoon sits, preparing for his death. At exactly 1:20, the foretold time, three rock monsters come for him. They’re vicious, savagely beating him before extracting his soul and leaving only the man’s charred bones in their wake.

Okay, I have to admit the monsters make me chuckle a bit. They’re supposed to be these terrifying creatures, but they just look like big chunks of rocks with strangely small heads and smushy faces. While their violence is indeed disturbing, their cheesy appearance takes away from the fear factor a bit.

Despite video evidence of massive rock monsters murdering a man in broad daylight, the police treat this like any other case because what else can they do? Here we’re introduced to JIN KYUNG-HOON(Yang Ik-joon), the somewhat withdrawn yet principled officer tasked with investigating the religious movement called New Truth. Founded by Jin-soo a decade prior, New Truth has been following similar cases throughout the globe and views the appearance of the rock monsters as divine retribution. According to Jin-soo, every victim was an evildoer who committed vile deeds like rape or murder.

Kyung-hoon and Jin-soo immediately butt heads. Jin-soo finds it laughable that the police are treating the “demonstration” of God’s reminder to stay on the path of righteousness as murder, and Kyung-hoon thinks that Jin-soo is a manipulative cult leader full of nonsense. Jin-soo’s pessimistic view that only fear compels people to be righteous doesn’t sit well with the more idealistic Kyung-hoon who still believes in the law despite feeling failed by it. Kyung-hoon’s wife was murdered six years ago, and although the culprit was arrested, he only received a sentence of 10 years due to being under the influence of drugs at the time of the murder. He was recently released after serving six years.

Jin-soo and Kyung-hoon have this brief conversation about theology that seems to strike a chord with Jin-soo. In response to Jin-soo’s belief that the rock monsters are God’s message to humanity to live right, Kyung-hoon remarks that Jin-soo’s God must not believe in free will. Jin-soo thinks it’s an interesting point but strikes back by asking if human law provided true justice for Kyung-hoon’s wife’s murder.

Jin-soo claims he’s not a cult leader, yet he amasses quite the fervent following. He’s treated like a celebrity by his devotees; an elderly lady even tries to give him her seat on the subway. Despite his fame, he lives in a goshiwon (tiny dorm) and prefers to take public transportation. Everything about him reads humble, yet there’s something off about him.

Yoo Ah-in is great here as the mysterious religious leader. He takes a quiet, understated approach to the character that lends him an air of inscrutability and almost apathy. But he also looks intensely weary. Jin-soo has a morbidity to him, a sense of macabre, which makes sense when your religion hinges on violent death. When he first meets Kyung-hoon and his investigative partner HONG EUN-PYO (Park Jung-pyo), Jin-soo shares that he grew up in a Catholic orphanage and planned to die as soon as he gained independence at 20. He traveled to a remote region of Tibet for this purpose and witnessed the rock monsters claiming a victim. And just like that, he found his life’s mission.

Jin-soo’s entire existence is wrapped up in his religious fervor and proselytizing, leaving little room for anything else. He uses any and every opportunity to advance his ideals in ways that are often callous. When the next victim Park Jung-ja – a single mother with two young children – is told by a glowing-eyed apparition (the supposed “angel”) that she’s Hell bound in five days, Jin-soo’s response is to offer her three billion won to let him live broadcast her being sent to Hell.

Jung-ja decides to take the money on the off chance this is all real and her children are left destitute orphans. She goes to lawyer MIN HYE-JIN (Kim Hyun-joo) for help facilitating the transaction. Hye-jin is measured and resolute with a straightforward personality. Most of her life seems dedicated to her work, and the only aspect of her personal life we see is that she’s the primary caretaker for her mother who has cancer. Publicly, Hye-jin has been a staunch opponent of New Truth, known for going after the cult and its fanatics.

Fanaticism is a central theme of the drama and its main embodiment here is Arrowhead, the radical offshoot of New Truth that takes matters into their own hands by assaulting sinners and “putting them on the right path.” They go after anyone who disparages “God’s will” or encourages others not to believe in the New Truth doctrine. Or pretty much does anything they deem problematic. Their spokesperson is this bonkers live streamer with a dramatic makeup and wig situation who believes screaming everything gets his point across better. Unfortunately, he has quite a large following of like-minded fanatics willing to do anything for the cause.

The drama pulls no punches in demonstrating extremism and mob mentality with Arrowhead’s various atrocious deeds. Our first taste of what they’re willing to do is when a group of teenagers record while they viciously beat a man for speaking out against the organization for being dangerous. While they seem like a small fringe group at the start, it becomes clear that Arrowhead holds more power than initially assumed. They even have agents within government organizations who feed them information on “sinners” who need to be cowed. One such bit of information leaked is the identity of Jung-ja and her children. Arrowhead goes crazy digging into social media to find intel, and the kids have to be secretly flown out of the country for their wellbeing. Protestors surround Jung-ja’s house, cheering her demise and demanding she repent of her supposed sins of which they can only speculate.

[BEWARE: some serious spoilers from here on out]

We reach a turning point in episode three, and things start getting really ugly. Until now, no one has known what to believe about the video evidence of the rock monsters from Hell. Even those who disparage the cult, like Hye-jin, can’t help but have doubts. With Jung-ja’s “demonstration” being made public via New Truth, it gives the nation the chance to witness for themselves whether it’s all true.

The most frightening aspect of the drama isn’t Hell and its monsters, but the cruelty of humanity. Jung-ja’s date with Hell essentially turns into a public execution with front row seats given to New Truth funders who conceal their identity under masks. Jung-ja sits in her living room, the outside wall knocked down so the cameras and crowd outside have a good view of the spectacle. New Truth sounds a blaring alarm announcing the time has come, and there’s even a countdown. People barely pay heed to the actual terrified woman sitting before them, awaiting her own demise. The whole nation watches in fascination and growing horror when the rock monsters do show up and savagely beat Jung-ja to a pulp before collecting her soul. And now, everyone is a believer.

This signals a large shift in the culture now that people are taking New Truth and its doctrine seriously. There’s panic and confusion with people opting to just stay home in fear of facing their own divine retribution. Only New Truth and particularly Arrowhead revel in this horrifying era of judgment, fear, and mercilessness. Arrowhead not only brazenly attacks specific anti-New Truth targets like Hye-jin and her colleague, but brutally go after innocent people associated with them. The idea that anyone could call this unbridled violence “righteousness” is laughable, and it becomes clearer by the minute that eradicating sin is merely an excuse for some to unleash their depraved tendencies.

A tragic side plot that grows relevant here involves Kyung-hoon’s teenage daughter JIN HEE-JUNG (Lee Re). Kyung-hoon discovers in the first episode that she’s been volunteering with New Truth and obviously isn’t a fan, but he’s hesitant to push since working with them seems to make her happy. She’s been reticent since her mother’s death, and their relationship is strained. There’s a distance there that Kyung-hoon can’t figure out how to cross. She doesn’t seem like a fanatic, so he ends up leaving her be.

That turns out to be a mistake. Hee-jung’s grief and anger make her vulnerable to Jin-soo’s influence. He does more than indoctrinate her, though – he goes so far as to locate her mother’s murderer who’s roaming free. Then, he instigates her to burn him alive. Yes, he incites and assists a teenage child to commit “righteous” murder. When Kyung-hoon discovers what Jin-soo has done, he’s out for blood. He sets out to find Jin-soo, which is exactly what Jin-soo wants and leads us to the biggest turning point yet.

From the start, it’s been clear that Jin-soo is hiding something, and the end of episode three finds both Hye-jin and Kyung-hoon separately learning that secret. Jin-soo calls Kyung-hoon to meet him and shares that 20 years ago, he received a proclamation that he’s bound for Hell in exactly 20 years. With only 10 minutes left to live, he’s still not sure what sin he committed as a good child. In fact, he never found any evidence of the Hellbound being worse sinners than anyone else – it was all lies. But Jin-soo’s fear made him live properly for 20 years, which is why he believes the only way to create a more righteous world is through making everyone feel this fear.

Now we see Jin-soo for who he truly is: a desperate, broken man unraveling from spending 20 years in terror. Although the entire premise of New Truth is a lie, he’s convinced himself he’s doing the world a favor by providing order, a reason for why people are being killed and taken to Hell. He’s both terrible and pitiful. Jin-soo seems intrigued by Kyung-hoon and his notion of justice, so he leaves it to him whether he exposes the truth or not. If Kyung-hoon records Jin-soo being taken to Hell, the world will devolve into further chaos upon learning of Jin-soo’s lies. If he stays silent, he may prevent further chaos but has to live burdened by the truth. Kyung-hoon stands helpless while the rock monsters murder Jin-soo. He doesn’t record.

We briefly meet Jin-soo’s New Truth successor KIM JUNG-CHIL(Lee Dong-hee), and it looks like we’re in for even more destruction to come. Although Jin-soo was awful in his own right, something about Jung-chil feels more malicious. Per Jin-soo’s instructions, Jung-chil meets with Hye-jin and shares the truth of Jin-soo’s prophesized death. Then, he shares with Hye-jin that Jin-soo has ordered him to kill her. He doesn’t want to get his hands dirty, so he calls in Arrowhead. He drives away while they beat her to death. Holy crap.

Whew. That was a lot, and we’re only halfway. I have to say, I did not expect to lose 2/3 of our main trio already. From the start, it’s felt primarily like Kyung-hoon’s narrative, and this explains why. He’s now the last one standing with the heavy knowledge that this new world is built on a false premise. If Jin-soo is right that people aren’t taken to Hell because they’ve committed a major sin, what is the driving force? With Jin-soo’s reveal, we’re pretty much back to square one with this whole situation. Now that Kyung-hoon has been clued in, will he lay low or try to figure out the truth behind the Hellbound?

My main complaint thus far is that I don’t feel particularly connected to the characters. Even if they intellectually interest me like Jin-soo did, I’m not emotionally engaged. For the most part, that hasn’t mattered much since this is a more plot-driven and thematic drama, and that’s keeping me plenty invested. But it did mean that Hye-jin’s death, while tragic and awful, didn’t hit me in the way that I think it should’ve. I’ve felt neutral about Kyung-hoon from the start, but I think in part it’s because he’s been in a more reactionary position. Now that he’s in the know, I hope he gets to be more proactive.

Heading into the second half, I’m no longer sure what to expect in terms of plot or where we’ll come down on the philosophical notions of righteousness and evil. I find it ironic that the best, most applicable line so far came from the obnoxious Arrowhead douche: “Never underestimate the resilience of human stupidity.” I’m curious to see where we end up, but whatever happens, I’m betting on a grotesque display of human stupidity.

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I am halfway through this myself and IMO, this drama is more thoughtful and better acted than Squid Game but I also find it MUCH more disturbing, to the point I ask myself whether I am actually enjoying it. I suspect I would not have thought so twenty years ago, but especially after the last five, the responses of the populace, writ both large and small, strike a frightening chord with me when I think about what is happening in the U.S. I have not experience a piece of entertainment that has made me feel misanthropy this strongly since reading Camus in high school.

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I completed the series and I had a Beanie already!

Wow, that first three episodes did a great well-done job for Yeon Sang-ho! He was that man who behind Train to Busan so did the second/final half of the first season. As well as the most energetic powerhouse cast did had a fantastic ensemble here! Now, back to the first of second half of the episodes (Eps 1-3), that opening scene from Episode 1 was very jampacked action scenes and even those wonderful CGI monsters as what the same-named webtoon said. I also love the beautiful cafe BGM that was moments before the events of Hellbound began. Also on Episode 1, I saw a Starbucks PPL and even the another PPL of Maxim coffee.

Now, I want to know what TeenTok TV as what I seen during the Arrowhead livestream scenes means it just like a unexpected parody of Tiktok and I suspected that it could be targeted for (local?) teens but for supposed-to-be all-ages. Also during the Arrowhead livestream scenes, I suspected that Arrowhead goes bald!

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I couldn't make it past the first episode of 'Sweet Home' even though I really wanted to- is 'Hellbound' scary in a similar way? 'Squid Game' I had no problem with, but 'Sweet Home' has made me a bit apprehensive about Netflix K-Dramas described as thrillers >-<

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Hellbound is more disturbing than Sweethome..this one is really crazy..the amount of violence is the worst out of all netflix series

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Oh bummer- guess I will give this a miss then! Thanks for letting me know!

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I think it’s quite different kind of gore with sweet home. Sweet home is more like disgusting look of monsters made by flesh and covered in blood with dramatic size of body parts, in this one the monsters look ugly but didn’t make you feeling “yikes”. The way they tortured and kill the “sinners” are cruel, but fast, no slow killing. For me personally, i bear much better on watching Hellbound.

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Yoo Ah-in is everything you've described @quirkycase His seems detached and weary, until his face changes at the end of episode 1 and we see him smirk. He's a complex character. We are both repelled and also feel sympathy for him.

The second 3 episodes are important, adding significance to what's happening and how people react.

I found it uncomfortable viewing, particularly the instigation to burn the murderer alive. In spite of the monsters looking like Michelin men, I found the demonstrations horrible. People were taken to Hell after much physical suffering. But did the fear of such an ending make people any less sinful? The actions of the New Truth people show that they increasingly became more and more capable of horrible deeds in order to hang onto their power. The interesting thing about that was their seeming lack of awareness of their own corruption.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but no one who received a declaration thought they deserved it. The most wicked were the loudest in proclaiming their Innocence. Jin-soo was sure he'd lived a blameless life. Only Jung-ja humbly accepts her fate, and we never learn what her henious deeds were, except that she had children by different men who may have been already married.

In spite of this obvious failure to recognise oneself as deserving of eternal damnation, it increasingly becomes clear that the reasons why some are sent to Hell are not always straightforward or easily understood as deserved. So that becomes the turning point of the second half.

The suffering of the innocent is the great unexplained mystery for believers, and this becomes a logical stumbling block for those who make capital out of hellfire and brimstone punishment for bad behaviour.

The drama is very skilful in its reuse and reinvention of some key religious symbols, and it made me want to try to understand the point it was making. The epilogue was imo key to everything that happened. It turns the story around and may even offer a different perspective on punishment and damnation, although I'm not sure I'd like a 2nd season.

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I'm not sure if the "damned" were really even sent to hell by those monsters. We only have Big Face's word for it. What if BF and co. are just nasty evil spirits messing with humans, and have nothing whatsoever to do with god? It's clear that many if not most of the victims were just ordinary people, and some of them were even exceptionally loving, like poor Park Jung-ja (who was obviously a damned good mother). But thanks to the repulsive spin that Jung Jin-soo has put on the phenomenon, even the most innocent victim might feel guilty, not just because of Big Face and the monsters, but also because of the spotlight that New Truth and the entire nation would put them under.

In that sense it's not a million miles from some real-life religious institutions that prioritise brimstone and hellfire over grace and love. I'm sure generations of small children have been traumatised by such infernal guilt-trips.

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I never thought of that. If Big Face is a big hoax, we could be in for a cosmic battle in season 2, if it ever happened. 😆

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I find it interesting that only Jin-soo--as far as we know--was given a lot of time to prepare for his judgment, a whole twenty years. The other victims only had days to prepare. Why is this? I feel that there is something important here.

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Curious if his fate could have changed over the time,like say he didn't kill that murderer last minute or incite to murder,would his judgment be gone or not...

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It would have been interesting if people had their proclamations retracted.

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Spoiler here: later we see a guy who got around 5 years. So I don't think Jung Jin-soo got special treatment. I don't think it's a judgement either, cos he seems to have been as randomly picked as Park Jung-ja or the guy in ep1. What's interesting about him is how he responded to it. Again, it's not that different from what real life is like: people who have endured great suffering might rise nobly above it and even help others to deal with it or avoid it, or they might end up believing that since they've suffered others should suffer too.

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Yes, I wrote this before watching the final half. I use the term "judgment" only because the characters do. I am interesting in seeing where the show goes if we do get a second season. And yes, I do think that how people respond to the proclamations/judgments are interesting (we see an important example of this in the second half).

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I wonder about that as well.

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@miky88 If the proclamation had been a prophecy of sort, then it was like he fulfilled it. Then again, we do not know why he received that proclamation in the first place. We do not learn the "sins" of many of those who receive death proclamations. We only know New Truth's interpretation of these strange events. So was he issued a death proclamation because he would end up being a murderer? Or because he would deceive others? Who knows. We do not really know the reasoning behind these judgmements. I wonder if there'll be a second season to disucss these things.

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Correction: "judgments" and "discuss." I couldn't edit my reply because of the pop-ups.

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The Director said he would do a continuation of the world after the end of S1 but in comic form and will be released,don't know if he'll do a proper S2 but well we never know..

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@miky88

As much as I don't like multiple seasons, I would like to have some live-action follow-up to the show.

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I dropped at 2 and half? episode and just fast forward the rest. I realized it was not my cup of tea and too much to handle with the violence scene though I'm enjoying 'Sweet Home' and 'Squid Game'.

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