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 Here we’re introduced to JIN KYUNG-HOON(Yang Ik-joon), the somewhat withdrawn yet principled officer tasked with investigating the religious movement called New Truth.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.