If TV shows act as a mirror to society, then consider Hellbound to be made out of the finest quality reflective surface. It takes the question of “what-if” and paints into dark fantasy and you can’t help but wonder if you’d survive in a world like that with your morals.
Originally a webtoon created in 2002, Hellbound is directed by Yeon Sang-ho and written by Choi Kyu-sok for Netflix. For the uninitiated Sang-ho’s filmography includes Train To Busan (2016) and Seoul Station (2016), to give you an idea of what you’re getting into, if you’re the least bit questioning the “why” on your spectrum to care.
The series is loosely divided into two parts- episodes 1–3 feature the premise of a fictional cult organization that comes into force as the “most powerful religious organization in the world”. Their claim to fame? They legitimize the supernatural occurrence of prophecies being delivered to individuals at random, announcing that they’re hell-bound and scheduled to die on a given date and time. This organization (The New Truth) claims that these individuals have sinned and are thus cursed to a painful death that takes them straight to hell.
To ensure crowds are mobilized to spring into action every time there is a rebellion against the cult, a niche cult group of punks who call themselves Arrowhead spring to action. Hardened believers of The New Truth, they’re manipulative, violent, dangerous and move in packs, attacking those who dare to stand up against the chairman and his teachings of this cult- Jung Jin-Soo (Yoo Ah-in). Arrowhead crowd is mobilized through a live stream on a streaming platform, and somehow, over the first half of the show, they gather force, bigger than ever.
Most level-headed folks in this town, including the cops, question the veracity of the claims made by both- The New Truth and Arrowhead. Among them, Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo), a lawyer, and Jin Kyeong-hoon (Yang Ik-june) cop combine forces to get to the bottom of the truth behind Chairman Jung’s understanding of these events while defending themselves, their families and others through attacks carried out by the members of Arrowhead spread across the city, including other detectives in the police force.
By episodes 3–6, The New Truth and Arrowhead are shown to be bigger than the state and the bureaucracy, carrying out their propaganda openly, and defying the law of the land under the guise of their religious doctrine. The sights where these supernatural occurrences take place in the first half of the show now become site and shrine for The New Truth to convince the people in the town to abide by their doctrine. Sinners are urged to come forward to receive their punishment punished in full view so others can learn to do better.
A plot twist, then, involves a prophecy of death is delivered to a newborn that shifts the focus and thus begins a battle between those on the side of rationality including the father of the newborn Bae Young-jae (Park Jeong-min) and an informal organization called Sodo that claims to help disappear those who have received the prophecy. Together they face the judgment and the members of Arrowhead as well as deacons of The New Truth.
The show is filled with violence and the sequences somehow lack the finesse we expect out of Netflix, but it works in the light of the screenplay, where you overlook the CGI demons carrying out the massacres to take the lives of those who have received the prophecy. The cinematography, however, is solid and makes up for the moments where you wonder why has Netflix allowed the production to dip with the CGI work.
Despite the series surpassing the popularity of Squid Games (2021), this is somehow, not as widely talked about or discussed and I wonder if that has to do with the society realizing the path that they are on with their actions or if they are not able to comprehend the plot of the series. A cursory glance on reddit informs it’s largely the latter, where everyone is somehow questioning the herd mentality of the characters in the screenplay.
This doesn’t surprise me in the least, people are largely unaware of how mobs are mobilized with the words of influential figures who talk big and employ backhanded ways of controlling rebels. For the longest time after streaming the series, the visuals haunted me — mobs being mobilized through the help of streaming platforms, opinions being shaped by scummy influencers and self-proclaimed cult leaders online and finally, delivering a holier than thou verdict on what people believe is “justice” that the law of the land and enforcement cannot offer in a democratic world.
Perhaps, it hit far too close home, as I’ve seen attacks being launched on student leaders and others in India over the last 7 years, each significantly worse than the last one, over digital platforms and mobs entering university spaces. I have seen the forces mobilize and create a false narrative to hit hard at the families and friends of those who dared to voice their opinion. Hellbound picks that moment and crafts it into their screenplay, one that juggles between the questions of faith, free will, morality and religion. The series makes you want to wake up from this dream-like state, however, things still seem just as bleak because we live in a world where we are one step away from crowds being charged by religious leaders and mobs coming for us, our families and loved ones.
Hellbound spares no emotions to show how far can people go when they’re hungry to satisfy their need to kill to prove a point. It won’t be a far-fetched statement to make that the present situation in India for the minorities and anyone who questions the state is somewhat relatable; the only notable difference being we are not chased by supernatural demons to be damned to hell, however, the rest of the screenplay is straight out of the nightmare situation the citizens are in. It’s best to cushion yourself with a cringe binge before and after streaming Hellbound, else you’ll be living through the trauma of watching how lives can change when cults and mobs take over as organized machinery in a state to run, a terrifying story that hits home too close.
The series is available for streaming on Netflix in India.