'Hellbound': A half-cut gemstone

'Hellbound': A half-cut gemstone

A scene of “Hellbound” / Courtesy of Netflix

The dark fantasy drama raises brilliant questions and confusing answers

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Gemstones are meaningless unless they are cut, polished and refined by a designer into jewelry.

This wisdom, inspired by the old Korean saying about “even if one has three baskets of beads, unless they are woven together they are valueless,” underscores the significance of an artisan’s masterful finishing touches in giving life to their crafts. It’s something writer-director Yeon Sang-ho may have wished to reflect upon when making his Netflix series, “Hellbound,” as it has garnered mixed reviews from viewers, rather than a universal nod of approval from people everywhere.

Since its debut on Netflix last week, it has become the most-watched shows on the streaming giant every day, except Monday. “Hellbound” is predominantly popular in Asia and Africa, while it has remained relatively low key in North America and Europe.

The dark fantasy drama, raised some burning questions about sin, punishment and divine judgement. Like half-cut, half-polished gemstones, however, its answers to the questions raised are scattered here and there, throughout the entire six-episode drama, without being tightly connected to build a consistent, pertinent theme.

Director Yeon’s unorganized way of telling the series’ story leaves audiences scratching their heads to figure out the exact message he is trying to deliver.

“Hellbound” revolves around a supernatural phenomenon whereby people with doomed fates are pre-told that their final day on Earth is coming soon, and their exact time of death. Once the time comes, unearthly creatures appear from out of the blue and fulfill these prophecies by brutally taking the lives of the damned.

Bystanders at the scene, along with viewers watching it on TV, are caught in awe and fear, painfully searching their souls for an answer to why those people were chosen for deaths, executed publicly and in a horrific manner.

Two groups of people are trying to respond to the public inquiry about the bizarre events: police detectives and the members of a religious group who identify themselves as “The New Truth.” The former views what happened as “murder cases” and kick off their investigations, while the latter interprets the deaths as the work of God and claims that those who were victimized are sinners and that their past deeds led them to face such consequences.

Leader of The New Truth, Jung Jin-su, played by Yoo Ah-in, arrogantly tells a detective who questions him about the scene they both witness together, “It’s funny that you investigate God’s deeds. In your eyes, it’s still a murder.”

In times of unprecedented chaos, it is easier for self-proclaimed prophets to gain power and influence a public living in fear. Religious groups delivering doomsday speeches find it easy to gain clout, particularly when a difficult-to-explain phenomenon occurs in the public eye, rather than being a one-off event or shared experience of only a small number of people in society.

'Hellbound': A half-cut gemstone

A scene of “Hellbound” / Courtesy of Netflix

“Hellbound” also observes that religion is an earthly thing, too.

The greed of The New Truth’s leaders seeking to gain and increase their power propels them to fabricate the events in order to keep control over the public. However, they are put to the test when a newborn baby is given notice of its impending execution.

How can a baby born just a few days before its preannounced death possibly have committed a sin? The newborn baby conundrum discredits the religious group’s claims that only sinners will face divine judgment.

In fact, a similar question ― what makes people sinful ― should have been raised much earlier in the second episode of the drama when the execution of a single mother of two children occurs. After receiving a death warning from an otherworldly entity, the woman, named Park Jeong-ja, agrees for her execution to be broadcast on national television in return for a hefty amount of money from the TV stations. Just like other hellbound people, she is brutally slayed.

She is portrayed as a hard-working, responsible mother of two children, each from a different father. She is a self-sacrificing mom, too, who agrees to the live broadcast of her last moments in exchange for financial compensation that is significant enough to pay for her children’s educations and make sure they are taken care of in the years to come.

Her death sparks a heated public debate: Why was this poor single mom sent to hell?

Without addressing what makes people sinful, “Hellbound” zooms in on the dark nature of the digital age, in which extremists are able to gain the upper hand.

Such extremists try to unearth the single mother’s past to find her “sins,” disclosing her and her children’s identities online, along with their photos. A bruise on her son’s arm, of which the cause is unknown, in the photo, suddenly is fabricated as a piece of evidence that he is a child abuse victim and his mother is accused of being the abuser.

“Hellbound” shows how fake news is processed and consumed by those with extreme views as a reason for their collective action to punish others who, in their eyes, are unjust. In their eyes, they are vigilantes, but few others buy into their idea.

Despite its effective analysis of minor elements such as online extremism and its consequences in the physical world, as well as the self-serving use of religion by a few for their own sake, “Hellbound” still remains a confusing story to follow.

The very reason that the story lacks effective storytelling is perhaps because of the absence of masterful finishing touches by director Yeon, which if he had done properly, could have made the series one of the greatest dramas of all time.

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