K-drama review: Hellbound – in Netflix's transfixing and endlessly surprising dystopia, directed by Train to Busan's Yeon Sang-ho, everyone is pitted against each other

Train to Busan, global warming, My Name, Squid Game

This article contains mild spoilers.

4.5/5 stars

After well-received preview shows at major film festivals around the world this autumn, Netflix has launched in its entirety its latest Korean Original series, Yeon Sang-ho’s dark and transfixing six-part Hellbound.

The series, based on a web comic of the same name he co-wrote, shows us a world in the midst of major change. An unexplained phenomenon – a grey face that hangs in the air within a plume of grey smoke – has begun to appear in front of random people around the world, pronouncing to them in an aspirated voice that they will die at a specific moment in the future.

It could be mere seconds or it could also be long and agonising years, but when the appointed time arrives three muscle-bound grey smoke monsters emerge from nothingness and make a beeline for their targets, savagely pummeling them and subjecting them to a white beam of light that leaves behind nothing but a charred skull and rib cage.

Amid this chaos and confusion arises the New Truth Society, a religious sect that has documented these acts around the world and calls them the result of humanity’s sins. When a case occurs in Seoul and is filmed by bystanders, a murder investigation is launched, but the police in charge, including Detective Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-joon), are baffled.

They approach Jung Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in), the leader of the New Truth Society, but their case takes on a much broader dimension when a woman comes forward after having received one of these pronouncements.

The New Truth Society wants to broadcast the moment of her death and Kyung-hoon teams up with lawyer Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo) to protect the woman and her family when a collective religious hysteria starts to sweep the nation.

Hellbound possesses a unique narrative structure, but to explain it may ruin some of the surprise, so take this as a mild spoiler warning for the next three paragraphs.

Train to Busan, global warming, My Name, Squid Game

A still from Hellbound. Photo: Netflix

The show is split into two time periods a few years apart with different casts – though there are several crossover characters. The first part, as explained above, focuses on a society contending with existential change, while the second half takes place in a world already changed.

After jumping ahead several years we are introduced to Bae Young-jae (Park Jung-min), a cynical TV producer frustrated by the oversight of the New Truth Society, which now wields enormous national influence. Young-jae’s wife, Song So-hyun (Won Jin-A), has just given birth, and in the hospital intensive care unit she sees the dreaded apparition pronounce her newborn baby’s forthcoming demise.

Meanwhile, Young-jae goes looking for a missing colleague, which leads him to discover a group that tries to cover up these monster attacks so that the bereaved family members of the victims won’t be stigmatised by New Truth devotees, or members of the fascistic Arrowhead organisation.

Train to Busan, global warming, My Name, Squid Game

Park Jung-min (left) and Won Jin-A in a still from Hellbound. Photo: Netflix

Viewers around the world can’t get enough of dystopian content, screen stories that allegorise the rampant inequity of the troubled times we live in.

Not all of these tales are intended to be rich social commentaries – the aesthetic and narrative possibilities of a dystopian backdrop are reason enough to tell a story, but the best dystopias are those that latch on to contemporary social ills. Hulu’s timely The Handmaid’s Tale, arriving a few months before the #MeToo movement kicked off, was one such example.

South Korean storytellers have always sought to engage with the issues of the day. As production budgets have continued to increase in tandem with a home-grown thirst for button-pushing genre content, dystopian stories have quickly been embraced. Global viewers have been equally thrilled, turning a risky proposition like Train to Busan into a global phenomenon.

Yet while this kind of content has dominated airwaves this year, the majority of Korea’s small-screen dystopian stories have been superficial. As is the norm in K-dramas, corporations or influence-wielding shadow groups have been to blame for the worlds in these shows falling into chaos, but the black-and-white treatment of corruption therein has largely elided the manifold complexities of social inequality.

Yeon Sang-ho, the visionary behind Train to Busan who makes his drama series debut with Hellbound, offers us an alternate universe shrouded in grey, a veritable moral morass that implicates every single living and breathing cog within it.

The ethical questions posed in the series are intense and timely, and sure to spark lively debate. The show’s many thrilling scenarios present contemporary parallels with issues that bitterly divide us today, from social inequalities to Covid-19 vaccinations and global warming denialism.

Train to Busan, global warming, My Name, Squid Game

Kim Hyun-joo in a still from Hellbound. Photo: Netflix

Heavy though that may sound – and the series has a matching dark aesthetic to boot – Yeon injects his own brand of levity into the mix, often in characters’ exasperated incredulity at what is unfolding.

That, coupled with the show’s urgent pacing, massive plot twists and some thrilling set pieces – such as a brawl in which a woman takes on a large pack of male assailants that gives My Name a run for its money – make Hellbound one of the most exciting, original and surprising screen experiences of the year.

In the end, there’s no need to compare everything to Squid Game. While Hellbound is unlikely to achieve a similar cult status, it’s bound to cause quite a stir in its own right, not least because of one of the most exciting season two set-ups of recent memory.

Hellbound will start streaming on Netflix on November 19.

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