TIFF 2021: ‘Hellbound’ Is a Supernatural Homerun

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Hellbound

Starting a film or series with an ordinary day that goes terribly wrong is a solid way to shatter expectations. Yeon Sang-ho‘s Hellbound does just that. A normal coffee shop is busted open by behemoth demonic figures, chasing down one man and destroying everything in their path to him before turning him to ash.

It’s a hell of a way to open a series. A violent way, a fantastical way, and a way that set the pace and tone for the rest of the narrative.  Like many of the recent Korean Netflix Originals, Hellbound is based on the Webtoon, The Hellbound (currently receiving an English translation and physical manhwa through Dark Horse), illustrated by Choi Kyu-seok, who also serves as the film’s co-writer. With the success of other Webtoon-based titles like Sweet Home, Rugal, and Uncanny Counter, to name a few, Hellbound stands out against the crowd by blending demons, the supernatural, and cop drama. As the first Korean Drama (K-drama) to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the series showcases not only the strength of adapted content but the strength and diversity of K-drama as well.

If you’re not familiar with the series, Hellbound is about the reaction, both personal and legal, towards a rise in a new phenomenon where “sinners” are condemned and killed by demonic killers in a ritualistic murder performed in broad daylight and public, as if sending a message. The series’ narrative revolves around the religious sect that has formed around the murders of “sinners,” led by Jung Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in).

Pushed by the belief that repentance is brought through fear, Jin-soo quickly becomes both a compelling and intimidating figure with a black and white view of morality and sin. Jin-soo is unsettlingly calm and charismatic. As a character, he steals the oxygen from every room he enters, and he presents himself as a stunning, intimidating force that immediately makes for a compelling antagonist.

To unravel the mysteries behind Jin-soo and his sect, we follow police detective Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-june), a police detective investigating the murders, and a father whose daughter is standing on the edge of the sect. Additionally, we see the world through broadcast journalist Bae Young-jae (Park Jeong-min) and lawyer of accused sinners, Min Hey-jin (Kim Hyun-joo). Hellbound uses these three layers of investigation to tell a story that dives into the function that religion performs.

In truth, Hellbound looks at what happens when the god you believe in stops allowing free will and instead uses demons to enforce morality. A functional look at religion, Hellbound showcases what happens when that function is disrupted with divine intervention that instills fear and pushes God’s will not as something defined by his disciple but by a murderous hierophany. But even here isn’t where Hellbound hits its most unsettling note. Sure, giant demons enacting extreme violence is fantastical and intense. But the real “shock” comes from how people react.

Some take justice into their own hands, enacting violence seemingly inspired by God’s punishments. Others turn to Jin-soo’s cult for meaning and safety from Hell. And others take the evils that aren’t punished, like taking a man and beating him, and embrace them as morally good. The way we see society fold in on itself with fear and joy at this vengeful manifestation of god is the crux of Hellbound. But what makes it shine are the subplots that build characters into humans, also taking their own baggage into their investigations.

As an adaptation, much of the grander visual elements of the digital series are used as a storyboard that is honored and brought to life. That said, the series digs far deeper into investigating collective anxiety and fear, which in truth makes the live-action far more grounded than the Webtoon. Additionally, while the CGI of the demons may not be the most compelling thing, it is nearly a 1:1 vision from the webcomic in a way that will have fans excited.

Having directed Train to Busan, Yeon is no stranger to blending horror, violence, and drama into a unique and interesting narrative. And with Hellbound, he stretches this ability into a procedural format that allows him to pull noir elements into his supernatural and religious horror. Having only seen the first few episodes, there is more mystery than answers after the Toronto International Film Festival, but I’m looking forward to seeing Hellbound in its entirety.

Hellbound Episodes 1 – 3 were screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 2021 and will be available on Netflix with a release date to be determined.

Hellbound, Episodes 1 - 3
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TL;DR

Having only seen the first few episodes, there is more mystery than answers after the Toronto International Film Festival, but I’m looking forward to seeing Hellbound in its entirety.