Korean filmmakers are on a roll this year. First Squid Game became a global sensation early in the fall, and Hellbound has now reportedly claimed the title of Netflix's all-time most-watched show (from Squid Game no less) despite being released only a week ago, on Nov. 19.
As a commentary on Korea's social inequality, Squid Game presented a fictional world where the debt-ridden gamble away their lives in order to win a big cash prize. Hellbound starts with an equally improbable but compelling premise: random humans receive messages—"decrees" as it has been translated into English—from an other worldly apparition that they are doomed to die at preordained times and will be taken to hell.
Sure enough, at the appointed hour monstrous creatures spring out of thin air and beat the victim into a pulp before incinerating the body for good.
That this is a product of director and writer Yeon Sang-ho's imagination doesn't come as a surprise. I have been following his career since meeting him at a Korean studies conference in 2012. He had been invited to do a Q&A after a showing of his animated feature The King of Pigs, an unvarnished depiction of school bullying as a metaphor for Korean society's violent, hierarchical nature. I was spellbound while watching.
Despite forays into commercial filmmaking (Train to Busan, Psychokinesis) in the ensuing decade, Yeon's interest in the darker side of Korea's psyche has always been evident, and with Hellbound he resurrects an old work of his—a short animation Hell: Two Kind of Life from 2003. In it, two unrelated characters each receive a decree from an angel. One is doomed to go to hell and another to heaven, but of course, things don't progress in so straightforward a manner, and the story leaves the viewer with ambiguous morals (I share no spoilers in case some want to watch it).
The same supernatural elements are present in Hellbound, too, but they feel tangential to what humans do in reaction to such inexplicable events.
One type of reaction comes from a new religious movement led by a young charismatic "chairman" Jeong Jin-soo (played convincingly by actor Yoo Ah-in) who preaches that the messenger is an angel and God is meting out justice because humans have failed to punish evil among themselves. "God's will is clear: you need to become more just," Jeong tells his followers.
But there are also others. An internet live-streaming jockey, clearly seeking attention, amplifies the church's view to a growing audience online. A vigilante group forms and starts attacking those who they believe question God's will. Others are skeptical at first but react with shock as events repeat themselves, even if the new theological world order in the making does not inspire hope.
If this tale of justice and who can monopolize its meaning sounds familiar, it isn't just because Hellbound recalls the sorry state of institutionalized religion in the 21st century, which has seen the church's moral authority erode. Yeon's 2013 follow-up to The King of Pigs was The Fake, about a pseudo-Christian cult pitted against a local thug in a rural village about to be submerged by a dam project. The movie's tagline "What you believe—is it real?" summed up Yeon's caution against black-and-white morality.
What with it being a commercial production for a global streaming platform, Hellbound offers certain characters who elicit more sympathy than others, but it leaves viewers questioning, who is in the right and who is in the wrong? What meaning should we ascribe to things beyond our control? Or is there any meaning at all?
Among Korean cultural productions, Hellbound isn't unique in this focus on justice. The reliance on otherwordly forces to settle unresolved moral disputes is in some ways reminiscent of the popular webtoon Along With the Gods, serialized on the portal site Naver from 2010 to 2012. It spawned two movies (released in 2017 and 2018), both of which became major successes in the domestic box office.
Those works were, however, adamant in borrowing from conventional Korean morality to establish a clear view of how the world ought to be, and obviously differ from Yeon's more reflective oeuvre.
Still, I cannot help but think back to two Korean TV dramas earlier in the year that touched on vigilante justice as a part of the same cultural preoccupation to which Yeon belongs: Taxi Driver, about survivors of crime victims who band together to punish evil doers that the criminal justice system fails to; and Devil Judge, whose title character uses a live-broadcast trial format to exact vengeance on the rich and powerful (who in the popular Korean imagination can only be corrupt).
(After I published this piece, one helpful reader pointed out that I shouldn't forget Vincenzo, either.)
In real life, justice is a topic on which the Korean political class has perennially disappointed the electorate, and which increasingly gains resonance in the run up to the presidential election next March. Even the current president Moon Jae-in, who made "eradication of injustice and corruption" his number-one pledge and won his office following the fall of disgraced conservative president Park Geun-hye, will most likely be remembered for his ill-conceived appointment of a political ally, Cho Kuk, as justice minister.
Cho resigned from the post only slightly after a month when allegations emerged that he and his wife had used their influence to further their daughter's educational success and medical career.
The presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung from Moon's own party is currently embroiled in one of the biggest real estate corruption scandals to date, while the opposition candidate Yoon Seok-youl faces accusations that he abused power as the nation's prosecutor-general to interfere with politically sensitive criminal cases.
In other words, justice is elusive in contemporary Korea, and no one side can be counted on to make things right.
In keeping with that reality, Yeon Sang-ho goes beyond telling a simple good-versus-evil narrative. That's what makes Hellbound a brilliant and timely portrayal of contemporary Korea.
Cover: An apparition announces impending death of a character in director/writer Yeon Sang-ho's Netflix hit "Hellbound" (source: Netflix)