BEWARE: I spoil the ending.
I will admit, I almost jumped ship after the opening scene of director Yeon Sang-ho’s violent metaphysical sci-fi Netflix series Hellbound. The scene opens on a man in a coffee shop watching his phone as he shakes with fear. The clock on his phone strikes 1:20 PM and he freezes, sweat dripping down his face. Then, three low booms are heard and hulk-like smoky demons burst through the coffee shop window and begin to pummel the man. Dripping with blood, he manages to escape them and goes tearing down the middle of the street between cars screaming. The demons give chase and dispatch him in a series of gruesome blows that spatter blood on the surrounding cars. I was viscerally disturbed by the man’s horrific screams and the blood. Then, the monsters hold out their hands and essentially microwave the guy until his corpse is nothing but a charred skeletal torso.
Hellbound has now surpassed Squid Game as the most watched Netflix series in history, so I knew there must be something to it. I persisted and I am glad that I did. Squid Game was an obvious, if creatively twisted allegory for capitalism. Hellbound, whose production is not connected to Squid Game, is nonetheless an equally pointed critique of corrupt religious institutions. Yet, for all the gore and social commentary, I found a powerful theology at the heart of Hellbound.
Some demographic background. A majority of South Koreans do not identify with any religion (56%). This can mean anything from identifying as an atheist to an agnostic, to being the occasional patron of the increasingly popular shamanic arts. Some 15% of Koreans practice Buddhism. Nearly 30% of South Koreans identify as Christian. A majority of Christians are protestant, mostly Calvinists. Some 20,000 Presbyterian churches in South Korea can trace their lineages back to just two Calvinist denominations.
A decidedly metaphysical drama, Hellbound tracks how people and religious institutions respond to an unexplainable super natural phenomenon which follows a chilling pattern. A dark demonic face appears out of nowhere and prophesies the day and hour of a person’s death, and exclaims that they are bound for Hell. Then, without fail, the smoky hulks show up and dispatch them in ever more brutal fashion, char them, and trot back into the void.
Enter Jeong Jin-soo played by Yoo Ah-In. He is the chairman of a new religious movement called The New Truth. TNT seeks to publicize via social media these cosmic executions in order to encourage people to repent and live more righteously. They are a karmic kind of religion, meaning that individuals are assumed to be punished for their own deeds not any kind of original sin. There is no savior, no grace; only the urgency of avoiding sin and creating a new era of societal harmony. The New Truth draws a straight line between the declarations of death, their condemnation to Hell, and the individuals’ deeds. The more the word spreads, the more relevant the TNT becomes and the more people begin to listen to the kind, generous and altruistic leader—footage of Chairman Jeong rescuing a child from a fire, or talking a knife wielding man down from slitting someone’s throat often prelude his public pronouncements and interviews.
Another major player that emerges with the prophesies is a radical and decentralized group that calls itself The Arrowhead. They see TNT as being too passive in their approach. For them the executions are a divine invitation to actively weed out sinners and publically shame, beat or even kill them with or without the prophesies. They form a loose knit terrorist/hooligan network that is connected through social media and are admonished by an anonymous live streaming black lit make up wearing Alex Jones type character.
A detective named Jin Kyeong-hoon played by Yang Ik-Joon is investigating the strange executions, which are increasingly called demonstrations by the TNT, because once the word has gotten out that someone has received the prophesy, supporters of the TNT gather to admonish the sinner to repent. Jin’s wife had been murdered several years before by a man under the influence of drugs, and Jin still struggles to contain his grief from boiling over. He suspects Jeong is up to something.
Meanwhile, his daughter Jin Hee-Jeong played by Re Lee is wracked by guilt for her role in the mix up she believes led to her mother’s death. The murderer is later released for good behavior, and for having been under the influence while committing the murder. Both TNT and The Arrowhead decry this miscarriage of justice. Jeong convinces Jin Hee-Jeong to kill him as retribution for his mother’s murder, thus entangling her further in TNT. The murderer is immobilized by a stun gun and then wheeled into an abandoned crematorium furnace. This reveals a much darker side to Chairman Jeong.
There are many twists, turns and nuances, but I want to focus on the two main twists in the series. First, it becomes clear that the executions are not correlated with any particular behaviors. In fact, we learn that several young children have been burnt to a crisp in front of their parents. We also learn that Chairman Jeong, the charismatic leader of the New Truth, received the prophesy some 20 years before he met Jin Kyeong-hoon. Chairman Jeong has been tortured by the knowledge of his impending death, going over and over again in his mind how he might have sinned. He concludes that there simply is not connection between the executions and sin, but laments that if the public new this they would panic and social harmony would disintegrate. Detective Jin agrees to keep Jeong’s immanent death a secret, to hide his corpse, and go about his life with his daughter.
There is a clear parody here of the assumption that religious institutions are patronizing Big Brothers who do not trust the people and need to balance complex truths of the real world with the effective truths of church dogma. This paints religion as the infamous Marxist opiate of the masses, or a sociologically constructed device for making sense a senseless world.
I couldn’t help but connect South Korea’s overwhelmingly Calvinist Christianity with the distinctly twisted pre-destinational feel to the Hellbound phenomenon. Condemnation to hell happens at what is assumed to be God’s will. In reality it is random and mysterious. It is almost like a (super) natural disaster that cannot be predicted only prayed against. And though TNT responds by admonishing all to righteousness, they seem to know that it is only God who decides the sinner’s ultimate fate. And yet, TNT and The Arrowhead all too often take this judgement into their own hands, using the label of Sinner for others, and never themselves.
The New Truth seeks to encourage people to live more righteously, but that righteousness is inevitably mediated through their interpretation. The Arrowhead on the other hand feels emboldened to mete out God’s punishment themselves, enforcing righteousness through violence. Both organizations take different forms, but ultimately they are inseparable. For example, the apparatus of The New Truth uses the Arrowhead to carry out their dirty work, interrogate persons of interest.
Episode 4 opens five years later in a world where The New Truth has flourished. They have turned many so-called demonstration sites into monuments and their global ministry is headquartered in a massive fortress-like building in the heart of Seoul. They are led by a quorum of uniformed Deacons who council the slick and savvy successor of Chairman Jeong whose disappearance is assumed to by a mystery.
The latter three episodes reveal the second and most interesting twist. The prophesy comes to the newborn child of Bae Young-jae played by Park Jung-Min while his wife, Song So-hyun played by Won Jin-ah, is still in the hospital with the child. She is horrified and scours the New Truth’s app for precedents. She finds none and decides to ask TNT what do to. Meanwhile Bae, who is entangled in some intrigue of his own, stumbles on an organization called Sodo that helps receivers of the prophesy cover up their deaths so that the event is not appropriated and made public by TNT, saving their families harassment from The Arrowhead and the shame of being associated with a Sinner.
Learning of Bae’s situation, Sodo tries to convince him that broadcasting the baby’s death would topple public confidence in The New Truth’s tightly controlled public messaging that executions are a clear sign of God’s punishment of sinners. Meanwhile, Song arrives at TNT headquarters without Bae’s knowledge and shows her video of the prophesy to a Deacon. After counseling with his fellow deacons and the Chairman, it is not immediately clear what to do. Either, they can adopt the doctrine of Original Sin, which up until now had differentiated them from Christians, or they can seek to hide the execution from being witnessed so that the public does not waver in their belief that there is some pattern behind the brutal suffering, a pattern which legitimates TNT’s global ministry. They abduct the baby to the violent protests of Song who gives chase. When Bae realizes what Song is doing, accompanied by several Sodo activists, he rushes to rescue the baby and Song from TNT headquarters. They miraculously succeed and head to a safe house where they plan to broadcast the baby’s execution to the world.
After some cat and mouse with TNT and The Arrowhead, in the last scene, the mother lays the child out on a small elevated planter that resembled an altar. It has begun to snow. She gets people’s attention in the small plaza so that they can witness what is about to happen. The sooty monsters emerge from the ground and are about to pounce on the child when the mother snatches the baby from the planter-altar at the last second. A chase ensues, the mother is joined by Bae and they evade the lumbering demons for a few moments. Ultimately however, the trembling parents simply crouch over the baby and guard it from the impending blows. The demons huddle and nuke the trio and we assume all is lost. However, when the demons disappear back into the ground, we hear the soft crying of the baby who has somehow survived the intense heat, and the wrath of the demons.
The mood immediately lifts, as we the audience worried that we were about to see a baby barbequed before our eyes. I was immediately struck by the surprising beauty and richness of this theological twist. It is snowing heavily throughout the scene, implying that it is near Christmas. A surviving activist from Sodo limps toward the crying baby and the charred remains of the parents embracing their child resembles a dark and twisted Christmas nativity crèche. As the Deacons arrive, they are blocked by the crowds, implying that public opinion has now shifted and the scene will now work its way through the channels of social media. Season 2 will perhaps pick up the thread of the fate of The New Truth and The Arrowhead, or take a different tact completely.
While the circumstances are indeed strange, Hellbound manages to end on a major chord. It teaches that while there may not be any rhyme or reason to the brutal executions, our response is what matters. The baby was saved from a certain death and apparently an eternity in Hell by self-sacrificing love, pointing to a theology of atonement. But most of all it seems, profligate love is the most powerful response to a world that seems to be overflowing with suffering.