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TIFF 2021: HELLBOUND Episode 101-103 Review

Neil reviews the first three episodes of Yeon Sang-ho’s HELLBOUND calling the series a “deeply affecting exploration of the human condition.”

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Hellbound (Netflix)

From the mind of Train To Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, Hellbound stars Yoo Ah-in, Yang Ik-june, Park Jeong-min and Kim Hyun-joo.

Synopsis

In a quiet coffee shop, a middle-aged man sits alone, sweating profusely, feverishly checking the time. When 2pm strikes, three demonic, amorphous figures come smashing through the front window. The man runs out of the shop and down the busy city streets in terror, trying to escape. The ominous figures catch him, pin him to the ground, and perform a ritual that leaves his body in ashes. A crowd surrounds the scene, capturing the disturbing act on cellphones.

This is the thrilling pre-credits scene of Hellbound, the newest series from visionary South Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho, based on his own webtoon The Hell — which was illustrated by Choi Kyu-seok, who co-wrote Hellbound.

Review

The idea of a divine higher power is of deep interest to millions around the globe. Does god exist? Is there a heaven? Is there are hell? These are all questions we wrestle with at some point during out lives. With Netflix’s Hellbound, director Yeon Sang-ho (Train To Busan) tackles those questions head on in unexpected and deeply affecting ways.

The first three episodes of Hellbound have screened for press at the Toronto International Film Festival. Clocking in at around 50 minutes per episode, the series has a deftly crafted landscape which comes directly from Sang-ho and artist Choi Kyu-seok’s webtoon, The Hell.

The pilot episode opens big with a thrilling pre-credits sequence set in a quiet coffee shop. A middle-aged man sits alone, sweating profusely, feverishly checking the time. When 2pm strikes, three demonic, amorphous figures come smashing through the front window. What proceeds is an epic chase sequence with endless scope. It roots Hellbound in the world of horror but not in overtly graphic or repugnant ways.

In fact, Hellbound is much more than this. As we meander through these three episodes the series is far more existentialist than it might first appear. The story consistently challenges the cast to reassess their place in the world, often aligning itself as more of a thriller than a horror.

Sang-ho and Gyu-seok’s story is exquisitely paced in the episodes we saw. After the pre-credits attack the series pumps on the breaks and allows for much more exploration of circumstance. The first episode sets up religious leader Jung Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in) as a charismatic figure-head. His character remains central to the civil unrest throughout this story. His carefully calculated, intellectual dialogue makes him a compelling figure. It’s easy to see why he has such a following.

Investigating the events are sceptic police detective Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-june), broadcast journalist Bae Young-jae (Park Jeong-min) and lawyer of the accused sinners Min Hey-jin (Kim Hyun-joo). Hyun-joo is standout amongst the cast. Her performance is captivating throughout and a sub-plot featuring her ailing mother adds some serious human drama to events. With huge events in the third episode it seems Detective Jin and Min Hey-jin will be central to the series’ core mystery in the back-half of the six episode season.

Min, Jin and Bae perfectly serve as the audience entry point to the series. With a mix of beliefs and equally complex and compelling back stories their every step is mesmerising. Each character commits to investigating the events from a unique angle but as they intersect it pulls Hellbound together in unexpected and exciting ways.

The incredible performances and strength of writing easily enable the show to transcend the language barrier. Within moments I had forgotten I was reading subtitles and found myself fully immersed in the story.

Series cinematography Bong-sun Byun (Space Sweepers) does an incredible job of bringing the world to life. Hellbound is beautiful to watch, soaking up all the South Korean landscape and presenting it with fervour. The visuals are beautifully underpinned by Dong-wook Kim’s score. The series’ opening credits sequence features a pulse pounding theme the drives home the intensity of the show.

If there’s one potential flaw with Hellbound it’s the series sparsely used visual effects. The floating faces, defined as angels, are well integrated to their surroundings and appear convincing. But the minions of hell appear a little at odds with the rest of the scenery. Whilst they are foreboding they aren’t rendered to blockbuster levels. It’s a minor niggle in what is overall a thrilling series.

Verdict

Underneath its horror elements Hellbound is a deeply affecting exploration of the human condition. This series’ stellar cast leaps beyond the language barrier to leave audiences questioning their place in the world.


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