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Hellbound is available to stream on Netflix now.  

The beginnings of a social meltdown appear without warning in the opening scene of this Netflix six-part fantasy thriller by Yeon Sang-ho, director of the 2016 hit zombie actioner Train to Busan. In an airy café in Seoul, the lattes are slipping down nicely, but one sweaty-looking guy in the corner is stressing out. From nowhere, three huge simian creatures with rippling black CGI fur burst through the windows, snatch him and rag-doll him outside in the traffic; shocked onlookers watch his broken body incinerated in a flash of light before the mystery assailants vanish into thin air.

The footage goes online, the police are puzzled by the lack of evidence, but one savvy media operator, self-styled guru Jeon Jin-su (Yoo Ah-in, the nervy young man from Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, 2018) explains all to a puzzled and increasingly nervous public. He fronts an organisation called The New Truth, and the killings, he says, are God’s retribution on those who have sinned: their date and time of death is announced to each sinner by a spectral visitation (he terms it the ‘decree’), before the scary supernatural thugs pitch up bang on time to carry out the execution (the ‘demonstration’). It all serves God’s purpose, making mankind think about living a more righteous life, he claims.

Soon Yeon’s camera takes an aerial sweep over a chillingly empty Seoul, where the locals have retreated indoors, recent events having put, quite literally, the fear of God into them. Yeon has often used genre packaging to draw viewers into confronting social issue – the issue that suffused earlier films, including his 2011 animation début The King of Pigs, Train to Busan and its more reflective small-scale animated prequel Seoul Station (2016), was the way that South Korea’s divided society is stacked against the underclass. Here, though, the narrative scale afforded by the miniseries format allows Yeon to muse on more nuanced moral conundrums.

Hellbound’s demonic creatures deliver a death sentence
Hellbound’s demonic creatures deliver a death sentence
© Courtesy of Netflix

While Hellbound and his uncompromising 2013 animated feature The Fake share subject matter pondering the links between religion and morality, the tone was more ferocious in the earlier offering which gave a con artist and youthful pastor equal culpability in swindling naive rural villagers. In the new mini-series, the procedural first half sets a hangdog cop and steely lawyer against the New Truth, questioning the latter’s self-proclaimed right to over-ride the statute book and define social dos-and-don’ts. In an era of smartphones and streaming, the masses seem easily swayed by the latest eye-catching, viral footage, but the detective on the case has a question for the serene, creepy New Truth leader (a marvellous performance by Yoo), which resonates throughout the remaining episodes: “What about free will?”

That the authorities are struggling to provide any valid counter-narrative about the origins of these uncanny happenings serves to sustain the tension, which is, of course, pepped up by the action highlights, as Yeon puts the viewer in the midst of each fierce melee. The action has a tendency to repetition here as the fearsome black interlopers bash and rip their way through human flesh again and again, as the New Truth’s bully-boys do their worst against suspected sinners amid the frequent clunk of iron bars on skulls. Pointedly, the moments of horror that hit hardest – including an almost unwatchable cremation sequence – are perpetrated by the power-seeking humans, far more monstrous than the monsters themselves.

Adapting a webtoon which he created in collaboration with the cartoonist Choi Gyu-Seok, Yeon responds well to the multi-episode TV format, with cliffhangers effectively placed and a startling move halfway through, when a shift forward in time brings a largely new set of characters to replace the previous lot. This could be seen as a storytelling cop-out, giving us two stories rather than developing a single thread, but it proves a useful way of examining complex subject matter from different angles. Indeed, the revised strategy followed by the New Truth in the second half – all grandiose memorials, murals and hideous uniforms, seemingly cribbed from the North Korean playbook – brings a welcome edge of jet-black comedy to the mounting carnage.

However you take it, splattery mayhem is absolutely central to Yeon’s distinctive output, and here he lays it out on a broader, more complex canvas than ever before. Bracing and ruminative, with the tantalising final moments of Episode 6 suggesting second season possibilities.

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