TIFF 2021: If you can get past the pilot, HELLBOUND is unmissable

Following the meteoric success of Train to Busan, which breathed new life into the moribund zombie genre, filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho has been a rising star in Korean cinema. Not only did Train to Busan spawn an upcoming American remake, but Yeon has turned it into a franchise with last year’s (admittedly, disappointing) Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula. Not content to be Korea’s answer to George Romero, Yeon’s newest project is an adaptation of his Webtoon manhwa/comic Hellbound, which he produced with artist Choi Gyu-Seok. Teaming up with Netflix, Yeon has directed all 6 episodes of this live-action adaptation. And while Hellbound focuses on another otherworldly threat to humankind, its interest is far more rooted in human nature and our own broad-based reaction to this extra-dimensional intrusion.

This time, instead of the dead rising, South Korea is beset with the horrifying phenomenon: large creatures that look like black clouds are targeting specific individuals. These individuals are informed of their impending doom days ahead of time, and then on the predicted date and time, are brutalized, no matter where they are or whom they are with. In the film’s opening minutes, we see these monsters chase down a man sitting in a crowded cafe, attacking him, seemingly burning him alive, and then simply vanishing into thin air as horrified onlookers record the event on their phones.

Jin Kyeong-hoon (Yank Ik-june) is one of the detectives in charge of investigating the most recent incident. While attending the scene with his partner, he notices that a gathering of the ever-growing cult The New Truth is being proselytized to on-site by their leader Chairman Jeong (Yoo Ah-in). Their belief and core tenet is that these creatures are messengers from God, tasked with striking down sinners who have yet to receive their just desserts, sending them straight to hell. While Detective Jin scoffs at this creed, he notices that his daughter, Hee-jeong (Lee Re) has begun attending their meetings. Their shared past and the overall mission statement of the New Truth set out on a collision course, while incidents involving these monsters begin to increase.

My biggest worry going into this series, which debuted at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival with its first three episodes, was that it might solidify Yeon being a one-hit-wonder. And if you only watch the first episode of Hellbound, you might think that’s the case. The pilot has a lot working against it: shoddy CGI, a ho-hum lead performance, the lower budget look that is pretty typical of series on the streamer, and a slow build that borders on laconic. While there are occasional brighter moments, particularly when the co-lead attorney (Kim Hyun-joo) shows up, you know something is off when you’re waiting for the lead character’s storyline to move off-screen.

But if you power through that dull first episode, Hellbound really begins to find its feet. With its second and third outings, Yeon increasingly utilizes mixed media in a way that is evocative of some of the best comics, particularly in the recurring TikTok/Twitch talking head sequences featuring the leader of the New Truth reactionary splinter-group Arrowhead. These increasing segments at first are pretty grating and just seem like a botched attempt at capturing an “Anonymous” clone. But with certain twists of the plot, they suddenly become much more insidious, as they utilize misinformation to weaponize their followers into attacking people they deem guilty of some form of sin.

It’s a clear parallel to what we see in social media now, and the resonance permeates by the third episode. It’s also extremely helpful how little the monsters appear in subsequent episodes, with their low budget CGI looks detracting from the fear instead of adding to it, so it’s for the best that the film’s focus turns completely to the humans dealing with this phenomenon and the chaos it causes.

That third episode is also when the series kicks into full gear and what Yeon is really up to takes shape. The closest comparison to the sorts of gut punches he provides by the time the credits roll is to Masaki Yuasa’s Devilman Crybaby. When I say I got hooked, I was very hooked. It shocked me how quickly a series I could barely stay awake watching had transformed into something very involving. More than anything, I was just frustrated I couldn’t see more at this point – TIFF screened only the first 3 episodes of the series –  which I guess is the best selling point I can offer.

If the first episode of Hellbound doesn’t win you over, don’t fret. A few more hours in and the show transforms into something with impressive political charge and emotional punch. The ending will, of course, tell the tale, but this could very well be the follow-up to Train to Busan we’ve been waiting for.

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