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‘Hellbound’: A blood-curdling spectacle of perverted divine intervention

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‘Hellbound’: A blood-curdling spectacle of perverted divine intervention

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Netflix’s “Hellbound.”

I initially intended on spending my long weekend doing a “Squid Game” marathon, as I promised literally everyone in The Daily newsroom. However, being the commitment-lacking person that I am, my attention was quickly stolen by a Webtoon-based Korean horror show called “Hellbound,” released on Netflix just 10 days ago.

The description of “Hellbound” reads: “Unearthly beings deliver bloody condemnations, sending individuals to hell and giving rise to a religious group founded on the idea of divine justice.” 

Chicken soup for my traumatized-but-formerly-religious soul.

The first season is a chilling depiction and criticism of extremist religious cults, punitive justice, capitalist exploitation, and human nature in just six 40-60 minute episodes — with a second season confirmed by director Yeon Sang-ho.

“Hellbound” expertly tears into the worst parts of religion through a cult called “New Truth” that claims that hulk-like monsters who are burning “sinners” to hell are doing so out of God’s will. Through mainstream news networks, the cult broadcasts live “demonstrations” of these gruesome deaths that effectively make their cult mainstream by scaring the general public into submission and living by their fear-driven doctrine.

Before an individual is burned to death by the trio of monsters, they receive a “decree” from an angel telling them the date and time of their death.

Where things get really fun (spoiler!) is that cult leader Jung Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in) received one of these decrees 20 years prior to the actual inception of the cult, and was thus able to twist this “heavenly” decree-to-violent-demonstration phenomenon into whatever rhetoric he felt fit in the present, which was that of divine punishment.

As New Truth grows, there’s an investigation by detectives and attorneys, who are quickly villainized by the general public as the live broadcasts legitimize the cult.

There is so much that happens in this six-episode season, and not a minute can be missed. But what really stuck with me is the relevance of this show to everything happening in our country and the world today — our systems of justice, redemption, wrongdoing, and our basic human instincts in reaction to all the shit that happens in our lives.

Hearing these characters talk about sin, punishment, and divine intervention is a big throwback to my years in private Christian schools — both in Korea and the United States. I was taught that we were “God’s children” and that he loves us all, while also learning that non-believers would face a fiery, deserved hell. A little bit two-faced if you ask me, and this series references this idea as a main theme.

“Hellbound” also reminds me of the importance of transformative justice and the need to abolish punitive justice. 

In the first episode, Chairman Jung suggests that humans don’t seek redemption and simply continue to sin and sin and sin. But by promoting this punitive rhetoric of sending people to everlasting pain, the idea of redemption is completely abandoned.

I personally don’t believe that punishment is a necessary part of life, and “Hellbound” brings light to this idea through exposure to the violence and suffering that happen as a result of fixating on punishing those who do wrong.

Through all the violence, torture, and gore of this show, “Hellbound” can easily allude to the necessity for abolition and the forever rot of our justice and economic systems. Much like the hugely popular Korean productions “Parasite” and “Squid Game,” “Hellbound” is as applicable to us here in the United States as it is in South Korea.

I started my binge-watch marathon worried about copaganda, but it really did veer in the opposite direction. In the second arc, the police have a positive relationship with the New Truth cult, having completely bought into their propaganda and are actively supporting their manhunts.

In the first half of the show — during the period when New Truth is still seen as a fringe group — one police precinct investigates what New Truth is doing and protects Park Jung-ja (Kim Shin-rok), a woman who had an upcoming hell-binding demonstration. This is led by detective Jin Kyung-hun (Yang Ik-joon) and his partner Hong Eun-pyo (Park Jung-pyo), who actually ends up being even more of a narc as a New Truth supporter. 

This reveals the sad ineffectiveness of “good apples” like Jin in police departments and how they can’t get things done, no matter how dedicated to justice they may be. Just one rotten apple like Hong —  who very well could just be representative of that police force in general — will impede any justice.

I feel that some Americans might watch “Hellbound” and feel like it’s a reflection of some totalitarian, communist dystopia, when it very clearly reflects capitalism and our present reality. Corrupt police departments, fearmongering, and the surveillance state are capitalist as hell.

I think about how Jung grew up in a Catholic orphanage after being abandoned by his mother, and how he lived in fear for 20 years after being told he was destined for hell. The first part is a pretty cliche villain backstory, but backstories are important because they tell you about why people are the way they are. It doesn’t excuse the evil of the cult he manufactured, but in this world — and especially in criminality under capitalism — terrible things don’t materialize out of thin air.

People’s circumstances often affect the decisions they make.

In the third episode, Park allows her demonstration to be broadcasted in exchange for millions of dollars from New Truth. She was a poor vendor who just wanted to ensure her son and daughter could be taken care of despite her death. This is just one example of the manipulation and exploitation of poverty by New Truth — and this plays out every day in capitalist societies.

This particular scene reminds me of how much we love violence. People sensationalize violence so much, wanting to see videos of a school shooting, police violence, or a gruesome murder. We just keep consuming and consuming and consuming, oftentimes in the name of “awareness,” while things stay messed up in the real world.

In “Hellbound,” a turn of events happens when a newborn child is condemned to hell — an effective disruption of the New Truth’s doctrine that those who receive the hellbound decree are oh-so terrible sinners being punished by God’s divine justice. 

So, not everyone who was so painfully killed did bad things — though that’s not a valid reason to murder a human being. This reminds me so much of the U.S. prison system. We like to believe that everyone who’s imprisoned deserves this terrible punishment, but there are two issues at stake here. One, there are people who are falsely imprisoned (or simply can’t pay their bail). And two, why do we need to condemn any person to such horrific fates — especially when prisons serve to punish and create more violence, rather than actually help the world?

In the words of many prison abolitionists, a better world is possible. Our world doesn’t have to be so reliant on pain, fear, and punishment. 

Or, maybe Marx was onto something when he called religion the “opiate of the masses.”

Reach Opinion Editor Deborah Kwon at Twitter: @scoobydeeby

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