While “D.P.” and “Squid Game” are still enjoying fame overseas, another Korean Netflix series, “Hellbound,” is now a topic on everybody’s lips. In “Hellbound,” a ghostly presence appears to the people and informs them they are doomed to die and go to hell due to their sins on a specific date and time. When the time comes, three otherworldly dark creatures appear, beat the sinners violently to death and drag them to hell, leaving behind a burnt skeleton.
These supernatural events are associated with a religious cult called the New Truth Society, founded on the idea of God’s justice and judgment. The New Truth Society has a radical group of followers known as the Arrowhead, a group of violent extremists who lynch anyone seen as a threat to the New Truth Society. For example, they beat up a professor of sociology who expresses doubt about the New Truth Society in an interview and a police officer who investigates the pseudo-religious cult. They likewise lynch a female lawyer who voices her suspicions of the cult. Like a pack of hyenas, they flock together and lynch people who do not comply with their creeds. They also use the internet to threaten people under the pretense of God’s judgment.
Watching “Hellbound,” Koreans find it familiar to them because such a phenomenon runs rampant in today’s Korean society. In Korea, quite a few pseudo-religions flourish, scaring the people with God’s wrath and imminent final judgment. The leaders of fanatic religious groups claim they are “the new truth,” who execute God’s will and judgment.
In today’s Korean society and political arena, we, too, have people who believe in their political ideology religiously and try to impose it on others. We, too, have politicians who firmly believe that they can change the world into paradise by restoring social justice and fairness. We, too, have radicals who fanatically believe they must punish their political foes, who represent the sins and vices of the past. Moreover, we, too, have those who believe that they are “the new truth” and all others are untrue and false.
In our society, we, too, have a group of violent extremists who fanatically follow a particular ideology or political leader they worship blindly. Just like the Arrowhead, these brainwashed believers sometimes take to the streets and other times, they use the internet to silence those who object to the ideology they worship. They also do not hesitate to use violence to those who would do harm to the political leader they revere.
“Hellbound” illustrates well how dreadful it is to be obsessed with a dogmatic ideology, whether religious or political. In one scene of the drama, a girl prays openly in a family meeting, “My father is a sinner; he has a lot of porno files in his computer.” In a totalitarian society, young children report the sins of their parents to the authorities who would punish them severely. In such a suffocating social milieu, ideology supersedes everything. Even one’s parents, teachers and friends are nothing but sinners. Under the circumstances, human relations are doomed to deteriorate.
According to a RogerEbert.com headline, “Netflix’s Hellbound is a Brutal, Thrilling Series About Belief.” Belief itself is nothing wrong. If people’s belief becomes an obsession, however, they are doomed to be hellbound. Historically, dogmatic belief has cost many innocent people’s lives -- the Inquisition, Nazism and the Moscow Show Trials, to name but a few. Although far less intense, we, too, have those who are obsessed with a radical political ideology. In that sense, “Hellbound” is a metaphorical portrait of our society, plagued by dogmatic belief.
Meanwhile, webtoons.com writes a review entitled, “Hellbound--Is it a Cult? Or Common Sense?” In the drama, the New Truth is undoubtedly a cult, and yet it gradually becomes common sense, replacing the old idea of what is normal. Surely, that is a scary thing. In such a society, self-righteousness will be prevalent and violence will be ubiquitous. Meanwhile, a radical ideology will disguise itself as the “new truth” and try to dominate society. If you resist, you will be the target of the deadly Arrowhead.
In “Hellbound,” six years later, the cult has taken over society and become common sense. Half of the whole population have become members of the New Truth Society. The Arrowhead rides in cars emblazoned with “Justice Judgment” and terrorizes the country by kidnapping and torturing those who oppose the New Truth Society. They claim they are executing God’s will. Meanwhile, the New Truth Society pulls strings from the cover of darkness.
However, when even an innocent infant is condemned as a sinner and receives a death notice, people begin to be suspicious of the “will of God,” as proclaimed by the New Truth Society.
“Hellbound” is a poignant criticism of our society. Watching the series, we come to realize that we should change in order to avoid social and political mayhem caused by extremism and sectarianism.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.