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The X-Files



Only the first three episodes of this 6-part series screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Dropping on Netflix in November, “Hellbound” is so bloodthirsty it’s impossible to guess who’s going to survive; that is not a complaint. The action, characters and pacing ricochet so wildly there’s no predicting from this first half where the second half will go, which is refreshing, but tricky for a review. With that very large caveat, what we have in “Hellbound” is a creepy, disturbing combination of a police procedural, trial by social media, and the supernatural consequences of murdering angels roaming the earth.

The barnstorming opening sequence shows a group of students in a busy coffeeshop watching a video of a young evangelist, Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in) discussing an impossible murder captured on film: large black creatures with glowing red eyes who basically microwave people to death before vanishing into thin air. They are oblivious to the sweating man sitting behind them until those same creatures explode into the coffeeshop, giving chase to the sweating man until their attack is completed on a busy Seoul street in front of hundreds of horrified witnesses. But as is the way, this ferocious opening turns into a dogged police investigation, mainly by the shambolic Jin (Yang Ik-june, channeling Peter Falk), and his wide-eyed partner Eun-pyo, whose clean-cut exterior hides disturbing depths.

The investigation takes about a minute before they realize they have several problems. Jin’s motherless teenage daughter Hee-jeong (Lee Re) has joined Jin-soo’s volunteer army, problem one. Problem two, their investigation reveals that the sweating man’s death was predicted by a visitation from god, stating the exact time at which the creatures would appear to send him to hell. And for a third problem, a tired single mother, Jung-ja (Kim Sin-rock) comes home from a hard day to find her sweet kids have baked her a birthday cake. She blows out the candle as her older son films the happy moment, only for a visitation to interrupt and announce her death five days from now.

As one might imagine, all hell breaks loose. How Jin and Jung-ja’s rapidly acquired lawyer, Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo), attempt to stop it become the key actions in the second and third episodes. The internet is on fire, not least because of a hysterical videocaster for a cult calling themselves the Arrowhead, in a skull hat and black-light facepaint, insisting his followers dox everyone who doesn’t believe this is the true work of god. And how can the police dare to investigate an act of god as if it was a crime? Arguments between believers and non- swiftly turn violent, with a gang of thugs Jin arrests wearily explaining that beating up people with bats and chains is only to inspire them to find the righteous path. (One of these thugs is a young woman with her bangs wrapped around one of my grandmother’s hair curlers, a magnificent look.) Questions of law and order devolve pretty quickly into whose law? Whose order? Through all of this mayhem Jin-soo strolls with a sensible backpack and a fatigued sense of superiority, explaining to all comers that this suffering is all the fault of people who have strayed from the truth.

The different interpretations of truth that belong to the policemen, the lawyer, the daughter and the evangelist are of little interest to Jung-ja as she makes frantic arrangements for the financial security of her children, just in case. But they are matched with the relentless waves of online chatter; this show is up-to-the-minute in knowing how private moments are performed for a potential audience, and how impossible it is to predict where anything posted will end up, or twisted to what ends. The ferocity with which people defend their beliefs are matched only by the appalling acts they can justify with their righteousness, such as what Jin-soo encourages Hee-jeong to do – the plot point begging the most detailed resolution.

But then there is the sequence in which Jung-ja waits in terror to see if the creatures will come for her. It is televised nationally, on all channels. The external wall of her apartment has been ripped out, with a viewing platform at its level installed on the road outside. The platform has seats reserved for spectators who have paid hefty sums to watch up close – which they do, from behind Noh-like masks. The gore and the pleasure in the gore is high indeed. Director Yeon Sang-ho, who adapted his own webtoon with writer Choi Kyu-sok, is not afraid to maximize the C.G.I. budget in order to maximize the suffering. Of course, watching a frail elderly woman getting her head kicked in as her daughter screams is not entirely enjoyable viewing.

The struggle here is between people who act in the service of others, such as Jin and Hye-jin, and people who act in the service of their beliefs, such as Jin-soo and his followers. At a crucial moment for Jung-ja, Jin is the only person present who tries to do something, however ineffective. The act of kindness is repaid with appalling cruelty, of course. As a metaphor for organized religions and their side effects, “Hellbound” is going all in. But based only on this first half, it’s impossible to know in which direction.

PS – Not a single woman works in Jin’s police station, a lazy oversight.


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