'Hellbound' is a surprise hit, even for the director

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'Hellbound' is a surprise hit, even for the director

Park Jung-ja (played by actor Kim Shin-rock) trembling in fear as she waits for the executors to arrive. [NETFLIX]

Park Jung-ja (played by actor Kim Shin-rock) trembling in fear as she waits for the executors to arrive. [NETFLIX]

 
No one is more surprised by the success of "Hellbound" than the director of the Netflix Original.
 
Ten days after the six-part series opened at No. 1 on the streaming service, Yeon Sang-ho said he was "bewildered" by the response.
 
"When I first talked about 'Hellbound' with Netflix, I did not think that it would universally resonate with the audiences," he said.  
 
"Hellbound" just isn't the sort of fare to generate broad appeal. Dark and mysterious, the work targets viewers who enjoy fantasy and complex Lovecraftian tales. It doesn't have the punch of a "Squid Game."    
 
“Originally, my target audience was a niche market of those who like this genre,” the director said.
 
In "Hellbound," a floating entity with a horrifying face begins to confront people in Seoul notifying them the exact date and time of their deaths. The condemned are also informed that they are bound for hell. "Executors" then arrive at the appointed time to carry out the task.
 
As this is happening, the city Seoul becomes a sort of hell of its own as cults and fanatics who believe what is happening is the divine judgement — the "New Truth" — take control of society.
 
Director Yeon Sang-ho [NETFLIX]

Director Yeon Sang-ho [NETFLIX]

 
For whatever reason, the audiences ate it up from the Nov.19 release. "Hellbound" went straight to No. 1, was dethroned for a spell by "Arcane," a League of Legends fantasy action animated series, and by the end of the month was back in the top spot, according to FlixPatrol.
 
On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 100 percent Fresh rating.  
 
"I would have been satisfied by ranking No. 2 on the chart," Yeon said, discussing the local rankings. "When I checked it, it was No. 1 and I went to sleep with a sigh of relief. The next day I woke up to the pile of messages from the production staff saying that the series ranked No.1 on the global chart. I was so stunned, bewildered, and grateful for this result."
 
During an online interview, Yeon explains the unexplained about the universe he created in "Hellbound." Following are edited excerpts.  
  
Top and above: The Prophet Angel who gives notice to people about the date and time of their death and the executors come at the designated time to burn people.[NETFLIX]

Top and above: The Prophet Angel who gives notice to people about the date and time of their death and the executors come at the designated time to burn people.[NETFLIX]

 
Q. The series is adapted from the Naver Webtoon "The Hell," for which you wrote the script and webtoonist Choi Gyu-seok animated. The ending of "Hellbound" strongly suggests that another season is possible. Have you decided on what platform you would continue this narrative?  
 
A. I've actually discussed with Choi about how we will continue this story from this summer. We've already set the overall structure of the plot, and we will animate it on Webtoon. I think that we will be able to show the comics in the latter half of next year. Regarding the Netflix series, we haven't discussed the matter with the streaming company yet.
 
 
There are a lot of discussions going on related to the last scene in which character Park Jung-ja, who was condemned to hell, is resurrected. The ending is different from the original Webtoon. Why did you have this character return to the land of the living?


The last scene was pre-planned since we started working on the Webtoon — whether or not we would put it there, however, was undecided then. When we began to discuss with Netflix about bringing this story on screen, the ending was yet to be finished on Naver. So we all got together with the Netflix crew and decided to put that last scene on the screen instead in the comics. This was all possible, of course, because the creators behind the webtoon and the Netflix series are the same.  
 
If I tell you now why the character returned then really there is no reason for a second season to come out. But what I can tell you now is that, at first when the "notice" - people's damnation to hell and witnessing them die by the executors first happens, it is considered surreal and bizarre, but in that universe, after couple of episodes, it becomes a regularity. But the last scene will completely throw people off again, another supernatural phenomenon that the world will struggle to accept. People will respond differently. Some may be furious; some may be confused. I believe that's what the next season will be about.  
 
 
As people are bound to hell, the irony lies in the fact that the true "hell" is created by the people left behind in the human world. What do you think hell is and do you have any religion that you believe in?
 
I did think about that word a lot as I was writing this story; how did this term come up in the first place? How did a place that we don't even know for sure that it exists become such an explicit noun? It is made from people's imagination, and the same can be said for this series. When the unexplainable happens, people start to add their imagination and make it real by putting their own explanation behind it. Even though it might not actually exist, people can make it real, and that's what's truly horrifying. That's what I wanted to show through this series.
 
If you ask me what kind of religion that I believe in, in the sense that what kind of worry or questions I ask through that religion, I do go to church.
 
 
The three executors that you created were truly exotic. Some say that they reminded them of gorillas. Was there anything that you wanted to emphasize through their physical appearance?
 
I created them thinking that they could be humans. If I could materialize a human filled with hatred, how would it look like? That was my intention behind the executors.  
 
The leader of the cult “Arrowhead” (played by actor Kim Do-yoon) is also a broadcast jockey (BJ) who rouses people’s fear and confusion through his livestreams.[NETFLIX]

The leader of the cult “Arrowhead” (played by actor Kim Do-yoon) is also a broadcast jockey (BJ) who rouses people’s fear and confusion through his livestreams.[NETFLIX]

 
As much as "Hellbound" is praised by many, there are also negative reviews, saying that the narrative lacked explanations behind the notice and why people are sentenced to hell. Are you planning to provide explanations in the follow-up story?
 
If I had to define the genre of this series, it would be cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is a genre that could make the presence of humanity weaker, while simultaneously show with clarity what humans really are, by comparing them to a cosmic presence, a cosmic horror. If all the mysteries behind the happenings are explained, it would be hard to define that as cosmic horror anymore. So I don't think such characteristics would change if we decide to create another season.  
 
 
I remember in the prior interview that you said that it takes skills to create content that could appeal to many people. How did you balance between the message that you wanted to portray and the entertainment factor to draw the audiences into your series? And why do you think this series resonated with the global audience?
 
Yes, as much as the message or the intention that I wanted to send out through this series was important, since it is streamed on a globally popular platform, it has to appeal to the masses. I referenced a lot of the content that I enjoyed from my youth. One I enjoyed was Japanese manga series "20th Century Boys" by Naoki Urasawa. The manga is a masterpiece that captures well the kitsch culture of the 20th century and delivers a message of hope. Although it would be difficult, I wanted the audience to feel what I felt as a reader of "20th Century Boys."
 
Although "Hellbound" is set in Korea, the problems that the characters deal with are universal: about life and death, sin and punishment, and questions about humanity. Whether or not there is hell, these are questions that people ask themselves as they lead their lives. I think that's what resonated with the audiences worldwide.  
 
The chairman of the New Truth performs a ritual before the executors come to take away the condemned.[NETFLIX]

The chairman of the New Truth performs a ritual before the executors come to take away the condemned.[NETFLIX]

 
Where and what is the "hell" that Park Jung-ja has returned from?
 
The hell that she has been to will be covered in the next season, I believe. But what I can say for sure is that there won't be any volcanoes — images that we usually associate with hell.
 
 
Jung Jin-su, after he is given the notice by the Prophet Angel during his youth, lives in torment for 20 years before he is sentenced to death by the executors. Other condemned also live in fear as their days become numbered. How did you come up with the idea of creatures revealing this information to the doomed?
 
I think we have all been given the notice about our deaths. The proposition is simple: we all will die someday. We just don't really think about how we will face death that often. But when that is decided for you in a way that is unexplainable and even violent, how small would people become? That's what I thought about as I was drafting this story. For instance, the mother of attorney Min Hye-jin wasn't given the notice by the angel, but it could be said that she was notified of her death by her illness. She doesn't go crazy, and none of the other terminally ill patients do, but others start to add their own meanings behind this phenomenon and create utter chaos.  
  
Attorney Min Hye-jin (played by actor Kim Hyun-joo) stands in front of her office after Arrowhead members and other people crash her office for “defying God’s will.”[NETFLIX]

Attorney Min Hye-jin (played by actor Kim Hyun-joo) stands in front of her office after Arrowhead members and other people crash her office for “defying God’s will.”[NETFLIX]



Are there any recommendations — books or films — that you'd like to share with the audience?  
 
If they're new to the genre of cosmic horror, I recommend books by the genre's mastermind himself, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I also immensely enjoyed Stephen King's "The Mist," and thought of this novella a lot as I was working on this series.
 
 
If the setting is that the executors burn the condemned until their bodies can hardly be recognizable, how did the baby who has been given notice survive? Was it due to the love and sacrifice of the parents? Some say that the baby's survival is a mechanism to uncover the fabrication made by the New Truth.  
 
If the executors were actually emitting fire, then all would have perished. But there is this scene in one episode that says that the substance of the burnt bodies is not of organic matter. It's an out-of-the-world substance, so I don't think that fire that executors emit is the typical fire that we know. If the executors are in fact humans filled up with hatred, then the weapons they wield may not be physical either. I think that the baby's survival may be linked to solving the mystery behind the identities of these executors.  
 
The message that I wanted to give at the end was to raise the question, "What is humanism?" What makes us human and what humanity means to us. In this story, a variety of very humane characters appear: Jung Jin-su, Jin Kyeong-hoon, Min Hye-jin, Bae Young-jae and Song So-hyun. I wanted the audience to discuss amongst themselves which character is the most humane one? Who is the "real" human here? I believe that witnessing the baby's survival would leave quite an impact for the people in "Hellbound." As Deacon Yuji said, this incident is a tragedy that could ruin this world, but for some, it may be a glimmer of hope that they so desperately need. I think the baby will be at the heart of what's to come next.  
 
 
 

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]
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