Cover Yoo Ah-in stars in Netflix’s new series, 'Hellbound' (Photo: Netflix)

Helmed by Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, Netflix’s Hellbound is the newest K-drama to grace our screens

Following the success of Squid Game and My Name, the world of Netflix Korean dramas shows no signs of stopping. The newest K-drama to grace our screens is Hellbound—the highly-anticipated series from Train to Busan director, Yeon Sang-ho.

The drama already made history as the first Korean series to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, then at the Busan International Film Festival and most recently, at the BFI London Film Festival before premiering on Netflix this November 19. Despite only showing the first three episodes, the series was met with rave reviews with some calling it Yeon’s best work to date.

Ahead of its premiere, we break down all the things you should know about the newest series that the world will be talking about.

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A dark story based on a webtoon

Hellbound tells the story of mysterious beings known as executors from hell that appear to condemn individuals to be hellbound. Soon after, chaos among the people rises. Amidst all the supernatural occurrences, an up-and-coming religious organisation called The New Truth takes advantage of the situation and tries to gain power over the people.

Led by chairman Jung Jin-su, the organisation declares that only sinners will receive hellbound decrees. Together with his loyal followers—to the point of blind faith—called Arrowhead, the group take it into their hands to punish those who go against their beliefs. Sceptical of their intentions, lawyer Min Hye-jin challenges Jung’s interpretation of the supernatural incidents and join forces with others to go against The New Truth.

The drama is based on the eponymous webtoon written by director Yeon himself and garnered much attention. For the TV adaptation, Yeon took the idea of hellbound decrees to bring a version of hell into the streets of Seoul and to detail the experience of fear and anxiety among those who witness the supernatural incidents.

“The Hellbound universe is something very interesting for me. I wanted to make the universe my playground. The first game is this live-action series,” says director Yeon. “The setting is unrealistic and drastic and inside that world, we can see different facets of people and I really like that setting,” he adds.

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Helmed by a master director

Director Yeon Sang-ho is best known for his blockbuster zombie drama that took the world by storm, Train to Busan. But before the hit movie, Yeon has already captured the attention of critics and fellow directors. In his first feature-length animation, King of Pigs, he addresses the uncomfortable truths around school violence and the oppressions of a hierarchical society. The movie became the first animated film of its kind of screen at the Cannes Film Festival.

After that, he forced on many other animation projects that explore the ills of modern society whether it’s the absurdities in the military as seen in The Window or the manipulative pseudo-religious groups in The Fake. Yeon has made a name for himself through Korean occult thrillers and with Hellbound—considered by critics to be his darkest work to date—he’s expected to bring his A-game.

Academy Award-winning director Bong Joon-ho lauded Yeon as a genius storyteller in the past. Actor Yang Ik-june also has nothing but praises for the director, “The emotions and tone he wants from the actor, he has a way to bring that out. He continues to keep us on our toes.”

Actor Park Jung-min echoes the same sentiment, saying “Working with Yeon Sang-ho is always so much fun! He has so many innovative ideas that I just want to get inside his head and see what’s in there. And I also love the joyful way he delivers these ideas.”

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A star-studded main lineup

The cast of Hellbound combines top tier stars from the film industry to eye-catching newcomers. Director Yeon personally handpicked the cast who can help “bring dimension and depth to the characters and the convictions they uphold.”

Leading the cast is Yoo Ah-in, the recent Best Actor winner at the Asian Film Awards. Always known for leaving a strong impression in every character he plays, Yoo will be taking on the challenging role of chairman Jung Jin-su, the cult leader of the religious organisation, The New Truth.

For his character, Yoo has to show the eccentric qualities of a charismatic leader. Director Yeon believes that “the Jung Jin-su character was fated to come to life through Yoo Ah-in.” In order to portray Jung, Yoo says, “He has a strong will to preach his conviction to his world so I looked into the core values and feelings he would have inside of him.”

Challenging chairman Jung is lawyer Min Hye-jin, played by the formidable Kim Hyun-joo. As a lawyer, she sides with people and tries to battle the religious organisation through the law. Talking about her character, Kim says she thought about what faith means. “There are beliefs and convictions that come about to mask one’s flaws or insecurities. I think that’s the power of faith,“ she says. As each character carries their own belief, Kim says hers in the law.

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Two characters represent the common people in the series played by Park Jung-min and Won Jin-a, a couple struggling to cope with the supernatural incidents and to keep their humanity grounded. Park plays documentary producer, Bae Young-jae who also starts investigating The New Truth. Director Yeon has nothing but praises for Park, saying “Park Jeong-min is an actor who understands exactly how his character fits into the overall storyline. I thought he would be indispensable as an actor in helping to finetune the series as a whole.”

Meanwhile, Won Jin-a sheds her romantic lead image as Song So-hyun, Bae’s wife. In the series, she agonises over a loved one receiving a hellbound decree. “Song Sohyun is a crucial character for showing the core value of humans,” says Park towards his co-star. “She’s an actor capable of showing strength through fragility,” he adds. Even more impressive is the fact that neither Park or Won are married or are parents yet they were able to act out their characters well.

Finally, actor and director Yang Ik-june has made his mark in the film industry, notably in Breathless. In Hellbound, he plays police detective Jin Kyung-hun, who’s in charge of investigating the cases surrounding the executioners from hell. Despite his tough persona, Jin plays a father conflicted about his duty. “Yang Ik-june is an actor skilled in showing quietly suppressed emotions more so than outwardly expressed emotions,” says director Yeon.

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An impressive supporting cast

Other than the star-studded cast, a talented supporting cast completes Hellbound which includes Kim Do-yoon, Kim Shin-rock, Ryu Kung-soo and Lee Re. Kim Do-yeon adds colour to the mix as a member of The Arrowhead, the blind followers of The New Truth. “I had every faith in Kim Do-yoon’s acting skills. I could completely entrust him with his character,” says director Yeon.

Actress Kim Shin-rock previously starred in The Cursed, which was penned by director Yeon. Here, she plays a mother who receives a hellbound decree—right in front of her children. Ryu Kung-soo made his mark in K-dramas such as Confession and Itaewon Class. In Hellbound, he plays Deacon Y-ji who becomes overtly obsessed with The New Truth. Director Yeon says Ryu’s audition tape blew him away. “He was precisely the Deacon Yuji I had in mind,” he says.

Finally, Lee Re—who is also reuniting with director Yeon after Peninsula—plays Jin Hee-jung, Jin Kyung-hun’s daughter. Yeon chose her “in absolute confidence” that she will portray a young person harbouring inner pains.

Director Yeon calls putting together the cast members as a “painstaking orb-by-orb collection of Dragon Balls.” “It was fascinating to watch artists of our time craft and perfect the narrative of each character. All I had to do was convey to the viewers what I felt watching the actors perform,” he adds.

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Explores thought-provoking themes

Hellbound explores a number of themes, particularly the ideas of belief, faith, conviction, sins, fear and human frailty. While there may be religious overtones—especially with the existence of a religious group—Yeon depicts each characters’ faith differently, whether it’s in the law or in humanity.

“All of them are people who we see in society and they have different convictions and emotions. I think that viewers can resonate with their convictions and their feelings, depending on which conviction they choose to believe. It's fun to watch these clashes. It’s important to think about our own beliefs are just in society and if we can stay human,” says director Yeon.

Furthermore, Yeon says that through the different characters he also wants to explore “what it means to be human” by “stripping away the rational architecture uploading our society so that it turns into a primitive one” through the summoning of executioners from hell.

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The idea of “hell”

Hellbound explores the idea of hell on Earth but there isn’t an actual depiction of hell in the series. Instead, hell is shown through the reality that people create in the midst of utter chaos. “There is no depiction of hell in this work. My intention was not to depict hell. It was to depict hell imagined by people creating it in their reality,” explains director Yeon.

With the help of the executioners from hell and the burning of people into ashen corpses, director Yeon makes the viewers think about what hell would’ve looked like. “When I was thinking of [the executioners from hell], they just came out of the blue but they existed long ago. The ones that we know of are formed based on the imaginations of our predecessors so that’s what I thought about,” he says.

When asked what he thinks hell would look like, actor Yoo says “It’s difficult to picture what hell looks like. But we can get a close look at it through the series.”

He also praised the “new world” that director Yeon depicts, saying “He delves into the hellish aspects of our modern society by breaking down the world as we know it, rebuilding it and breaking it down yet again.” “Hellbound sums up the living hell of our society,” Yoo adds.

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Bringing the executioners from hell to life

For a story that focuses on what hell on Earth would look like, it’s only right that there will be creatures that both represents the idea but also one that gives the hellbound decrees to sinful humans. It’s not surprising that the first monumental task is to choose how these executioners will be brought to life.

For director Yeon and the production team, it was no small feat. “If the images of angels and demons as we know them were based on something we actually saw and imagined, what would they look like? We had that in mind in coming up with the designs,” he says.

What the Hellbound team came up with were ageless, gender-neutral otherworldly beings that were huge in size with pronounced heads to give emphasis in their roles as prophets bringing hellbound decrees. Choi Gyu-seok, the illustrator of the webtoon based his creations on well-known paintings and were given “attributes of humans seized by hatred and malice” to reflect the humans with twisted emotions on the verge of becoming their own version of a monster.

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A realistic portrayal

Yeon describes Hellbound as a story that’s not of this world but takes inspiration from what’s happening in society. Therefore, even though there are no executioners from hell in real life, their role in the story had to look realistic through the drama. In order to make this supernatural phenomenon into an authentic viewing experience, the crew had to turn events into “something that can occur in real life.”

They added realism through the use of mobile phone footage in scenes where the executioners were captured by onlookers, and the use of actual press photography cameras for onscreen news coverage of the demonstrations.

Through the lighting—using backlighting and dimmed lighting—the crew hopes to show the stark tone of the series. Meanwhile, the art team also designed sets that looked real but also unique such as a shipping container underneath a highway overpass as The New Truth’s headquarters.

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Hellbound premieres on November 19, exclusively on Netflix.

 

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