Hellbound, a South Korean drama, became a hit on Netflix within 24 hours of its premiere. Photo: Netflix

Hellbound makes a meal of Squid Game

South Korean dramas are having a good run on Netflix. Michael Weaver checks out the latest hit, Hellbound.   

When Squid Game became a must-watch sensation on Netflix in September 2021, Koreans rejoiced at having further global focus on their culture and entertainment industry—already renowned for superstar groups BTS and Black Pink, and 2019 cinematic sensation Parasite.

But coming hot on its tentacles, another South Korean drama, Hellbound, topped Netflix's weekly ratings in 80 different countries within 24 hours of premiering in mid-November. 

So what explains Hellbound’s heaven-sent rise?

Hellbound and Squid Game both have confronting storylines and involve affluent people witnessing the death of others from first-class seats, but that’s where the comparisons should end according to ANU Korean language and culture expert Associate Professor Roald Maliangkay.

“The narratives of the two are really quite different,” Maliangkay says.

“While Squid Game is about capitalism and finding meaning in life, Hellbound considers how humans would react if they knew some people would be condemned to hell before their death.

“Where Squid Game asks why someone might be more deserving of life than others, in Hellbound the question is the opposite: why might they be condemned to hell?”

Maliangkay says while the drama falls short in exploring the latter question, it does an excellent job of portraying the effect of influencers and religion on people’s ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Hellbound hit the screens at a time when many people have been pondering questions of mortality and considering conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While anti-vaxxers may look at the people behind Squid Game as representatives of the global cabal of QAnon activists and 5G-enabled vaccine pushers, Hellbound could be regarded as a critique of the self-righteousness of anti-vaxxers and their populist demagogues,” Maliangkay says.

“As such, the drama might be targeting some of Korea’s many Christian sects – those that have encouraged members not to abide by COVID measures.”

Maliangkay says Hellbound’s monsters add to the intrigue.

“I think many people are intrigued by the fresh premise of Hellbound and may love the design of the demonic creatures. They are different from your average monster in that they’re not all fangs and claws as one might expect, but dark, powerful and relentless. They do not come to scare people with their looks, but to get the job done in the most violent manner possible.”

The mass-appeal of hyper-violence narratives has also pushed Korean dramas and culture to the front of a worldwide audience, and Maliangkay says it will be interesting to see what comes next.

“While Korean TV dramas have been a semi-global phenomenon for some time, I am pleased that these darker narratives are now also gaining fans around the world because they will attract new audiences,” he says.

“My only concern is that some people may now think of Korean dramas as being either hyper-violent or ultra-romantic with nothing in between, which is of course false.

“I like that Hellbound takes the idea of hell on earth quite literally – not only do demonic creatures appear to violently destroy and burn the condemned in plain sight, but a minority of humans manage to benefit from the phenomenon. It may not be the kind of series you’re supposed to binge over, but we’re in a pandemic, so why the hell not. Pun intended.”

Roald Maliangkay is Associate Professor in Korean Studies at the ANU School of Culture, History and Language. Read his thoughts on Squid Game here.