Netflix’s latest genre offering from Korea, dark sci-fi thriller “Hellbound,” doesn’t waste any time in getting straight to the action. In the first minutes of the pilot, giant, billowing demons — think The Hulk meets an evil Michelin Man — erupt into the heart of Seoul to torture and scorch to death one of the damned members of the public.
That is, literally damned. The show is set in an alternate reality in which angels appear before individuals who have committed some wrongdoing to tell them of their impending demise. When the time comes, demons barrel onto Earth to mete out a grisly death sentence. In their orbit is The New Truth, a cult-like group of individuals that supports the supernatural arbiters of justice, led by insidious grandmaster Jeong Jin-soo.
“Hellbound” creator Yeon Sang-ho is perhaps best known internationally to date for acclaimed zombie thrillers “Train to Busan” (2016) and “Peninsula” (2020). The former live-action film — starring Gong Yoo as a father shepherding his daughter to safety amid a zombie apocalypse — was preceded by animated prequel “Seoul Station” released the same year.
Similarly, “Hellbound” began life as a two-part animated film before being extended into a webtoon for Korean digital platform Naver. The latter provided a handy proof of concept for a live-action series that was ultimately commissioned by Netflix. The show is currently the streamer’s top non-English language series globally, just ahead of that other Korean TV sensation “Squid Game” in third place.
In an interview with Variety, working with a translator provided by Netflix, Yeon discusses the origins of “Hellbound,” plans for season 2 and teases a potential third installment in his zombie trilogy that falls somewhere between “Train to Busan” and “Peninsula.”
Tell me a bit about the process of adapting the animated film and webtoon into the live-action show.
The short animation was in 2002, and then the webtoon actually began about two years ago on Naver, with co-creator and cartoon artist Choi Kyu-Seok. During the process of planning and creating the cartoon for “Hellbound,” we did talk about wanting to create a live-action series. However, the webtoons started to [stream] on the platform when I was actually shooting the film “Peninsula.” Before that, we had just been talking about [a live-action series], but after [the webtoon] began on the platform, Netflix and I began to discuss creating it into a live series.
“Hellbound” is such an interesting meditation on good and evil. Is there any sort of local, societal commentary being made here? What was the personal resonance to you?
When my partner Kyu-Seok and I were planning and thinking of the story, and creating the process, we thought of a universe that had very supernatural things happening. So [there are] demonstrations and the prophecies, and then we thought about the kinds of things that would happen in this supernatural or created universe. We kind of just brainstormed all the ideas that we could think of, and then tried to pick from those, thinking, “What can we bring together to create into a single storyline?” The characters that you see in “Hellbound” are very grounded. They’re people you see in the real world. But at the same time, we wanted to make sure that none of the things that happened in this universe would remind you of anything that happened in our real world. And I would say that those two methods were used as a tool for us to create a world that was very believable and convincing. It was almost comparable to a simulation game.
There are a number of protagonists in the show, and halfway through there is a significant jump in time as well, where we then follow a different protagonist. What was your rationale for this?
When we were working on this story, we were set on creating a world that was comparable to hell, and created by people who are unable to tolerate uncertainty and we wanted to show what the society would look like when convictions are in conflict with one another. In order to do that, it meant that we needed to have multiple characters who had multiple convictions. That’s how I came about having a number of protagonists.
What do you make of the comparisons to “Squid Game,” however misguided they may be? Both shows came out within months of each other and, I suppose loosely, touch on morality in an interesting way.
I personally enjoyed “Squid Game” very much as well. And I feel like the vision that it had within it, being a genre drama, was very relatable and there were a lot of points within the show that I was able to relate to as well. I think that both shows have their own entertainment elements. And as for where those points lie within the show, it’s all different. I think that “Squid Game” was able to really resonate with a lot of people. Also there’s that entertainment factor of drawing from childhood games as well. I think with “Hellbound” as well, these are pieces that lead to a lot of active conversation among the audiences. I think that’s where both of their entertainment factors comes from.
We have seen some high-level genre TV projects out of Korea really hitting a nerve internationally in the last year. What do you think is the impetus behind this drive towards genre programming?
Culture is always developed by influencing one another. When I was younger, in Asia, Hong Kong films were all the rage with genres like noir and some of the more kitschy ones. There was also a lot of love within Korea for Japanese animation as well. As a child, I was heavily influenced by all of those great creative works that came from outside Korea and I believe that that was what led me to be the creator that I am today. As for the way that Korean content is so well received and loved by global audiences, I think it’s just that the level of trust that Korean content has gained in the past has accumulated one by one and layer by layer and it has hit a certain point where it’s now become an explosive impetus. I feel like we are very much in that wave.
You’ve talked about wanting to expand your storytelling into a “Yeoniverse”-type world. Could that be with Netflix in the future? What are your plans for season 2 of “Hellbound”?
I will say that it’s true, the process of working with Netflix was very enjoyable on my end. They very much agreed to and related to my creative vision, but they also created an environment where I didn’t have to think about anything else aside from focusing on my creativity in terms of distribution or when or how to release the series. Because “Hellbound” is based on the original webtoons, my partner Choi Kyu-Seok and I have decided that the story afterwards will be told first through the webtoon and, as for whether we would want to turn that into another live-action series, that’s something that we will need further discussion on. As you know, we have only just released “Hellbound” Season 1 and so we didn’t have any time to discuss that issue with Netflix. So I would say this is something we need further discussion on.
“Peninsula” was a hit last year in Korea and in international markets. Do you have any plans for a third live-action zombie installment to make it a trilogy?
I believe that the zombie genre is very traditional but at the same time, depending on what you bring to that, it can be completely new. Personally, I do have some ideas in terms of further development of what happens after “Peninsula.” But as for whether I will create that into a film, it’s something that I do want to do. However, because there are a lot of productions that I’m working on currently, I’m thinking that I have to sort of organize the ideas and work on what I have to work on. Up until now I have been someone who’s been an individual creator. But these days I’m thinking that maybe I need to come up with a system in order to really bring all of my creative visions to life.
What about a TV adaptation for something like “Train to Busan”? Is that in the cards at all?
There are a lot of ideas I’ve been tossing around but I personally think that for “Train to Busan,” I would like to continue that as a film series. In Korea, the circumstances are not very favorable to create a series in the Korean language with visuals that are comparable to “Train to Busan” the film and also, you know, I have to work with … the distributor that we started on the original film as well. So I think taking into consideration all of those conditions, a film series would be the most feasible.
So this would be specifically “Train to Busan” or a film within the “Train to Busan” and “Peninsula” universe?
I would say that — in terms of that universe — they’ll all become related together. “Peninsula” was a post-apocalyptic film that focused on the car chases. The story that I’m thinking about after that would be closer to “Train to Busan,” where the story will be carried out in a small and restricted space. That’s something that I have in mind currently. So in terms of the genre, you could say that it’s between “Train to Busan” and “Peninsula.”