Thoughts on Korean Netflix Shows “Hellbound” and “All of Us Are Dead”

Late to the party, I’ve finally watched a few of Netflix’s Asian output. Due to all the hype surrounding Squid Games, I went with other, lesser-known-to-me Korean titles especially since I had read enough spoilers to dissuade me from pursuing the series when I have limited time.

My first, and most anticipated, was the six-episode show Hellbound. Despite coming from Yeong Sang-ho (King of Pigs, Train to Busan, Seoul Station, Peninsula), I lost interest in it pretty quickly.

The idea of a supernatural disaster movie involving people being condemned to hell and being sent there by way of the fists and flames of three fearsome fire-throwing monsters was intriguing. Initially, at least.

The shock and awe of the opening sequence as the gorilla-like monsters battered a poor guy to death was enough of a hook to keep me interested beyond the first episode. However, storywise, the show lost steam by the end of episode two as characters ceased investigating the mystery of why any of it was happening and the focus turned to depicting the rise of a cult claiming to be connected the supernatural goings-on. All of those interesting leads which were teased in the opening episode, which seemed to take the form of a police procedural, were discarded once the world was established and the series entered into examining life in a Korea where a cult holds increasing sway over society.

While solidly constructed, watching it was dull. On a thematic level, one might be able to find something interesting in discerning a commentary of living in paranoia and fear in a way akin to being in a fascist dictatorship – perhaps a call-back to Korean history – or a theocracy. Whatever intellectual engagement I had with the show had a pall thrown over it because I found that the drama became leaden as the constant bleak tone, dull visuals, and slow rhythm made the story a slog and tension was drained away. Mismanagement of tone is something that sunk Peninsula for me as the relentless action became tiring, but it was worse here. My lack of engagement was compounded because some of the characters grated on me, particularly the hyperactive YouTuber, and other characters never felt like they behaved in ways other than what the writers contrived to push the plot forward.

The end result was the show became tiring. Every episode I found myself frustrated at never finding out what the monsters were and considered skimming the webcomic it is based on. When the finale came and it turned out that all the carnage that had gone before could be reversed, perfect for sustaining the story for a second season, but something that felt like a cheat.

Much more successful was All of Us Are Dead.

Imagine High School of the Dead, what with the genre, setting, and gore, minus the offensive gratuitous sexual objectification and with an added social commentary that adds enough substance to keep your brain ticking whilst various characters are getting their brains munched, and you have an idea of what All of Us Are Dead is all about. Okay, that was a long sentence.

This 12-episode series is a fast, thrilling, violent, and fun spin on the zombie genre.

It gives us a large cast of characters engulfed in a zombie outbreak in the fictional city of Hyosan. The story focuses primarily on a bunch of teens led by students Nam On-Jo (Park Ji-Hu) & Lee Cheong-San (Yoon Chan-Young) and we watch as they try to escape the school and ride out various waves of zombie attacks, all while their hormones and interpersonal conflicts create different levels of drama to heighten the emotional stakes of the typically gory flesh-rending horror of dead-heads. So, bullies become super-predators in the school while rich kids have to get over their aversion to the poor – they call people on welfare, “welfies”.

Beyond the teens, we also get a wider snapshot of society through following the parents, soldiers, and even a YouTuber (this one not so irritating) who get thrown into the maelstrom as authorities roll into action and place the city in lockdown and the adults try to rescue teens from a growing zombie apocalypse.

The threat is delivered through fast zombies, a la 28 Days Later (2002). Indeed, they share a similar origin in a sort of “rage virus” that triggers their hyper-aggressive behaviour. This means lots of practical effects as blood, bitemarks, and broken body-parts are shown on student bodies after the student body (and teachers, and soldiers and civilians) get swamped by shamblers. Also CG is utilised to show the progress of the virus as characters fight to retain their humanity or have to say goodbye to loved ones. Interestingly – SPOILER ALERT, in a ripped-from-the-headlines sort of way, the virus evolves to create different vectors of threats.

I found that what All of Us Are Dead does most successfully is to set up a number of storylines that crash together as the huge cast of characters are all located in different locales pre-outbreak and then they ping-pong from one another, on and off campus, as the zombie hordes close in on survivors and chomp down on the weak, the less fortunate, the self-sacrificers, and the betrayed.

The action happening to various characters is perfectly crosscut to and from in a way to maximise the drama of subplots and eventual cliff-hangers as each person faces life and death situations. This way, the rhythm of each episode is fast and tense and packed full of events in different locations. It works all the more as it is easy to become invested in the characters, all likeable enough, are archetypes and their feelings are communicated clearly. Furthermore, the writers successfully continuously extrapolate the tensions of teen drama of confessing first loves, clashing school cliques, and bullying into each blood confrontation.

While I wouldn’t claim that some of the critiques of society, like the depiction of intense competition at school to visions of class conflict, are deep or that allusions to real-world incidents and its attendant social commentary is done in good faith, it makes for good material for character motivation as well as emotional manipulation of the audience so that, despite the fiercest of cynicism, it will still be a moving experience and it helps bring weight to the action.

Funny scene:

Not from a Netflix show…

Episode one of The Afterparty where a deadpan Sam Richardson’s nerdy-but-sweet character Aniq reunites with his high school sweetheart Zoe (Zoe Chao) and the two do karaoke. She sings Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time to him and he ends up getting Khia’s My Neck, My Back by mistake and he has to ad lib new lyrics. My advice, lean into it man, own the embarrassment.

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