The legend of dark heroes in Korea’s shows can be said to have started from the steps of Priest Kim Hae-il in The Fiery Priest, Korea’s TV series aired in 2019. How cool he looked when he fluttered his black robe to throw a kick of fury, fighting against injustice! “God told me to beat you.” Since then, we have been witnessing his ‘descendants’ come to our life to fight against injustice and unfairness of our society in different shows.
What is important is not evil but good. Vincenzo, the Korean-Italian mafia lawyer in Korean drama series Vincenzo, calls himself a “scumbag who cleans up scum” and defeated evil-doers by incinerating them or causing slow painful death to them. Good has not evolved through its fight against evil but has been turning to evil. No one would have expected that evil could be more contagious than the zombie virus.
We have already learned from history that countless lives have been lost through wars that occurred for the sake of God or justice. Again, what mattered was not the evil but the good, and not what’s inside but the outside of shows, and that would mean none other than humans.
Looking at the viewers who take the cruel acts of dark heroes as ‘satisfying finish’ and give them a big hand causes me to fear that Korea might go beyond setting a record in the field of global TV show to making history in the real world.
My Name and private vengeance
In the helpless reality where people cannot rely solely on public authority for justice, I don’t want to hold on to the stereotypical lesson that ‘nonetheless violence is wrong.’ Yet we need to think what we would have to bear when the standards of good and evil cross the border lines of the law.
Public Law is not simply the social rules that entail public force. It is the result that we get through repetitive process of social discussion and agreement. It serves as important criteria that the members of the society act upon. Law helps to provide order to the lives of each member by keeping him or her from making wrong choices. Maintaining peace and public order of the society comes after that. Peaceful nation can only be ensured when individuals can live peaceful lives.
In Netflix original series My Name, Yoon Ji-woo joins a gang and becomes an undercover cop in order to avenge her father’s death, believing that he was killed by the police. However, she finds out that her father was also an undercover cop disguised as a gang member and killed by the gang after his identity was revealed. Then she changes her target to the gang where she used to belong and starts a new private vengeance.
How does Ji-woo’s life flow while undertaking private vengeance twice due to her mistaken choices? She spends the prime years of her life on getting hard core training to be a killer. She even subjects herself to emotional abuse by double-crossing those who trust and take care of her. What awaits her in the end, however, is the death of those she loved and those who loved her.
My Name, a series using undercover as a motif, tells the danger of private vengeance by showing repetitive killing between the police and gangs. We know that two wrongs don’t make a right. Ji-woo’s private vengeance brings about another personal vengeance. In the series, Ji-woo joins the gang full of male members and grows to be a skilled member through fighting the males. She even gets special private lessons from the gang’s leader, who was his father’s friend. Such circumstances are considered as unfair preferential treatment inside the gang, a strictly hierarchical society, and led to violence and rape attempts by disgruntled members. Such ‘little’ personal payback ends in a failure and those members are expelled from the gang. Then they go ahead with taking ‘big’ personal vengeance on the gang where they used to belong. Would the vicious circle of private revenge ever come to an end?
Hellbound and routinized personal vengeance
Private vengeance by individuals means people’s distrust on the public authority. Believing that the public authority won’t be able to pay back for individuals, they take action to punish the evil in person. The issue related to unfairness and injustice always serves as the start of personal revenge. Netflix original series Hellbound tells a story that happens in the imaginary world where private vengeance has been routinized.
In the series, ordinary people are informed of their fate to hell one day by unearthly being and then killed in a cruel way. The society goes into a chaos at the supernatural situations that cannot be explained by logic or science. Then the religious cult New Truth Society leads horror-struck people to believe that phenomenon is God’s plan. It argues that God is taking action because human law is not bringing the evil to justice.
Those who were issued a decree and sent to hell are later found to be murderers, violent offenders, swindlers, and rapists. At first, people get shocked by the cruel way of deathly condemnation but get used to it and even start personal punishment or private vengeance. The trend spreads out from Arrowhead, which is a group composed of a few violent religious radicals, to the majority ordinary people. For example, teenage girl Heejung incinerates the serial killer alive who killed her mother. She has realized the ‘hell fire’ not in hell but in the human world.
A world without absoluteness
Four years have passed and it has been routinized that condemning people to death for the sake of God. Around half the population have joined the New Truth Society, and one day a newborn baby is issued a death decree. The New Truth Society has to face the question on its interpretation that only sinners are issued the decree to hell. Two groups confront each other on how to take the infant’s decree. The New Truth Society wants to let the baby killed so as to protect its doctrine. On the other hand, the other group Sodo wants to reveal that the Society has been misleading people, by broadcasting the baby’s death demonstration. It is interesting that the two groups seemingly put forward completely different justification related to the baby’s death but are not actually walking in a different direction.
At the end of the final episode of the show’s first season, single mother Park Jung-ja who was criticized for so-called ‘being adulterous’ and condemned to hell comes back to life. Her revival reminds me of Jesus, the Son of God, and Virgin Mary who was also a single mother having conceived him by the Holy Spirit. Park’s revival makes us throw questions on the absoluteness we have believed. Thus, Hellbound creates a huge disturbance to our human world, throwing essential questions on crime and punishment, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, noble and mean, and right and wrong.
“What are you trying to tell me? It is too complicated to understand,” cries out the member of Arrowhead to God. The priests of the New Truth Society fall into confusion saying, “The world without principles is subject to end.” And the viewers who expected the two main characters played by Yoo Ah-in and Park Jeong-min would survive to lead the story, are left dumbfounded to see them killed. The world of absoluteness crumbles down without mercy both inside and outside of the show.
Two faces of relativity
What is interesting in Hellbound is that God has not showed himself not even once. Everything known about God in the series is no more than human interpretation. So I would say this show is not about God but about humans. God is simply an incident that happens to humans, and what matters is how humans react to the incident. How would humans live in the world deprived of the absolute truth or God? Would the world be in a dangerous chaos with all values jumbled together, or would it be a peaceful place that allows diversity? I wonder how the two faces of relativity would be realized.
I assume Director Yeon Sang-ho would be now reading the reviews on this show. What we think and feel witnessing an incident called Hellbound, and all show reviews in the world would probably be the message Yeon tries to deliver to us. I believe individuals’ interpretation on this world come together to make the face of the world we are living in. If you wonder what kind of life the baby would live after surviving the prophecy and condemnation, look in the mirror and ask yourself. The story of the show’s next season begins with us. We are all Yeon with different faces.
striving so hard to write something and create her own genre, she reads diligently many books from literature to culture, under the motto, ‘each life makes each book’; she wrote drama guide books like What Kind of Drama Your Life Can Make?, The Tool To Use Dramas for Your Night, the essay Must Be Nice To Have an Elder Sis, the novel Novel for PR, and ‘This Man Series’ Han Hyun-min’s Black Swag; she is interested in all sorts of human stories on earth.
Translated by Ok Eurom
* 《Cultura》 2022 January (Vol. 91) *