From the New Truth Society in “Hellbound” (left) to Player No. 244 in “Squid Game,” recent Korean shows on Netflix feature religious elements. (Netflix)
During a recent Sunday service at a church in the suburbs of Seoul, a pastor cautioned churchgoers to not watch a new Netflix series. The messages and symbols in the show are “anti-Christ,” he warned.
The sermon was about the six-part dark fantasy series “Hellbound,” directed by Yeon Sang-ho, a churchgoer himself whose previous works include the megahit zombie thriller “Train to Busan.”
The dystopian show, which centers on a religious group that cultivates its power by capitalizing on chaos in society caused by demonic creatures purportedly sent by God, has quickly topped the streaming giant’s non-English TV show chart, even outpacing “Squid Game” -- Netflix’s biggest show to date.
The series takes on the theme of death, something a global audience can watch and ponder, a Netflix representative explained.
But at a time when the public’s confidence in religion is dwindling, the depiction of the New Truth Society, a powerful yet cruel cult in the show, is giving the jitters to religious groups in real life.
“Bashing Christianity appears to have become a cliché in K-culture,” according to a column that appeared on Kukmin Ilbo on Tuesday, a local newspaper affiliated with one of the biggest Protestant churches in the country.
Religious, or anti-religious, elements in K-dramas
As the title suggests, “Hellbound” has core elements drawn from Christianity.
But its depiction of God and divine justice goes against what the Bible stands for, according to Professor Lee Jung-hoon at the Department of Law at the University of Ulsan who has studied theology and written books on Christianity.
“(In the show,) God is not seen a figure that distinguishes good from evil or clearly defines what justice is. That is a hard pill to swallow for Christians,” he told The Korea Herald.
The show has been widely characterized as “anti-Christianity” but some popular Christian YouTubers have taken it as a call for self-reflection.
In “Squid Game,” Player 244 brings a religious element to the show, a pastor who relies on his faith throughout the survival game. “I pray to the Lord on behalf of all us sinners,” the character said after his team won a game of tug of war.
Professor Lee says the character is an exaggeration of “prosperity theology” -- a religious belief that financial gains and physical well-being are the will of God and strengthening one’s faith will increase one’s material wealth.
“You see him praying on the glass bridge. If you are a true Christian, you would not have agreed to take part in the life-or-death games in the first place in which you could win big when you survive.”
It is similar to the Christians these days who have a twisted sense of faith and expect praying to bring them a great deal of luck, the scholar said. “The character left Christians with a lot to reflect on.”
Reflection of reality, in a way
The back-to-back success of “anti-religious” shows is not just a coincidence.
In Korea, religion’s role in society, including the close relationship between the Protestant Church and politicians, particularly conservatives, has been a contentious topic for years. Aggressive missionary work deployed by some evangelicals, like holding a banner in public spaces that say nonbelievers will “go to hell,” are routinely mocked online with memes.
The pandemic has turned at least two religious leaders into public enemies: the populist pastor Jeon Kwang-hoon of Sarang Jeil Church and self-proclaimed messiah and founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus Lee Man-hee who made headlines as their churches faced criticism for obstructing efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Against this backdrop, religion’s favorability has taken a hit.
Six in 10 South Koreans now identify as having no religion, according to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year. The figure stood at 50 percent in 2014. Over 60 percent of non-religious South Koreans said there is no specific religion they favor.
Squid Game (Netflix)
The number of people who believe that religion helps society also plunged from 63 percent in 2014 to 38 percent this year, the poll revealed, though a majority still believe religion has maintained its grip on society.
Professor Lee believes the growing backlash against religion is linked to the depiction of religious organizations in shows like “Hellbound.”
“The public seems to care less about how different traditional churches are compared to others these days. Instead, more people are now lumping traditional churches with pseudo-religions based on how they acted during the COVID-19 crisis, their anti-social behavior and the ‘Jeon Kwang-hoon’ effect,” he said.
Though “Hellbound” does not single out a specific religion, the show is satirizing what the public perceives as “fanatics” – zealous groups with blind faith, said pop culture critic Jung Duk-hyun.
“In South Korean society, (once) public opinion is formed, attitude towards opposition can turn aggressive in online spaces. There is a parallel between this phenomenon and fanatics.”
As shown in the depiction of the Arrowhead in “Hellbound” -- a secret sub-cult that uses violent methods and online tools to suppress critics, religious extremism is real life issue across the world, including in Afghanistan where the Taliban has taken over but faces a growing threat from ISIS, Jung added.
“With many feeling frustrated (at religious establishments), these religious characters are helping release viewers’ pent-up anger toward religion,” the critic explained.
The recent Korean dramas on Netflix do not shy away from tackling political and social issues at a time when groups with strong beliefs have been emboldened amid the pandemic, such as the rise of anti-vaxxers. This socially critical nature of K-dramas are what makes them timely and appealing to international viewers, the critic added.
“If you look at the recent Korean content on Netflix, they are mostly dystopian. And at the core of dystopia is the issue of fanatics,” he said.
By Yim Hyun-su (firstname.lastname@example.org