Sweet Home, a South Korean horror TV show based on a webtoon of the same name, is a story about an epidemic that causes humans to transform into horrific monsters, centering on the trapped residents of the Green Home housing complex as they battle to survive. On the surface this is fairly straightforward; a ragtag group of varying ages and backgrounds collide, creating both intense connections and conflicts in equal doses. Yet as the story delves into the lives and backgrounds of the characters it’s evident that this isn’t your average apartment building and the monsters that are besieging it are just one more misery to add to the pile. True to South Korean cinema, emotional devastation and character trauma run deep in this survival horror.
The monsters themselves are wild fun, created with a mixture of carefully choreographed movements by professional dancers in chroma key costumes and digital effects. The level of investment that went behind filming each of these creatures is absolutely astounding. No two monsters look alike and their powers and behaviors are unpredictable, leading every encounter to be a delightfully different experience.
The large cast of characters includes many favorite tropes and a few fun editions: the gangster, the psychopathic teen, the “glad he’s on our side” sociopath, the chain smoking bassist with a heart of gold (personal favorite), the preacher, good boy soldier, the tough as nails broad, the gadgeteer, and so on. However, what makes Sweet Home so unique is how much time the show dedicates to exploring the characters and their backstories, fraught with tragedy and loss, as well as their current struggles. In fact, as the story develops the monsters almost take a backseat to the character drama playing out and the horror does not suffer because of this. The performances are explosive and moving, and each character’s struggle is expertly brought to life.
True to common themes in South Korean cinema, the core of the show’s horror is the trauma and suffering life visits upon us. The main character Cha Hyun-su, brilliantly played by Song Kang, is a recently orphaned brooding young man who has just moved into Green Home as the events begin. Through a series of flashbacks and hallucinations it’s revealed that he suffered bullying that bordered on torture in order to protect his family. Now that they have passed he intends to end his life, but finds himself transforming into one of the monsters and therefore unable to die.
Those who begin to transform go through an in-between phase, called the “Golden Hour,” where they are still relatively human and have control over their thoughts and actions, but have healing powers and super strength. Hyun-su finds himself here, and forced to yet again continuously sacrifice himself for others, this time by scavenging the building and fighting monsters in order to find supplies for the survivors.
The building of Green Home itself is an incredible setting, mostly comprised of small single room units that lend an almost Wes Anderson life in diorama feel to each character’s story. There are few movies and TV shows that utilize a setting as well as Sweet Home, where it is so integral to the story it’s hard to imagine it being set anywhere else. The plot develops in stride with our exploration of the building, introducing new characters and new dilemmas with each new floor or unit Hyun-su and the others enter.
The ending of the first season, without giving too much away, may be the greatest let down as it changes tone and direction drastically. This may be due to the cliffhanger nature of the serialize webtoon source material, but it could have been executed smoother. A season 2 has yet to be announced, but season 1 is strong enough that this shouldn’t deter anyone interested in watching Sweet Home. Overall, this is an incredible show for fans of character driven survival horror.