Entertainment Evolution of Korean-style Creature Feature

The TV adaptation of the Korean webtoon “Sweet Home” has achieved worldwide popularity. Its storyline and visual style are likely to make it a pacesetter in the production of next-generation Korean creature features.

The Korean webtoon “Sweet Home” attracted fans around the world during its online run from October 2017 to July 2020. Available in nine languages, it recorded a total of 1.2 billion pageviews. But more importantly, it caught the attention of Netflix.

Popular Korean movies and TV serials are regularly picked up by the video streaming service provider. This time, Netflix decided to use its own money to bring “Sweet Home” to life.

With the bar raised for the Korean-style apocalyptic genre by the period drama “Kingdom,” anticipation was high for the visual recreation of the monsters in the “Sweet Home” webtoon. The stakes had also changed when the Korean film “Parasite” won the Palme d’Or at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival and subsequently picked up four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, elevating the status of Korean entertainment.

Netflix spent a whopping 30 billion won on content production. But as soon as the 10-episode TV version of “Sweet Home” was released in December 2020, it was clear that these investments had paid out. The excellent use of computer-generated monsters, quality of sets and depth of character development quenched the audience’s thirst for the “real thing.” Runaway viewer acceptance confirmed Netflix’s confidence in the webtoon.

“Sweet Home” quickly rose to third place in Netflix’s global listings. In more than 70 countries, it placed in the Netflix top 10, and in 13 Netflix markets, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Peru, the series soared to No. 1 after just four days.

Lee Eung-bok directed the drama. This was not his first brush with Netflix; he had previously directed “Mister Sunshine,” a 2018 hit TV serial that the streaming service rebroadcast to international subscribers. “I don’t usually watch monster movies, but the moment I laid eyes on the original webtoon, I wanted to challenge myself in the sense that Korean drama motifs could be expanded. It was as good a global motif as any, too,” Lee said in an interview.

The 10-episode Netflix adaptation of the monster webtoon “Sweet Home” became a runaway No. 1 hit in many countries after its release in December 2020. © Netflix Original Series

Infection of Desire
The original webtoon was written by Carnby Kim (aka Kim Kan-bi) and drawn by Hwang Young-chan. The story begins in an aged Seoul apartment building, Green Home, into which a reclusive high school student named Hyun-su moves after losing his family in a traffic accident. Hyun-su and the other residents must fight off a variety of monsters that suddenly engulf their community. Isolated from outside help, each person must decide how far they are willing to go in putting themselves at risk to protect the whole group.

At the outset, “Sweet Home” seems to have all the trappings of a typical zombie apocalyptic tale. But the script boldly veers.

The cliché formula of a swelling number of bitten people becoming zombies never materializes, nor do hordes of zombies pursue the main characters. It’s clear from the start that there is no viral infection or disease suddenly transforming people into insatiable cannibals. Instead, something closely related to dark, individual desires transforms people into hideous-looking monsters.

This plays out as an unknown fear factor, departing from the usual zombie apocalypse. “The idea that one’s desire creates a monster out of oneself seemed quite fresh to me, and I wanted to show that visually,” Lee explains.

The Lotus Root Monster in “Sweet Home.” Taking a cue from animals’ instinctive movements, choreographer Kim Seol-jin helped design the actions of monsters – how they hunt and fight. © Netflix Original Series

The protagonist, Hyun-su, sheds his self-imposed social isolation to lead residents of his building into battle, brandishing makeshift weapons. © Netflix Original Series

Normally calm and quiet, Korean language teacher Jung Jae-heon turns into a sword-wielding combatant, rushing through hallways to fight monsters with his kendo skill set. © Netflix Original Series

Residents of Green Home Apartments watch a TV broadcast, realizing their slim chances of rescue or survival as a slew of monsters terrorize Seoul. © Netflix Original Series

In the midst of a selfish crowd, an altruistic individual makes self-sacrifices for the good of the group. This process ultimately enables that person to grow.

Korean Sentiment
With everyone susceptible to becoming a monster, the lines of defense built by the survivors gradually contract. The residents have no choice but to exclude those who suddenly have a nosebleed, a telltale sign of morphing. Suspicions lead to homemade weapons being pointed at one another. In the process, the residents’ ethics and morality are tested and shaken repeatedly as they desperately struggle to remain human.

The protagonist, Hyun-su, is a victim of school bullying and has attempted to commit suicide. Despite his vulnerability, he somehow manages to stop midway from turning into a monster and becomes powerful enough to protect his fellow residents. As the episodes progress, the viewers learn that this is no simple creature feature. In the midst of a selfish crowd, an altruistic individual makes self-sacrifices for the good of the group. This process ultimately enables that person to grow.

The show enriches the dozen main characters through individual backstories, and weaves them into centerpiece interactions for survival. This is in line with the director’s approach. “What I wanted to talk about,” Lee says, “was people. I wanted to ask what a monster is, after all.” As a line from the show goes, “I realized that what you see isn’t everything – people, the world and even God’s will.”

The way the characters advance toward a common goal is directly related to the theme of the serial, which cheers for each individual’s own life adventure as well as their humanity as a group. The “family-oriented solidarity” typical of Korean dramas meshes nicely here and is wholly relatable.

Tension and Excitement
At the same time, “Sweet Home” doesn’t omit all of the fun and excitement that the zombie apocalypse genre can tap. Lee worked with a Hollywood special effects team in a yearlong quest to create raw, primal fear. After filming the actors’ scenes, monsters were created using computer graphics, with their movements choreographed by Kim Seol-jin. In addition, urgency in the turn of events and tightly-knit action sequences heighten tension, and excitement is injected as the main characters must hide and duck in cramped spaces to avoid deadly confrontations.

The monsters are not meant to be stereotypical – they can be anything from a giant eyeball to a spider. Each has its unique habits and behavior due to its appearance, and the humans have to improvise their response every time, maximizing the suspense.

The more threatening creatures include a slimy monster that appears at the front gate of the apartment building, extending its extremely long tentacles to grab victims and suck their blood. Another is missing its upper jaw and relies solely on its auditory senses to hunt prey, while a gigantic, muscular creature constantly screams, “Protein!”

Toward the end of the series, the biggest existential threat is not a single monster but a roving band of thugs. This tugs on viewers’ emotions to the extreme.

As such, “Sweet Home” was born as a human spectacle that paints the events unfolding in a derelict apartment complex with fear, excitement, desire and solidarity.

It’s likely to become a demarcation point, sorting Korean-style creature feature content into the pre- and post-“Sweet Home” era.

Kang Sang-joon Pop Culture Columnist
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