Sweet Home is a Korean horror fantasy uncannily of its moment

Humans turn into a mind-boggling array of monsters in a story clearly indebted to George Romero and especially Stephen King.

21 January 2021

By Kim Newman

Sweet Home (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Sweet Home (ten episodes) is streaming on Netflix.

Throughout the ten episodes of Korean apocalyptic horror-fantasy drama Sweet Home, a sub-plot bubbles about a human-monster hybrid incubating inside a giant womb in apartment 1408 of Green Home, the building where the bulk of the action takes place. 1408 was the number of the ‘evil fucking room’ in the 2007 film adaptation of Stephen King’s short story.

The shadow of King lies heavily across the show, which is based on a ‘webtoon’ by Kim Carnby and Hwang Young-chan. Elements of The Mist, a novella which became a film and TV series, and Under the Dome, a novel that spun off a TV series, are obvious. More broadly, Sweet Home sticks to the template King set in Salem’s Lot, the twice-adapted-as-a-TV-mini-series novel which replays the plot of Dracula in the setting of Peyton Place.

The extremely TV-friendly format mimics soap opera by following the interlocking lives of a range of people in a relatively small community – a block of flats offers an in-progress mini-drama in each apartment, ranging from the domestic abuse dished out by a convenience store owner to his downtrodden wife to the torture of a child murderer by a Punisher-type vigilante – then shakes the genre up by introducing a large-scale supernatural event.

Song Kang as Cha Hyun-soo in Sweet Home

The first episode opens with a sequence we only return to at the end of the last, as Cha Hyun-soo (Song Kang), an angelic if bedraggled teenager, is targeted by military snipers as he trudges through a devastated city and transforms into a black-eyed, resilient, indefinably odd monster-human creature who still looks more like a suffering martyr than an existential threat to humanity. Then the story loops back a month – like a great many works from the last year or so, it winds up being set in a different alternate reality than was intended because it specifies that the phenomenon which transformed the city (and perhaps the world) took hold in the summer of 2020.

It’s not our summer of 2020, though this is one of a run of unintentionally zeitgeisty genre pieces (the Japanese series Alice in Borderland is another) that involve large-scale cataclysms which force people to stay indoors where they can be menaced. On the pattern of Lost, the backstories of key players are doled out over the episodes.

Hyun-soo moves into Green Home after the deaths of his family in a car crash and has marked down the day the apocalypse starts in his diary as the date of his own suicide. Only much later are the deeper reasons for his misery – involving a very Korean mix of school bullying and social inequality – revealed, and even then a major villain passes out of the story unpunished as a possible peg for a later plot arc.

Another threaded arc involves the missing fiancé of firefighter Yi-kyeong (Lee Si-young), who had foreknowledge of the coming doom – and diagnoses that this is a horror show not a science fiction series by concluding that people are turning into monsters because of a curse not a disease. A strength of Sweet Home, which credits many creature designers and effects technicians, is its variety of monsters. The shape assumed by the accursed differs according to individual desires, which makes for a carnival of baroque, flesh-twisted oddities.

Sweet Home (2020)

Foregrounded early is a long-tongued, loose-limbed, flesh-sucking fiend in the line of the vampire variants of the film I Am Legend and the TV series The Strain. He gets killed out of hand some episodes in by a muscular colossus, to make way for entities who stray far further from monster movie standards – during a fast pan, an incidental huge eye in a building wall shows how strangely some have shifted – but also from horror-film behaviour. Set-pieces involve conflicts with a human spider in the basement, the ogre-like giant, and a fly-blown former handyman wielding a lawn strimmer.

Hyun-soo is initially a rare monster who doesn’t become a feral predator and the group of survivors warily put up with (and indeed exploit) him. Eventually other monsters who are benign or conflicted manifest, while the relatively ordinary Green Home residents (who still include a serial killer, a genius tinkerer, a mysterious swordsman, a drop-out ballerina and a Special Forces vet) come up against murderously evil regular humans after the manner of the ravagers and warlords of many George Romero-derived zombie apocalypse stories.

The crunch comes when Hyun-soo is approached by a monster which is controlled and calculating but also as divorced from human morality and psychology as he is from human shape. Having wrestled with the question of whether it’s possible for monsters not to kill humans, the new creature – a migratory mass of blood that inhabits a succession of human shells and has a refreshingly nasty attitude – suggests he should worry about whether it’s possible for humans not to kill monsters.