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Sweet Home posterCha Hyun-Su moves to an apartment complex called Green Home after the death of his family. Although Hyun-Su contemplates committing suicide because of a dark past that is at first obscure, once monsters begin to appear both inside and outside Green Home, he becomes the character who seems to desire survival the most.

Intended for fans of apocalyptic movies who also seek underlying subtext and greater depth to the action, blood, and gore, Sweet Home is a Netflix series based on the Webtoon of the same name, written by Carnby Kim using artwork by Youngchan Hwang. The series begins at the height of the action as Hyun-Su is dramatically confronted by a military detachment. The military questions his identity, and, when they cannot identify whether he is a monster, they shower him in gunshots that have little impact on him. Though the scene is short, it is more than sufficient to draw the audience in for a fast-paced, ten-episode journey that is also filled with moments of quiet intimacy. Although the show seems to mimic typical apocalyptic shows and movies at first, Sweet Home quickly subverts viewers’ expectations by presenting greater depth in terms of both the plotline and its characters. Using dark humor, Sweet Home offers its viewers relief after bleak scenes but immediately reminds them it is still too early to relax entirely.

The most compelling element of the series is its complex characters, with their mysterious-but-unique backgrounds that keep the viewers guessing about their past in every episode. The series never makes the mistake of revealing everything all at once but uses meaningful repetition to remind viewers of what they already know. It then expands on the characters’ history each time the audience encounters them to further develop both the depth of each character and the relationships they build, helping viewers gain insight into their actions and motivations and also strengthening the connection between the viewers and characters as the shifts between past and present fostering viewers’ sense of sympathy and compassion.

Green Home’s residents quickly realize that the monsters they are running from are in truth themselves, rather than the conscience-less ones that are more visibly running amuck. The series prompts viewers to look inward and encourages self-reflection—because what drives the characters to become monsters is not a viral disease nor an engineered virus but their innate desires and the strength of these desires. These cause individuals to lose their rationality and humanity, becoming monsters in the process.

Sweet Home exposes the difference between its monsters and traditional zombies right from episode one, which features a woman complaining about being on a diet. At first, viewers may believe that this character's hunger results from her transition from human to zombie; however, the episode ultimately contradicts this assumption, presenting the viewers with what truly caused the transformation: human desires and overwhelming emotions—in this case, the desire to lose weight. To further emphasize the difference between itself and other apocalyptic movies and shows, in episode two, the show has Sang-Wook engage in a physical situation with the dieting woman, during which she attacks and bites him, leaving a large wound on his back. However, Sang-Wook never transforms during the series: in Sweet Home, transformation occurs because of human desire rather than viral disease, but Sang-Wook's desires but Sang-Wook's desires are never as strong as the others who have undergone the change.

Yet, one thing that the series insists upon is that even those who are selfish are capable of selflessness and redemption, although sometimes self-reflection happens too late. Many of the characters who turn into monsters do so not because of greed or hatred but because of their desire to help others—and, most of all, their will to survive. Often, the monsters are manifestations of the characters’ past traumas and their ability to suppress the dominance of these traumas and fears. This causes great division among the characters at first because of their frustration and skepticism towards those not yet completely monstrous; however, Sweet Home does an excellent job of presenting viewers with the stark difference between “real” monsters—a two-dimensional creature—and the monsters the humans turn into, which are far more complex and difficult to understand. It does so by incorporating more fantastical creatures that do not seem to have any consciousness or humanity, an example being the giant spider roaming the basement of Green Home. The latter half of the series, where Hyun-Su meets a monster much like himself, Ui-Myeong—a “monster” that can shift between monster and human form at will—calls attention to this idea that not all monsters are evil but often turn against humans because they lack acceptance, trust, and experience overt skepticism. Here, the message is obvious: differences are not necessarily indicative of an individual’s level of humanity. Though Hyun-Su and Ui-Myeong are similar in terms of their half-monster-half-human identity, their thoughts concerning humanity are very different. Hyun-Su feels compassion for and connection to the other humans in Green Home, whereas Ui-Myeong has lost faith in humankind’s ability to accept change. These two contradicting viewpoints are not unlike the mindsets of people in current society.

Indeed, one thing that stands out about Sweet Home is the diversity of characters included in the cast: the rather even appearance of both male and female characters, ensuring that both genders have empowering roles in the show; the large variety of backgrounds the cast boasts—including a firefighter, a student, a ballerina, a soldier, a mechanic, a cancer patient, a nurse, a store owner, a gangster, and others; its subversion of stereotypes, for example in the figure of independent female firefighter, Seo Yi-Kyung, who was not in the original Webtoon for Sweet Home but offers a fiercely empowering presence in the Netflix series. Sweet Home challenges common misunderstandings attached to the first impressions presented by each character. Not only are the characters bound by their desire to survive, as in most apocalyptic movies, but they are also connected by trauma, loss, and past disparity. Even under bitter circumstances, the characters can somehow find peace through one another, as shown by the deepening relationship between Yoon Ji-Su—who had given up on hope after her boyfriend committed suicide—and Jung Jae-Heon, a devout Christian who was previously an alcoholic and who acts as a torch for Ji-Su, saving her from a growing darkness within.

Sweet Home presents Green Home as a place of fertility and vitality through intimate and calm scenes that show the empty halls of the building covered in sunlight and overgrown moss which hugs the walls. In a literary sense, the color green often symbolizes life, which is interesting here because of the number of deaths that occur within the building. However, given the development of the characters that battle to survive within its walls, this symbolism is an accurate representation of the life for which they strive. Certainly colour is key in the series. Most of the scenes in Green Home feature stairways, and the abandoned upper levels of the building are shrouded in dark and cool lighting. The scenes on the main floor offer similar lighting. All this appears indicative of the slim divide between the humans and the monsters. When the characters take refuge in the daycare centre, where the lighting is much warmer, this place of vitality offers a sense of safety, protection, and hope. Children in the series seem untainted by the desires that make the adults vulnerable to becoming monsters—the characters thus seem safest, and able to talk most openly about their thoughts, when they are in the warmly lit confines of daycare.

Indeed, the final episode of Sweet Home confirms that compassion is the key—that monsters require patience and sympathy because of how they are often misunderstood, which the scene between Han Du-sik—a mechanic—and Hyun-Su highlights. Han Du-sik sacrifices himself to stop Hyun-Su’s rampage, telling him, “It’s not your fault.” Although Hyun-Su’s humanity is constantly put to the test throughout the series, and even more so in the last episode, this scene shows the power of understanding.

Earlier in the series, during a quiet moment between Hyun-Su and Ji-Su, the latter plays the chords to a song on the guitar. She has been struggling to name the tune. When Hyun-Su first hears it, he says that it mimics the atmosphere of a “Sweet Home,” which Ji-Su decides is the perfect name for it. This unassuming but revealing moment reinforces the symbolic relationship between each of the survivors—and how, although all their situations are bitter, somehow Green Home has over time become their “Sweet Home,” offering them an escape and a place to reconcile with their pasts. Sweet Home entices viewers with the strangeness of the monsters—but it ultimately beguiles with the implications of their subtexts.

Ai Jiang is a Chinese Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She draws on cultures and landscapes of the lands she has walked for inspiration. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dark, Hobart Pulp, and Jellyfish Review, and from Haunted Waters Press, among others. Find her on Twitter @AiJiang_ and online.
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