Netflix’s latest original Korean drama offering is Sweet Home, adapted from the webtoon of the same name by Lee Eung-bok (director of smash hits like Mr. Sunshine and Goblin). Despite its name, the series is far from sweet. In fact, Sweet Home may be K-drama’s answer to the horror fantasy genre. With a huge ensemble cast, ambitious special effects, and action-packed sequences, Sweet Home cements itself as a refreshing breath of fresh air when it comes to Korean dramas, where romance reigns supreme.
Not Such a Sweet Home
Sweet Home follows Cha Hyun-soo (Song Kang) who moves to a rundown apartment complex after the death of his family. The socially withdrawn Hyun-soo wants nothing more than to commit suicide. But strange incidents start to happen in the building, when his neighbours start to turn into monsters. A ragtag group including Hyun-soo, medical student Eun-hyuk (Lee Do-hyun) and his sister Eun-yu (Go Min-si), musician Ji-su (Park Gyu-young) come together to fight for survival.
Like the series title, the entire plot presents numerous oxymorons. The apartment complex itself is far from a sweet home; residents turn into monsters, and the apartment complex is cramped, dirty, and old—at times reminiscent of the apartment from another Korean drama, Strangers From Hell, or even the real-life Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong.
Sweet Home is grim, gritty, and often pessimistic. While there are some heartwarming scenes, they never last long, and the series descends further into darkness over time.
Throughout Sweet Home, the characters constantly highlight the differences between humans and monsters by reinforcing their humanity. Some lament lost dreams, while others suffer from medical conditions; another character constantly craves alcohol. The series also grapples with some difficult moral questions. In one scene, the residents hold a vote whether to kill off one of the characters on the verge of turning into a monster. But as one resident reminds them, killing off someone that’s still human is murder—turning them into monsters in their own right.
Stunning Visuals, But Characters and Plot Fall Short
Sweet Home promises and delivers Hollywood-level visuals; the monsters depicted on-screen are the series’ strongest point. Sweet Home‘s FX team previously worked on Hollywood blockbusters and superhero movies, and their prowess shows in the unique and surprising designs of each monster. Beyond the visual effects, the attention to detail for the set design are also impressive, with each apartment in the complex looking distinct from one another.
However, the huge ensemble cast falls short at times. While the large cast allows more diversity in the characters and their stories, many lack depth; some feel out-of-place in the series, appearing only to advance a plot element before being later forgotten. Other characters are killed off for the sake of it, if only to add to the drama or body count.
The plot also comes up short. Sweet Home doesn’t clearly explain why certain characters turn into monsters, leaving the audience scratching their heads. The series alludes to human material desires as the reason; this concept, while intellectually and artistically interesting, is never fully explored, getting muddled in a poorly-executed plot.
It also doesn’t help that the series doesn’t give context on the story’s background. Sweet Home never explains the mechanics of the disease that turns humans into monsters, and it’s unclear how the disease affects different characters.
Why does Hyun-soo show symptoms first when other characters don’t? If being bitten by a monster doesn’t infect you, then what does? Who gets to say whose desire is stronger than others?
Unfortunately, we never see these questions answered in the series. Perhaps they’re reserved for a potential second season, but it does leave much to be desired.
Sweet Home definitely falls short when compared to director Lee’s top smash hits. His prior works, Mr. Sunshine and Goblin, are rooted in storylines that challenge time and fate—grander themes that Sweet Home‘s “humans vs. monsters” concept pale in comparison to.
Despite these drawbacks, Sweet Home is laudable for for trying to bring a popular webtoon to life with excitement, thrills, and great visuals. For die-hard Korean dramas fans, it’ll be not only an entertaining watch, but also a much-needed break from typical romance tropes.
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Sweet Home (Korean: 스위트홈)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Lee Eun-bok. First released December 18, 2020. Starring Song Kang, Lee Jin-wook, Lee Si-young, Lee Do-hyun, Kim Nam-hee, Go Min-si and Park Kyu-young.