I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this series.
I initially heard about it in an article detailing upcoming webtoon live adaptations for 2019-2020. One night on a whim I came across it on Netflix, and decided to watch the first episode.
I didn’t like it.
Not because it wasn’t good, but because it was too realistic.
It creeped me out. I didn’t understand the main character’s motives and immediately thought to myself “okay, he’s seen this dilapidated place from top to bottom. Everyone is creepy. Either he’s secretly crazy as well, or a complete idiot”.
By the end of the series, of course, I did get my answer. It just wasn’t one I wanted, to be honest.
Sometimes, you just have to be in the mood for a certain type of depravity. Depending on your own moral nature, we all have different boundaries. Mental thresholds we do not cross by all means – least we risk losing ourselves or our inner core of beliefs.
(unfortunately) For myself, I have a very large threshold. There are things I’ve watched and read as a Cinema Studies school graduate that really made me question if something was wrong with me. I mean – where do we draw the line between depravity and art?
Throughout Film School everyone always applauded Alfred Hitchcock.
Me? I hated the man. To be honest, in the back of my mind I thought him to be an overweight pervert with a strange obsession with unconsented penetration and voyeurism. By penetration I mean keys inserted into wide door keyholes. By voyeurism, I mean the entirety of Rear Window.
But, I kept those thoughts to myself, lest I be ostracized. After all, that was the perceived norm – the common dominant culture.
Who was I to disagree?
When Call Me by Your Name came out, a film (in my opinion) pedophilic in nature premiered with much buzz from the arthouse cinema community, I said nothing. I quietly supported those who called out its base nature.
What I mean to say by this is, that I cannot tolerate pedophilia. It disgusts me to my core, and is the reason why I don’t bother with most seasonal anime series to this day. I have no interest in seeing upskirt shots of high school girls or jiggly boob physics. That is simply not my thing, but unfortunately that, let’s say, ‘phenomenon’ has been normalized the past few years to the point where many don’t see a problem with it.
But to fully illustrate and hit this point home, pedophilia is one line and boundary I refuse to cross. It is something that would destroy my core being.
Emotionally and psychological torment, however? I’m completely down for that.
I’ve mentioned this somewhere before in past posts, but Aku no Hana is my all-time favorite manga series. Briefly – it deals with mental illness, isolation, and societal perversion in a mountainous town in Japan. It also takes influences from Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil.
As for my favorite Korean webtoon? Killing Stalking. Which if you don’t know about by now…haha…let’s not get into it.
My point being – I like a good psychological thriller. I love a great unreliable narrator. I want to piece together the story for myself, as I hate when a narrative is spoon-fed to the audience. But Strangers from Hell…this kdrama rubbed me the wrong way from the get go.
I’ve noticed that Im Shi Wan enjoys taking these roles where he is sort of an awkward outcast, but I didn’t expect it to get as dark as quickly as it did.
The series kept switching back between main characters Yoon Jong Woo’s incident in the military, his drug-induced hallucinations and a constant stream of nightmares.
After a certain point, you begin to realize that something is not right with him. For starters, his initial tour of Eden Residence would have sent those in a better…state of mind, let’s say – packing.
There is mold on the walls, only two shower heads work in the bathroom, the toilet is in shambles, and the owner Ms. Eom Bok Soon keeps buying bloody eggs knowingly and puts them in the refrigerator for residents.
The flashbacks to Jong Woo’s life in Busan before coming to Seoul did not denote that degree of poverty. His sick brother always ate his food, his single mother always struggled to work in the fish market – but they had a home.
That was the first red flag for me concerning his mental state – which may or may not have been negatively enhanced by breathing in black mold daily.
The second red flag was the residents themselves.
After witnessing numerous altercations, and quite literally being warned by Mr. Ahn Hee Joong not to stay at Eden Residence too long, Jong Woo seems to shrug this off. Only until a certain incident is repeated – Jong Woo in Mr. Ahn Hee’s exact situation where he realizes the reason for the older man’s distrust of the residents – is when it finally seems to click to Jong Woo.
The alleged gangster had been driven crazy by all of the residents and even the owner herself.
It was all a game.
Despite these various red flags such as: residents repeatedly breaking into Jong Woo’s room, being repeatedly drugged, and feeling so unsafe that he barricaded his door before bed and walked around with a knife – Yoon Jong Woo would not leave the residence.
Even after multiple tenants “go missing” and when the police come to investigate, Jong Woo witnesses Ms. Eom lie about what really happened to them.
Even after his mother repeatedly offered her support – he would not go.
After going residence hunting and finding a decent place with only a 50,000 won difference in his current room’s price – Jong Woo would not go.
His brother even gets sick and his mom only asks for 200,000 – 300,000 won.
Jong Woo transfers 500,000 won and decides that now he has no money to move out and that staying at Eden Residence is his only option.
Repeated actions like those listed above make me believe Jong Woo wanted to be there all along. The dentist Seo Moon Jo insisted there was something worth ‘sculpting’ in him, and apparently he was right.
Unleashing Jong Woo’s pent-up rage and allowing him to take his frustrations out on the world at mere suggestions in his sleep and gaslighting by the whole of Eden Residence apparently took precedence over anybody else’s lives.
I mean really – I don’t get why Jong Woo was supposedly so special.
Because he struggled? Because he suppressed his true feelings for so long? Because he portrayed as just another facet of Seo Moon Jo?
I found it very interesting that in his hallucinated psychosis, Yoon Jong Woo often saw the dentist as Mr. Room 302, Yoo Ki Hyuk. Only after falling deeper into the abyss, Jong Woo began to align more with the dentist.
To the point that by the final episode, Yoon Jong Woo’s core being seemed to completely merge with Seo Moon Jo’s. He believed he embodied the dentist, and took over his persona and actions – albeit a bit sloppily as noted by the detectives in police woman Seo Jung Hwa’s interview.
But the only thing I didn’t quite understand – why on earth did Jong Woo view himself as the dentist, but still hallucinated his stalking from the grave? Was it the human meat they all shared? And if so, why was police woman Hwa hallucinating him as well?
If I remember correctly, Ms. Eom was murdered before she could feed Officer Hwa the meat.
There’s also the issue of the teeth bracelet.
Did no hospital workers see a bracelet full of evidence on Jong Woo’s arm during intake? Did he hide it? And if so, after Jong Woo murders Moon Jo why on earth did he kill everyone and make it appear as if Moon Jo did?
Was it for a lighter sentence so that he could go forth into the world and, as promised to his mentor, “kill everyone on the outside”?
Which brings me to the final red flag for all of the “outside” supporting characters in Strangers from Hell – did nobody volunteer to proofread Jong Woo’s novel?
I’m pretty sure that since he “found” the Pakistani resident’s journal (as Kang Seok Yoon also “found” something from the previous 302) all he had typed previously was ‘die’ while falling asleep.
In the hospital, all he typed was ‘die’ repeatedly.
I’m not sure if this, along with the axe-breakdown of his room door in the final confrontation, was just meant to be a nod to The Shining.
Either way, my small nitpicks aside, I found this series to be quite enjoyable.
It certainly nailed its intended unsettling tone, and as with most psychological thrillers, the majority of the cast was extremely unlikable.
It did not help me sympathize with the lead character (to be honest, the only character I sort of liked was Mr. Ahn Hee) but it made a very realistic and effective method that added to the storytelling.
But, tell me your thoughts.
Have you read the Strangers from Hell webtoon? Did you also pick up on a subtle BL undertone between Yoon Jong Woo and Seo Moon Jo? Which Eden Resident did you like the least and why?
Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, I’d love to hear from you! Also be sure to follow us for more intriguing Kdrama reviews!
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☆ In Asian Spaces