Notes from the semi-lockdowns: Hell is other people

I am going through a Lee Dong Wook phase. It started with Goblin, which thankfully I finally had the chance to watch nearly five years after it aired, followed by Touch Your Heart, and now, his latest starrer: Strangers from Hell. The psychological drama has been around since 2019 but was recently picked up by Netflix for international audiences. I am very disappointed with Viki and the endless geo-blocking of more than half of the shows that I really want to see, but okay…

strangers from hell
Im Siwan (centre) as Jong Woo in “Strangers from Hell”/”Hell is Other People”

Strangers From Hell takes the viewer through the events that transpire in the days following Yoon Jong Woo’s (Im Si-wan) move to Seoul after accepting a job offer from his friend who owns an independent marketing content house. Having limited means, he decides to stay at the only place he can afford, the decrepit Eden Residences where he meets a cast of characters whom he instantly finds a bit too much for his comfort: there is the guy who spends his days watching porn if he’s not lurking the hallways and threatening to knife other residents; the stuttering guy and his twin brother; a seemingly normal guy who literally spits at people when they turn their back; the landlady who likes offering bad food to residents. And then, there’s Seo Moon Jo, dentist by day and peeping Tom by night.

Also titled “Hell is Other People” and based on a “webtoon“, the show sees the gradual mental breakdown of Jong Woo. As the story progresses, he discovers that his intuitions about the people at the dormitory are accurate after all when two other residents suddenly disappear and his room is broken into whilst he is away at work. Feeling apprehensive about the situation his girlfriend initially convinces him is only happening in his mind, he befriends Seo Moon Jo (Lee Dong-wook) to whom he shares his passion for thrillers and an ambition to be a published author in the same genre. In return, the dashing Moon Jo encourages him to pursue his dream and explains that everyone at the building is in fact okay.

Unbeknownst to Jong Woo, although his new acquaintance is a popular dentist by day, the guy actually moonlights at night by inflicting his own brand of dentistry on his victims and may or may not be into human meat.

lee dong woook, seo moon jo
Lee Dong Wook as Seo Moon Jo, a strange eye candy from hell

As Jong Woo copes with life in the big city and the creepy residence, Jong Woo also has to contend with his abusive and insecure manager, while at the same time fending off insinuations from the company’s CEO, a friend from university, about having bad attitude at work. It turns out that the CEO has only hired him for cheap labour and to make a move on his girlfriend. I feel that this observation is Moon Jo’s only redeeming quality, apart from the fact that he is so easy on the eyes.

As for his girlfriend, Ji-eun, it’s hard to totally like her when she fails to lend an ear each time Jong Woo tells her about his struggles, but at the same time it must be understood that she also has her own little battles to fight, top of which is her patronising manager. The power distance that both Ji-eun and Jong Woo must navigate at work is a recurring theme and perhaps is reflective of the larger society which has been known for its emphasis on respecting seniority and authority figures.

Without wanting to spoil the show for anyone, it’s fair to say that there is a Life of Pie-mixed-with-Kafka quality to the series, particularly when the epilogue shows how Moon Jo has successfully achieved his goal. There is also no satisfying end to the story other than knowing that those who deserve it at least get their comeuppance. Or did they?

The 10-episode series is the darkest that Lee Dong Wook has done to date and Seo Moon Jo is his first villain to play, as far as I know. He may or may not have been cast for the role on the back of his star power, but what is certain is he deftly played the psychopathic character so convincingly, making Moon Jo both magnetic and frightening at the same time. At Eden Residences Seo Moon Jo is the vilest of the lot, for sure, and I found myself mentally screaming at Jong Woo to run the hell away from his dentist pal who also calls him “babe” or whatever it is in Korean. Strangers implies that Moon Jo is gay, but it doesn’t explore the idea any further.

Strangers From Hell/Hell is Other People is 4.5/5 recommended viewing for blood and gore and a pretty villain if you are not disturbed enough by scenes of entitled #covidiots protesting lockdowns because they think their freedom is more important than the lives of others. The showdown between the two leads towards the end is especially thrilling.

And if you need to decompress after binge watching all 10 episodes, here’s a playlist of “Wookie” doing manny duties in a popular reality show about dads and samchons (uncles) taking care of the little ones for the day. The second video is pure gold, don’t miss it!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Just a little reminder that Lee Dong Wook is pretty much a regular guy before bursting into stardom, following his work as Grim Reaper in “Goblin”.

Notes from the lockdowns: thriving in social distancing

Today is the second time in over two months that I went to the office. I wish I could instead dial in but when you have to work with members from senior management, physical attendance is a must.

Unlike some of my peers, I have it easy during the lockdowns. A phone conversation with a couple of colleagues has revealed that they have been looking forward to the end of the lockdowns and social distancing, so they could be in the middle of the commotions of office life once again. I wish there was a way to tell them it was alright that everyone worked from home without potentially sounding offensive, as I have found myself thriving during the lockdowns. And now that we are reaching the end of social distancing, I can’t say that my introverted self is thrilled at the prospect of turning up at the workplace even when I have my own literal corner office which sits at the end of a hallway.

I am not a morning person, so getting up two hours early, dressing up, and on some days taking the hour-long commute to work don’t make my idea of starting the day right. I am no slouch in the “making oneself presentable” department, so even when I’m spending the day indoors, I still make it a point to shower and put on clean clothes in case I have to go to the shops or get a takeaway. Moreover, random Skype video calls means I have to dab on minimal makeup at least.

However, I much rather prefer the comforts of having my morning coffee whilst reading or watching the news before checking in. By the second cup, I am prepared to answer queries and requests that are sitting in my Inbox. There really is a strong case for hygge as the driving force behind Denmark’s reported satisfaction with life.

As a result of previously working in consulting and customer service, I have learned to start my workday addressing enquiries from colleagues and I agree that coordinating projects also means giving others the attention and at least a semblance of presence especially when you’re working remotely. Still, I am most productive later in the day. Work that requires more focus and minimal distraction are saved for afternoons and often late into the night when I can type away with the lights at the ground floor, which has become my home office these past two months, are switched off except for a solitary floor lamp that stands right next to my desk.

Source: Brooke Anderson

Apart from not being able to do weekend shopping in-store or travel farther than the vicinities of Perth metro area, I don’t feel I missed out on anything. Instead, social distancing afforded me the work-life balance that I’ve often craved, as afternoon walks and runs around nearby neighbourhoods and parks, spending more time with my husband and the cat, and knocking off to watch my favourite TV series are often the highlights of my day.

That’s not easy to manage when things are normal, and I hope that the world doesn’t frown upon the rest of us introverts who have found that maintaining physical distance from everyone else was actually working in our favour.

Lonelineness versus time alone

The coronavirus pandemic has arrived on the heels of what some describe as a “loneliness epidemic”, but these headlines may be overblown. Again, part of what is missing in such descriptions is the fact that clouds for some are silver linings for others. 

A counterpoint to the so-called loneliness epidemic is the study of “aloneliness”, the negative emotions many experience as a result of insufficient time spent alone. As Anthony Storr wrote in Solitude: A return to the self, “solitude can be as therapeutic as emotional support”, and the capacity to be alone is as much a form of emotional maturity as the capacity to form close attachments.

Source: Personalities that thrive in isolation and what we can all learn from time alone

Notes from the lockdown: rediscovering k-drama

It has been four weeks since the federal government recommended that residents limit their movements as much as possible: visit the shops only to purchase necessary items, such as food or medicine; go to work or school if telework is not feasible; stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people when you’re in public; and do social distancing-friendly exercise only, such as running or walking. “Stay at home, save lives” has been the mantra that guided our actions in the hopes of slowing down the spread of this dreaded disease that so far has claimed over 100 thousand lives and has made its presence at an alarming rate by infecting over 1 million people in over 90 countries as of this writing.

And so while there is not much to do other than what is necessary to slow down the progress of the worst catastrophe that the world has faced since World War II, humanity–at least those who can–has turned to technology to pass the time. There are some who spent time on pursuits that are not necessarily reliant on modern technology, but for the most part, we’ve sought solace from social networks and streaming services. Netflix, YouTube, Stan, and Amazon Prime Video are just some of the services that our household has subscribed to, but thanks to the popularity of the Korean drama (“k-drama”) Crash Landing on You (CLOY to many fans), I have had to add Viki to my list of subscriptions.   

Son Ye Jin as Yoon Se Ri and Hyun Bin as North Korean soldier Capt. Lee/Ri Jeung Hyoek in the massive hit, “Crash Landing On You

Prior to CLOY, the last k-drama that I watched was Big and the only reason I stuck with it was because it starred Gong Yoo (of Coffee Prince fame and at the time, Train to Busan). However, I still ended up scratching my head with its weird conclusion, something that was common amongst the k-dramas I watched by that point.

It had also been years before that since I last watched another k-drama, which must have been Coffee Prince itself, as I had often found that the genre’s storylines were silly, the male characters were stuck up, and most annoyingly, the females were either hopelessly ditzy or straight up mean. I wasn’t particularly happy watching grown up women acting like they were still in kindergarten, the series makers’ idea of cute.   

A few things have changed since, it seems. For one, CLOY’s Yoon Se-Ri is a firebrand who has built a business empire of her own; other series show women pursuing careers and taking it to the man; single mothers who raise well-rounded children; breadwinners; women who have more to offer despite appearances. Maybe the timing of this pandemic means the release of western films and series had to be pushed to later dates, which in turn means there just aren’t many interesting shows available just when we need more things to keep us entertained. But with so much buzz happening around new Asian productions, including the success of South Korea’s Parasite at the Oscars, quite a few of us have since started to revisit k-drama as an alternative to the boring western fare on TV and streaming services, starting with CLOY, followed by other shows that had been lingering for years waiting to be rediscovered.

Over the past four weeks, I have so far added Kingdom (Netflix), Guardian: the Great and Lonely God (“Goblin” in other countries), Hyena, and Touch Your Heart to the list of shows that I have binge watched and re-binge watched because one could not enjoy a good thing just once, especially if you missed some key elements of a story or a scene while reading subtitles. 

Lee Dong Wook as lawyer Kwon Jung Rok and Yoo In-na as an actress down on her luck, Oh Yoon Seoh/Oh Jin Sim in the delightful and lighthearted “Touch Your Heart”

There is a good reason why k-drama has become so popular the world over. One of the effects of South Korea’s democratisation in the 1980s was increased investment in culture and the arts, which in turn became the vessel for selling the idea of a modern, prosperous, and trendy country. The result is an industry that churns polished and well written TV and movie productions, and with the current popularity of k-pop (think of BTS and Gangnam Style), hallyu or Korean wave is bigger and better than ever.

Call it formulaic, but there is also something about these productions that just keeps the audience glued to the screen: maybe it’s the “kilig” factor, the water works, actors who look like they follow the 10-step beauty routine, the fashion, the laugh-out-loud sketches, the excellent cinematography, or characters making the most out of awkward situations. Most often it’s just all of these rolled into one. A combination of comedy, melodrama, and action sequences in one act rarely happens in western series, but this mix is a staple of k-drama. 

This video explains the start of hallyu, though it focuses mainly on the films that started the Korean wave. I believe that to appreciate hallyu‘s power, you need to be more familiar with the TV series that made it across Asia and other parts of the world, starting in the early 2000s.

Working from home, having space to oneself, and decent Internet connection are just some of the privileges that brought into focus the luck that I have been enjoying since moving to Australia. Amidst news of tens/hundreds of thousands of people being infected by the coronavirus, Perth, Western Australia, is undeniably one of the safest places on the planet. And while I do worry about family and friends who have every chance of catching the virus back in the Philippines, thanks to the Duterte government’s incompetence and callous disregard for human life, there is no other place I would rather be than Perth, my new home, whilst waiting for the crisis to end and things get to normal…if there is such a thing as normal when we emerge on the other side of this tragedy.

In the meantime, there are years’ worth of pan-Asian drama on top of the usual American and British fare on streaming services to escape to.