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.

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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”.