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Jo Byung-gyu in a still from The Uncanny Counter.

From Sweet Home to The Uncanny Counter, K-dramas use monsters and demons to bring our feelings to life on screen

  • Korean fantasy, horror and sci-fi dramas often reflect our repressed fears and desires. They are rooted in emotional concerns rather than lofty ideas
  • This entertainment subgenre, which owes something to filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and to zombie film Train to Busan, is still in its infancy
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When it comes to high-concept genres like fantasy, horror and science fiction, viewers experience new sensations, visit new worlds and get lost in someone’s else imagination – all the better if it’s dazzlingly realised. But in truth, that’s only half the battle. The images act as mirrors, reflecting not just our society, but also parts of ourselves we may not always be comfortable with.

Recent Korean shows such as Sweet Home, The Uncanny Counter and The School Nurse Files have mined genre tropes popularised overseas and given them an emotional twist. The monsters, demons and “jellies” in these stories are expressions of the frustrations, fears and repressed desires of the characters that appear on screen.

They thrill us, but perhaps more importantly, they also challenge us intellectually.

In Korean entertainment, the watershed moment for high-concept genre (though it was preceded by several examples) was Bong Joon-ho’s creature feature The Host, an unlikely smorgasbord of horror, comedy, drama and political satire wrapped up in the guise of a B-movie. It became the most successful Korean film, a title it held for eight years.
Go Ah-sung in a still from The Host (2006).

Fast-forward a decade and the torch was passed to Yeon Sang-ho, who took a chance on a genre considered to be cheap, tacky and generally anathema to Korean audiences: zombie films. Train to Busan was the most successful Korean film of 2016 and the first to make significant inroads in multiplexes around the world.

Yeon’s film had a catchy concept – zombies on a train – as well as all the trimmings of a polished Korean blockbuster: an attractive cast, strong production values, and an appealing mix of humour, tension and pathos. But what set it apart was its social commentary. The film acted as a takedown of government responses to national emergencies, just two years after  the sinking of the Sewol Ferry in South Korea in which 250 schoolchildren drowned.

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Train to Busan’s success opened the doors to a new kind of storytelling in Korea. Studios and networks understood that Korean audiences were keen for different kinds of thrills, often with fantasy and horror components. What’s more, with world-class visual effects finally available domestically and the rising global interest in Korean content, it was possible to bring more ambitious stories to the screen.

By the time Netflix embarked on its first Korean original series, the genre was in full swing. The first property the streaming giant greenlit was a period zombie horror-thriller: Kingdom.

Kingdom also included allegorical tangents about politics and society, but, as with all trends in Korea, this one was evolving quickly and a new subgenre emerged in its wake – one that is emblematic of a stark evolution in the styles and concerns of writers of Korean popular fiction.

A still from Sweet Home. Photo: Netflix

In the Western canon of sci-fi, the raison d’être for these stories, beyond aesthetics, has been lofty ideas touching on politics, sociology and even theology and metaphysics. In South Korea, some of these ideas, which tend to sprout from individualistic mindsets, have found less favour. For Korean creators, the drive of any story, whether family drama or action thriller, is invariably rooted in emotional concerns.

Thus shows like Sweet Home, The Uncanny Counter and The School Nurse Files feel like a natural and essentially Korean variant of the high-concept genre content that viewers have come to embrace in the past few years.

The protagonists, stuck in a high-rise, must face off against monsters in Sweet Home, but they know that at any moment they could turn into monsters themselves. One of the side characters in the show, who does turn into a monster, becomes a gigantic but harmless embryo, symbolic of the trauma she experienced as a mother losing her child.

Jung Yu‑mi in a still from The School Nurse Files. Photo: Netflix

In The School Nurse Files, the titular nurse guards a school from “jellies”, which are expressions of the students’ emotions. Most are innocuous, but if left unchecked, they can grow into something far more dangerous. Beyond emotions such as love, fear and loneliness, the show also delves into the destructive powers of peer pressure and bigotry.

The Uncanny Counter features a group of noodle house restaurateurs who battle demons that prey on weak souls and compel them to kill. Not just anyone is in danger of being possessed by these demons; only people with a predisposition to violence (falling anywhere on a spectrum from sociopathy to domestic neglect) can be targeted.

Tellingly, all three shows originated from either books or webtoons, and plenty more stories exist out there, waiting to be adapted. Among these are Yumi’s Cells, an Inside Out-like story of the cells inside the brain of a young woman, which will hit screens this year.