OCN’s 2019 series Strangers from Hell (타인은 지옥이다 / Hell is Other People) is a psychological thriller to end all psychological thrillers. Ten fast-paced episodes explore the often-tumultuous depths of people’s minds and often-frightening depths of today’s society. It serves as a reminder about not ignoring those reaching out for help and how there may always be something lurking beneath an innocuous surface.
Strangers from Hell tells the story of Jong Woo (Im Siwan), an aspiring young writer who moves to Seoul for an internship. Low on money, he ends up staying at Eden Gosiwon, a dirt-cheap dormitory-type accommodation. Despite the ominous tenement-like building and his odd neighbors, Jong Woo has no choice but to rough it out until he can save enough to move to a better place.
But very quickly, Jong Woo comes to learn there’s something far more sinister at hand in the gosiwon. An already unsettling situation from the start quite rapidly deteriorates. And it is thanks in no small part to his next-door neighbor, the mysterious dentist Seo Moon Jo (Lee Dong Wook).
The series progresses as Jong Woo begins to unravel, burdened with memories of the past and the sometimes-hazy realities of his present situation. He reveals himself to be a fuse that he desperately tries to control. But the gosiwon and its inhabitants do their best to try and light that fuse. And all for sinister, horrifying reasons.
Strangers from Hell is an apt title. As Jong Woo battles inner demons, he is living in a literal hell on Earth. And that becomes increasingly evident with every day he remains at Eden Gosiwon.
Are monsters born or made? It’s a question that has been posed in other series over the years. But none of them have done so in such a visceral and unflinching way as Strangers from Hell. Psychological manipulation is a big part of Jung Woo’s unraveling, but also of the people around him.
And the psychological manipulation does not just come from any one person or thing. It comes from people, their physical surroundings and the greater society.
That leads into a discussion about mental health. There are unfortunately too many people who are unable to get the help they need. And far too often, those who are calling out for help are rebuffed, ignored and forgotten until it’s far too late.
It is illustrated in stunning fashion in this series.
That is also thanks to the series’ incredible ensemble cast. Quite notably Lee Jung Eun as landlady Bok Soon, Lee Hyun Wook, Park Jong Hwan, Lee Joong Ok, Hyun Bong Sik, Noh Jong Hyun as neighbors, Cha Rae Hyoung as Jung Woo’s university senior and now-boss, Kim Ji Eun as Jung Woo’s girlfriend and Ahn Eun Jin as police officer So Jung Hwa.
But front and center are the performances from Im Siwan and Lee Dong Wook.
Lee Dong Wook delivers a horrifyingly chilling performance as Moon Jo. Simultaneously being threatening and charming, comforting and sinister, Lee Dong Wook does a masterful job in a role unlike any he’s done before.
In a similar way for Im Siwan, he delivers an absolutely riveting and stunning performance as Jung Woo. Witnessing the rapid decline and descent towards a very bad place is fascinating to watch. And as Jung Woo unravels, Im Siwan hits every single mark.
The chemistry between all the cast members also works in the series’ favor. And none more than Im Siwan and Lee Dong Wook’s chemistry that is a mix of sexual tension and predator/prey.
Strangers from Hell uses atmosphere to great effect. There is a foreboding feeling of ominous dread at every turn. And that feeling extends the paranoia from inside the screen out to the viewer. It is a very interesting experience to be engulfed into the eerie world of Eden Gosiwon so vividly like this. The series keeps you on your toes with one sharp turn after the other.
And those are all major accomplishments for everyone involved.
Are monsters born or made? Perhaps a possible answer is that monsters and evil come in all shapes and sizes. Backgrounds and personalities. At several points in the series, Jong Woo is told essentially that looks can be deceiving. Indeed, that’s the challenge everyone faces every day in discerning what’s real and what isn’t. What’s true and what’s not.
That challenge on its own is difficult enough. When there are active forces trying to manipulate and take advantage of you, it can lead to dangerous places.
With an excellent cast, deliberate direction choices and a thoroughly engaging story, Strangers from Hell shocks, awes and delivers a television experience unlike any other.