Netflix: Move to Heaven (2021)

You needn’t die happy when your time comes, but you must die satisfied, for you have lived your life from the beginning to the end. – Stephen King

For many of the characters in Move to Heaven, Stephen King’s sage quote is but a myth. A young man, his whole life ahead of him, died because of his laudable work ethics; a young doctor died saving a patient from a knife-wielding man. Yet, there are others who have lived their lives to the fullest and choose to leave the mortal world on their own terms. But for all of them, they have an unfulfilled wish or simply a need for someone to know their story, and it is up to the trauma cleaners that hailed from a company called Move to Heaven to help them answer that clarion call of duty.

Move to Heaven is about a father and son duo, who are trauma cleaners. After a body is discovered and the police have done their initial investigations, Jeung-u (Ji Jin-hee) and his son Geu-ru (Tang Joon-sang) who has Asperger Syndrome, come in to clean up the ghastly mess. While cleaning and looking through the deceased’s belongings, they will uncover the untold stories of the person. Before long, due to Jeung-u’s untimely passing, Sang-gu (Lee Je-hoon), Jeung-u’s half-brother, fresh out of prison, is tasked to be his son’s guardian.

Move to Heaven employs the same narrative trick used in Hotel del Luna (2019), Master’s Sun (2013) and Mystic Pop-up Bar (2020), in that it weaves many humanistic stories around a narrative spine. But it departs from usual Kdramas with only 10 episodes, each with a runtime of about 50 minutes. In this aspect it seems to follow their American counterparts. So the first thing you will notice is that the episodes are not bloated with nary a wasted scene. It even dispensed with a theme song which is almost a mainstay of many Kdramas. In fact, music doesn’t underscore the emotional scenes like thick felt-pens, which is such a refreshing change. Finally, something that doesn’t let music compete for my attention, allowing the swirling emotions of a moment in the characters’ life to be captured with a brilliant immediacy and intensity.

The spine of the series is strong with a gentle and powerful depiction of a relationship between a father and son, full of subtle fluctuations and evolving graduations between the two characters in terms of respect and trust. Interestingly, the father and son relationship bookends the series. The father may have passed on but he lives on in his son. Nothing could distract from the indomitable and moving connection forged between these two people. Through finding happiness with each other against seemingly insurmountable odds, they are wise enough to know how lucky they are.

The narrative spine also focuses on the odd couple relationship between Geu-ru and his wayward uncle, Sang-gu. When asked whether his uncle is a good person, Geu-ru stares into space and replies: “he is a good person, but in a perplexing way.” Their individual backstory is gradually laid out in splendour and I could already see the emphatic ending of this spine, but it doesn’t make it any less surprising and moving.

The hypnotic and humanistic series is filled with interesting and eccentric characters that lift off the screen. Depicting a person suffering from a mental illness can easily go down the cloying path of maudlin, but Geu-ru is drawn convincingly and poignantly without going down those well-trodden paths. It is fascinating to see him at work. To most of us, a plane ticket, a concert ticket stub, a bank withdrawal slip probably mean nothing, but in Geu-ru’s eyes they tell a story of the deceased. To watch him put all these seemingly useless items in a yellow box to be given to a special person is a spiritual exercise and to see the things give wings to the recipient is something to behold.

Where the series shines is with its handling of the stories of the deceased. There are many highlights and one of the strongest stories concerns a love story between two men. Stories of this sort can go a few ways – the family coming down strong on a relationship they deemed wrong; society committing xenophobic acts on them. But the storyteller doesn’t go down the usual route, instead it emphasises the love story between them. I came away from this particular story with new lenses.

I didn’t notice it at first but once I was done with the series (only took me two days) and all the tears have been wiped away (every rivulet of tear was earned), it suddenly dawned on me that all the stories are subtle critiques of a society suffering from a deep malaise. It might have been a Korean society that was depicted, but it could easily have been any country. Tell me your part of the world doesn’t have people who shun the weak, the frail, the newbie at work, the LBGT and the sick. The series doesn’t give pat answers and offer higher-than-thou slogans; it gently rebukes and allows us to empathise with the sufferers, and it does it through beautifully told stories. It manages to transcend the entertainment level to a whole different level of thought-provoking-ness. How many series out there can do this?

The theme of legacy permeates all 10 episodes like a lingering perfume wrapping around a body. Without a shadow of a doubt, it will make you think about the legacy you are leaving this world. The emotions it manages to accrue as it weaves its way toward its elegiac denouement is an admirable feat. It’s part drama, part procedural and all heart.

Turn down the lights, bring out the tissues and open your heart to receive. The room to be cleaned may be covered with maggots and congealed blood, but I am sure you find this a breath of fresh air. This is the first must-see Korean drama this year.

4 / 5

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