Move to Heaven: Trauma Cleaning and South Korea’s Social Issues

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Michael Amante
An English teacher currently based in Korea. A Filipino through and through but a Korean-at-heart.

The drama is based from the essay anthology by former trauma cleaner, Sae-byul Kim, titled Things Left Behind. By tackling a still under-explored facet of life in Korea, it urges within viewers a sense of compassion and it offers heart-warming sense of hope towards the end.

Move to Heaven will make the viewers feel an ache that could not be explained exactly – the kind that usually lingers even after one has finished watching the whole series.

Leaning the stories of the deceased, whom Geu-ru and his father were so dedicated in helping, will surely keep the viewer’s waterpipes flowing.

Move to Heaven is considered as a contender to be one of the best Korean drama series of the year as it does not have the typical storyline that viewers are used to watching.

Death is inevitable and so the subject of death in a TV series is commonly presented in one too many storylines. However, there is this one aspect of death that viewers do not usually get to see on TV, an aspect rarely touched or discussed even in real life, and that is the question: Who takes charge in sorting out belongings or the homes of people when they eventually pass on?

Of course, in many cultures like the Philippines, it is normal to assume that the person who takes charge of sorting out the belongings are the family members of the deceased. But what if the deceased is one of the many who suffered from solitary death (also termed as ‘godoksa’ in Korean or ‘kodokushi’ in Japanese)? Solitary death in Korea is still considered as an ambiguous concept, with the body of usually found after a considerable amount of time has passed. Many of these solitary deaths happen in ‘gosiwons’ (building with a lot of small one-rooms for lease) or ‘officetels’ (single room apartment) making it difficult to determine the death of these people – until such time that their room would emit a foul stench indicating their passing.

With the high number of solitary deaths happening in Korea, trauma cleaning is becoming an increasingly popular service that is sought after in – with unattended deaths reaching up to ‘approximately about 700 daily.’

The characters of Geu-ru and his father Jeong-u will help viewers understand the difficulties that trauma cleaners have to undergo when they are tasked of cleaning up the scene left behind after a corpse has been taken in for burial.

Since many of the bodies are usually discovered days after death, trauma cleaners have to deal with disinfecting the scene where thousands of maggots and flies have already taken refuge on the body fluids discharged by the decaying corpse.

In the drama, the father and son tandem approach the room they have to clean with utmost care and respect because Jeong-u believes that ‘the dead can still tell their stories through the things they leave behind.’ The father and son pair would use the items they sift through to build a picture of who their clients are – and sometimes solve issues surrounding their deaths or that might affect those they’ve left behind.

The drama depicts the harsh conditions that many people in Korea have to face especially in terms of finances, social status, sexual preferences, and so on. The writer and director did not mince words in tackling issues that haunt the marginalized people of a country belonging to one of the richest in Asia. Geuru, although having autism, performed his duty as a trauma cleaner with utmost perfection that he was able to solve many of the mysteries that envelope the deaths of their client. Using the main character’s autism spectrum to deliver the narrative of this drama added to the total unique and fresh way of story-telling, it has a very raw approach in understanding the underlying social issues that is being presented, and viewers will feel more empathic to the people who passed away.

It is true that although the dead tell no tales, the trauma cleaners are the ones who talk about the untold stories of the deceased especially during the last moments of their earthly life.

Watching the drama will make viewers realize how fleeting life is for many of us, the life that many people take for granted. That no matter how rich society is, there will always be people who disappear into the background – their stories untold, their names forgotten. And this is becoming a very common in South Korea because there are many people who ends up living alone because of many factors.

Move to Heaven is not your conventional kind of storyline for a drama series as it tackles different social ills that many people in South Korea have to endure especially those who are considered to belong in the marginalized sector.

This drama is a beautiful narrative reflecting the contemporary Korean society – with the norms they have to keep that eventually suffocates them.

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