Cleaning up after the dead

Actors Lee Je-hoon and Tang Jun-sang bond over their roles as trauma cleaners in the series, Move To Heaven

Tang Jun-sang (far left) and Lee Je-hoon (left) play estranged relatives who grow closer over the course of their work as trauma cleaners, tidying up what the dead left behind.
Tang Jun-sang (left) and Lee Je-hoon (right) play estranged relatives who grow closer over the course of their work as trauma cleaners, tidying up what the dead left behind.PHOTO: NETFLIX

South Korean actor Lee Je-hoon has been in many critically acclaimed works, from crime series Signal (2016) to the recent revenge thriller Taxi Driver, but his latest Netflix original Move To Heaven seems to be his favourite.

At a press conference promoting the series, which premiered on Netflix last Friday, he said: "Move To Heaven is really something else. The more I get into the story, the more I can't help but tear up thinking about it. I just feel such a whirlwind of emotions for it.

"Of all the stories I've been a part of creating, I hope people will watch this first."

The series, which stars Lee, Tang Jun-sang (Crash Landing On You, 2019) and Hong Seung-hee (Navillera, 2021), tells the story of trauma cleaners, people who tidy the belongings of the dead, including murder or suicide victims, as well as clean up the crime scenes.

It is based on a non-fiction essay called Things Left Behind by former trauma cleaner Kim Sae-byul. The series will explore social issues such as lonely deaths, poverty and domestic violence.

Tang, 17 - whose father is a Malaysian Chinese - plays a man with Asperger syndrome who works as a trauma cleaner. When his dad, who works with him, dies unexpectedly, his estranged uncle - an ex-convict played by Lee - becomes his guardian and joins the company.

Hong plays the duo's cheery neighbour.

Tang says: "I prepared for the role by watching Good Doctor (a 2013 K-drama about an autistic doctor). I read the original essay to delve deeper into what trauma cleaners do."

Director Kim Sung-ho is full of praise for Tang, whose role often requires him to recite chunks of information, including long lines about marine creatures - an obsession his character has.

Kim says: "He's a genius. There are a lot of one-take, five-minute scenes of him speaking. He pulled through them with no bloopers."

In a Zoom interview with the regional media, Lee says: "Jun-sang has to do a lot of detailed and difficult acting. I think if I had to do it, I won't pull it off as well as he did."

He adds that the dynamic between their characters is a highlight of the series.

Lee, 36, says: "At first, Sang-gu (Lee) wants to become Geu-ru's (Tang) guardian purely for money.

"But over the course of their working together, he starts to be in awe of Geu-ru. How can someone be without prejudice or hatred? That changes his pessimistic outlook on life."

Despite their almost 20-year age gap, Tang says he felt little pressure working with Lee, who treated him like a friend rather than a junior.

Tang says: "I didn't feel the huge age gap, maybe because we went out for meals even before filming.

"I also really look up to him. He's into boxing so he has a great body I aspire to have."

In the series, Lee plays a former illegal boxer and there are plenty of scenes of him fighting bare-bodied in the ring.

To build his physique and prepare for the fights, he trained for about three months. "It wasn't a lot of time, but I did learn the proper form and how to punch," he says.

He adds with a laugh that he injured his wrist in the process.

"I wanted to express how tough the fights are through my acting so I hurt my wrist, which is bad because, as an actor, you should take care of your body.

"But I wanted to show my character's passion and toughness and I'm still alive, so it's all good."

•Move To Heaven is available on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2021, with the headline 'Cleaning up after the dead'. Subscribe