Move to Heaven is an exploration of life, death and life thereafter
When my great-grandmother passed away, her daughter—my maternal grandma—took the lead in cleaning up her house. They lived on the same lot in San Juan, their respective sides demarcated down the middle by white metal railings that have been there as long as I remember.
My memories of my great-grandma’s death feel like far-off scintillations at best. I remember flashes if I think hard enough; otherwise, it’s a time I remember by the perseverance of word of mouth. The stories that have stood the test of time are the funny ones. My favorite is the one where my grandma, throughout the cleaning process, found folded-up P1,000 bills hidden in the lining of all her mother’s curtains. My great-grandma didn’t seem to trust banks, and developed a bad habit of hiding her money in cash as a result.
We laugh when we tell those stories. But even through my hazy memory, I know it was a time punctuated with harrowing grief.
What happens to the dead’s belonging after they pass away? In the Philippines, the answer is usually quite simple: their family cleans up their belongings and stores them away. Some sell what remains, some donate them to charity. But there’s almost always someone to clean up after the deceased.
But what happens when someone dies alone?
This is one of the mysteries surrounding love, death and grieving that Netflix’s Move to Heaven tries to unravel. The series follows Han Geu-ru, a 20-year-old boy diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, who runs a trauma cleaning service called Move to Heaven with his father.
(Warning: slight spoiling starts here)
In the first episode, Geu-ru and his father Jeong-u are assigned a job. A young factory worker dies alone after a machine-inflicted injury, and they’re called in to pack up his belongings.
Not all Move to Heaven's assignments involve someone passing away alone. But when they do, there's the question of whom their most important belongings—always stored in a designated yellow box—can be handed off to. If the deceased have family left behind, a different concern clouds over them altogether: how to trudge on with one less loved one.
It’s a question that Geu-ru is faced with too soon. The end of Move to Heaven’s first episode delivers the series first wallop when Jeong-u, Geu-ru’s father, collapses in the middle of a pedestrian and ultimately passes away due to cardiac arrest.
Left to pick up the pieces, Geu-ru suddenly finds himself in the care of his father’s estranged brother, Sang-gu. Extremely intelligent yet befuddled by emotion, Geu-ru couldn’t be any more different from his newfound thug of an uncle. Geu-ru requires organization, while the world may as well be Sang-gu’s trash can. Geu-ru memorizes textbooks and encyclopedias page per page, while Sang-gu is all about street smarts. But for three months, they live together and work together as employees of Move to Heaven.
You don’t hear of trauma cleaners often, at least not in the Philippines. In a country that places unparalleled importance on family ties, most cases resemble my great-grandmother’s, where the bereaved personally tidy up the deceased’s belongings.
In other countries, however, trauma cleaning is a full-on career. Some cases stop at sorting and boxing. Others involve cleaning up crime scenes. In 2017, The Guardian published a piece on trauma workers. Sarah Krasnostein, the author of a book entitled The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster, describes the smell of death and distinguishes the difference between dry and wet squalor. Even when discussing the lives of the women whose homes and crime scenes they’re cleaning up, the article sounds…so scientific. Detached.
It’s understandable. It zeroes in on real-life trauma cleaners. They’re professionals. Their responsibilities don’t stop at the sentimental. Blood, grime, waste and gore is their everyday.
Move to Heaven offers a softened, perhaps even glorified, perspective. But despite the rose-colored filter that tints the scenery (it’s a K-drama at the end of the day), there’s plenty to learn from the series along the way.
Nobody likes thinking about death. We never truly know how close it’s looming until it finally takes. We talk about it, harrumph and cry out about wanting to die at the end of a stressful week, but cower when the thought of loss flutters too near. But Move to Heaven argues that not all is lost. Death isn’t the end, but a midpoint. Like the white railings that separated my grandmother’s home from her mother’s, it’s the unmovable line that divides life we must live before death and the life we’re brave enough to build in the tailwinds of loss.
Netflix’s 10-episode series charts a colorful library of diverse stories. The tooth-rotting, toe-curling romance that many of us have come to associate with Korean drama is nowhere to be found—and that might very well be one of the best things about it. In the absence of fluff, we can fully sink into Tang Joon-sang’s stellar portrayal of Geu-ru. To feel for Sang-gu as he makes sense of his past. To learn that the most important realizations often come too late. And that even then, we’ll be okay.
To call Move to Heaven a tearjerking family drama wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface. It puts life in the center of a story about death, settling itself in the depth and timelessness of human affection. It’s a shockingly simple reminder that we leave our fingerprints on everything and everyone we touch. That a receipt, a uniform, a concert ticket can be tenderness distilled. It paints a picture of love in warm, brilliant color.
Steam Move to Heaven on Netflix.
Art Alexandra Lara