Hong Sisters are the first screenwriters i learned in k-dramaverse. They’ve penned a string of hit dramas, and while i enjoyed some more than the others, none of them actually made it to my all-time or personal favorites. In fact, Hotel Del Luna is the first drama of theirs i finished since Master’s Sun in 2013, which may say something about its quality… or not.
Due to my hit-and-miss record with this duo, i didn’t get my hopes too high up for their latest project, even if i like the leads individually, because the cast is no longer able to make stay even if it still plays a big role in making me come. And granted, the first week was so-so. I think i might’ve found it boring if not for its mesmerizing universe and stylish directing, not to mention interesting premise.
Spirits and afterlife have been explored numerous times in dramaland, but Hotel Del Luna manages to locate a novel spot between the living and the next world and offer a rest area for the newly deceased to simply rest or fulfill any unfinished business before moving on to the afterlife. The hotel premise is filmed with such saturated colors, which lend to the surreal atmosphere — similar to Hwayugi‘s — and given the nature of the plot, is filled with ghosts, deities, and evil spirits — which in turn feel like a mash-up of Goblin and Master’s Sun, only with less engaging stories of the day.
I thought it would be a slow burn, but before long, i realized there might never be an interesting enough case. In quasi-episodic series like this, the side stories are usually there to bring the characters closer or push the main plot forward, but here, they barely bring anything to the table and end up nothing but fillers. There are probably only a couple of ’em that made me care: the old man and his dog and the lifeline one.
The dynamics between the characters don’t change much throughout the series, when you think the 1300 years Jang Man-wol (IU) has spent on earth running the business should’ve taught her a thing or two about treating her staff more nicely. It’s understandable that she doesn’t want to build a close relationship with human managers who will only work there for several years to a few decades. They’re just passing by. Her ghost hoteliers are a different story, though. The longest of whom, scholar-turned-bartender Kim (Shin Jung-geun), has been through thick and thin with her for half a millennium! (Nobleman’s-wife-turned-housekeeper Choi (Bae Hae-sun) has served fellow ghosts for two centuries while the newest recruit receptionist Ji Hyun-joong (Pyo Ji-hoon aka P.O) has endured her wrath for 70 years.) Yet she is as cold and distant to the latter if not more than to the former.
She remains bossy to the trio and never ceases to bicker with the only living employee over the financial problems her lavish lifestyle costs the hotel, especially with the 99th manager, Goo Chan-sung (Yeo Jin-goo), the sternest hire who dares to speak up against her and pull the plug on her impulse purchases. His place in the hotel seems to be due to the deal Man-wol struck with his father, when he’s actually sent there by deity Mago (Seo Yi-sook)… to be the one who escorts her to the bridge over the Sanzu River.
His role is divulged early in the game, so everyone knows what awaits at the end of the road. The mood sombers whenever the topic is brought up, but there’s no stakes or sense of urgency about it, because there’s no time limit as to how long a soul can stay at the hotel, be it as guests or staff. They’ll depart when they’re ready. For Hyun-joong, it is until his little sister crosses over to the dimension he’s in; for Housekeeper Choi, it is until her ex-husband’s family line dies out; for Bartender Kim, it is until his name is cleared; and for Man-wol, it is until she’s reunited with a certain someone from her Goryeo life.
The present timeline is glitzy and smooth sailing, but the tumultuous past timeline intrigues me a lot more. It provides the backstory behind Man-wol’s millennium-long term at Guest House of the Moon, and despite dished in fragments, the past story feels richer and more lived in than the present which is dull and empty at times. She was curt and cynical then yet looked way livelier and more alive than her present-day’s officious and mercurial character. In fact, her current self feels like a regression of her bandit self; she had become so vindictive and jaded by the time she met Mago, it’s hard to think she could transform into an extravagant and mercenary person even after a thousand years.
[ending spoilers ahead] And even if her scenes with Go Chung-myung (Lee Do-hyun) were choppy and jumpy, i was feeling the bonding, the attraction, and more importantly chemistry between them — the things i didn’t get from Man-wol/Chan-sung. It’s pretty clear in the beginning, but as more of the past events were revealed, i was wondering if it could actually be Yeon-woo (Lee Tae-sun) Man-wol has been waiting for. He faced his end bravely and with smiles, but she must have felt awful for witnessing that and letting that happen. But of course it’s Chung-myung, even if for an entirely different reason. A perplexing one, i must say. Her lingering desire is to take him down… when she already did that back then? And she still holds a grudge against him when he already betrayed his real feelings and moved through her sword to atone for his betrayal and to hug her one last time? Man, i thought Yeon-woo’s death was tragic, but the loveline between these two was even more tragic.
Even then, how bittersweet it is that the man she’s been expecting for 1300 years turns out having been by her side all this time, in a form of a faint, blinking light at that? And after all of the love, resentment, guilt, and misunderstanding that span over a millennium, having them cross the bridge into the afterlife together could’ve been the poignant closure for these two…
But she stays back… until a different Mago (there are 12 of them in total! though we’ve only seen half of them in flesh) decides to close down Hotel Del Luna and prepares a new concoction for the next owner. So in the end, it’s all up to her, huh? I wonder why she let Man-wol in charge for that long. Or why Hong Sisters put off dealing with the staff’s backstories until the last episode when they could’ve been spread out throughout the series. Their cases are among the most interesting ones in the show, too. I first thought it’s because they needed to depart soon after fulfilling their missions, but since there’s a loophole for that, theirs could’ve been resolved sooner and they could’ve decided to stay back to serve Man-wol till the end…
…if she is indeed going. Because there’s another loophole that allows her to stay on. Which i thought could be the deus ex machina solution to the couple’s happy ending. But in an unexpected turn of events, both choose not to be together in this lifetime. The drama still ends on a happy note, though, as we’re shown glimpses of the distant future where all of them are reincarnated and get to love without baggage. But not gonna lie, my heart was bleeding for Chung-myung. Yeon-woo gets his happy ending in this lifetime (with someone who killed him in the past notwithstanding), Man-wol/Chan-sung get theirs in the next lifetime, but what about him?? The revelation as to why Chan-sung is the chosen one to send Man-wol off does make sense, though i can’t wrap my head around their romantic link. *shrug*
Well, this happens with other romances i’ve watched in the past few years, too: me not feeling or seeing why the leads need to be a couple, when they could stay as good friends, other than because the script says so. It’s not IU or Yeo Jin-goo’s fault, because they did a decent job personifying their characters. I enjoyed the guest stars’ cameos, especially Kim Soo-hyun’s at the very end (i’m still waiting for his post-army project, by the way). I also remained fascinated by the directing and styling till the end. But again, it’s the writing that falters, that made me fast-forward through the boring scenes or filler cases.
It has some thrills and mild suspense, but overall it is quite flat. And despite the supernatural theme, it is definitely not a horror drama. In the end, like how Man-wol deems the human managers are just passing by, i think Hotel Del Luna is merely passing by my watched-dramas list as well. It didn’t leave much of an impression so i won’t dwell too much on it. I kinda want my two full moons back, though.
Director: Oh Choong-hwan
Screenwriter: Hong Sisters
Production: tvN, 2019
Cast: IU, Yeo Jin-goo, Bae Hae-sun, Shin Jung-geun, Pyo Ji-hoon, Kang Mina, Seo Yi-sook, Kang Hong-suk, Lee Do-hyun, Lee Tae-sun, Park Yoo-na
Genre: Supernatural, Fantasy, Romantic Comedy, K-drama (16 Episodes)