THE SHORT VERDICT:
Show is easy on the eyes, with high production values that bring a creatively conceptualized fantasy world to life, a fabulously rich wardrobe for female lead IU, and several handsome leading men to top it all off.
IU delivers a strong performance, and her character’s personal journey fittingly forms the backbone of this story. On the downside, I did not enjoy the OTP connection between her and Yeo Jin Goo, and I also felt the writing weaknesses quite keenly. ‘Twas still worth the while, though, for various endearing characters whom I became quite fond of.
A pleasant enough watch, if you’re able to look past Show’s shortcomings.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Although I hadn’t loved a Hong sisters drama for quite a long time (I’d been underwhelmed by Master’s Sun, dropped out of Warm and Cozy very early, and studiously avoided Hwayugi), I was persuaded to give Hotel Del Luna a try, thanks to Show’s good reputation, IU’s reportedly amazing wardrobe, and the hopeful urging of those of you who took the time to write, asking me to check this one out.
The good news is, I didn’t hate it. The fact that I finished this one, even though I hadn’t lasted more than a single episode through Warm and Cozy, means that this is a step up, at least, from my last attempt to enjoy a drama by the Hong sisters.
The bad news is, I didn’t love it, either. If I had to sum up my issues with this show, I’d say that my problem with this show is that it’s better in concept than execution. I’ll talk (quite a lot) more about that in the review, but first, let me state for the record that Show has lots of fans, so just because I didn’t love it, doesn’t mean that you won’t, either.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
THE BEST POTENTIAL VIEWING LENS
Here’s what I think would be the best lens to wear, in order to have the best possible chance of enjoying this show.
1. Think of this as more Man Wol’s (IU) story, than a love story. There’s an OTP loveline in here, but because (to my eyes, anyway) the execution of the love story isn’t very satisfying (more on that later), I think it would be helpful, and more gratifying overall, to prioritize Man Wol’s journey, during your watch.
2. Let go of your need for thorough and complete logic. Think more pretty form than solid substance, coz this isn’t the kind of writing that can withstand detailed inspection, and under too strong of an analytical lens, is more than likely to crumble.
If you’re ok to roll with these two points in adjusting your viewing lens, you’d have a decent chance of enjoying this show, I think. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t quite able to completely put away my critical lens with this one, so I found this experience a little underwhelming, overall. There were some bright spots though, which I’ll talk about next.
If you loved this drama, and took the trouble to suggest it to me, I’m sorry I didn’t love it as much you did. I did want to like it, and I did try to like it. But.. I guess sometimes things just don’t turn out the way we hope? 😛
A SLIGHTLY RANDOM TANGENT ON THE NAMING OF HOTEL DEL LUNA
I didn’t know where else to put this, but I just wanted to say, in response to viewers who remarked that Hotel Del Luna should’ve read Hotel de la Luna instead, that now that I’ve watched the show, I realize that this was likely a conscious choice by our writers. The hotel is named by Man Wol, who is vain, has a taste for expensive things and likes to feel elegant – but is not at all well educated. I can totally believe that Man Wol would have chosen a classy-sounding name for her hotel, without realizing that she was making a mistake. To that end, I actually applaud the writers, for this thoughtful detail.
STUFF I LIKED
There are quite a few things that I enjoyed about Show. I guess the problem is, they weren’t always the things that Show probably hoped that I liked most.
Show’s high production values
Immediately, it’s easy to see that Show is a higher budget production. Everything looks polished and the production values are high across the board, including the flashbacks. I felt especially impressed with the amount of time and money invested in making those flashbacks, because there are many of them, and each sometimes lasts only as long as about 2 seconds, but full-scale makeup, costuming and set preparation go into each one.
Additionally, IU’s wardrobe looks expensive most of the time, except for the flashbacks when Man Wol is shown wandering the countryside, and in the scenes during the Korean War. Other than that, her current day wardrobe, and even the hanboks that she wears in some of the flashbacks, look refined and luxurious.
There’s also a richness in color and texture that I associate with Man Wol’s current-day wardrobe; her intense, glossy red lips, and for example, in episode 3, her lustrous red leather coat to go with. It’s all a very opulent experience for the eyes, and I like it.
IU as Man Wol
Immediately, from episode 1, I felt that IU stole the show, not only with her stunning wardrobe and bodacious red lips, but with her delivery of Man Wol as an impossibly jaded soul, who still shows lashings of vulnerability, and touches of playfulness and humor. As far as IU’s delivery of Man Wol goes, I thought it was all-around very solid, and I’m more convinced than ever, that IU is a skilled actress with a very good range.
The thing though, is, when it comes to a character as a whole stealing a show, I realize that it’s not only to do with the delivery of said character, it also has to do with believable development written for the character, and I dunno, I didn’t quite feel convinced of Man Wol’s evolution over the course of our story.
[SPOILER] For example, when we meet her, she has no desire to cross over to the afterlife, but in episode 5, she has a sudden change of heart, and tells Chan Seong (Yeo Jin Goo) that she will be his last customer, and that he shouldn’t feel sad when he sends her off. That felt a little out of the blue, to my eyes, considering she’d never seemed eager to move on, despite feeling completely jaded with her existence. [END SPOILER]
I think another aspect of this, for me, is that Man Wol’s development as a character has a lot to do with her love relationship with Chan Seong, which grows over time. As you’ll see later in this review, I was far from convinced of this romantic relationship, and unfortunately, I think this bled into my ability to fully believe and embrace Man Wol’s evolution as well.
Lee Do Hyun as Chung Myung
I loved Lee Do Hyun as royal guard Chung Myung. We don’t actually see a lot of him in terms of total screen time, but I have to say, I perked up a great deal, each time he graced my screen.
As Chung Myung, Lee Do Hyun is melty, gentle and warm at the same time, which is just the sort of thing to make my knees wobble.
[SPOILER] For example, the way Chung Myung goes after Man Wol in episode 7, when he sees her shadow leaving, even though the princess (Park Yoo Na) has just arrived to see him, and the way he teases Man Wol so gently, while alluding to how much he misses her, is just very swoony. [END SPOILER]
Additionally, Lee Do Hyun showcases some impressive emoting (which I’ll touch on in the next section) in some of the more difficult scenes, which seriously lifts my impression of his acting abilities.
Chung Myung and Man Wol together
The single biggest hook for me during my watch of this show, was the backstory concerning Man Wol and Chung Myung. The actual backstory is revealed to us in fragments, but I felt completely sucked in and engaged by it anyway.
A large part of this arc’s appeal, for me, was the chemistry between IU and Lee Do Hyun, which I found strong, sparky, and natural. Whether they were exchanging blows or meaningful glances, there was a consistent electric quality to their interactions, which served to suck me in, all the more. This connection popped for me in a big way, and I loved watching them together.
Can’t lie; there were more than a few occasions when I wished that this had been the OTP relationship.
E8. Even though they don’t quite start a relationship, it’s clear that they care about each other a great deal. Chung Myung’s resilience in warmly teasing Man Wol, even when she gives him the cold shoulder, is seriously heartwarming, and I melt in the face of his enduring, unwavering warmth.
E8. How tragic, that they’d said their goodbyes, resigned to the fact that they couldn’t be together, and then Man Wol was then trapped, for yielding to the temptation of seeing Chung Myung, one last time. Because of that single decision, the princess closed in on Man Wol and her people, and Chung Myung was forced to say and do terrible things, just to keep Man Wol alive.
I’m sure that Chung Myung entered that marriage chamber with the intention of ending his life; he was not in wedding red but in funeral white, and he stepped in while holding his sword at his side. And so, he likely either didn’t resist Man Wol’s attack, or died by his own hand, which would / should have opened Man Wol’s eyes to the truth, that he’d done it all to protect her. The magnitude of the guilt weighing on Man Wol must be so great, that because of her one single decision, she brought about the death of so many people, including the two men who meant the most to her. It’s no wonder that she can’t forgive herself. It’s no wonder that she can’t move on.
E12. I think the most poignant reveal this episode, is that the firefly is actually Chung Myung, who’s been hanging around the tree all these years. He chose to stay around Man Wol, and even turned back on his way to the afterlife, so that he could be around her. How bittersweet and sad, that he’s been watching over her all these years, and she didn’t know. And how sad for him, that he’s witnessed her becoming more and more jaded, over the years.
E13. Right now, the only thing that’s keeping me watching this show to the end, is my affection for Chung Myung, and the poignant arc of the firefly, keeping watch over Man Wol and keeping her company through the changing years and seasons, without her ever being aware of his presence. How affecting.
E14. Given this episode’s developments, it looks like Man Wol really misunderstood Chung Myung for the last 1000 years. I’d thought that she’d known his heart and his intentions and that his hand had been forced, by the way he’d made it such that he’d died by her sword, while holding her in his arms, and that she’d been angry anyway, because the life he’d saved her for, was worse than death. But this episode, with the reveal of what really happened, she was able to empty her heart of her grudges. How could she have not known, by the way that he’d died? And the way that he’d spoken to her, lovingly, before he died?
The moment when Chung Myung took his human form in response to Man Wol’s invitation, was so, so poignant. The look in his eyes, as he gazed upon her, is so full of emotion: love, longing, regret, wistfulness. And when she tells him that he can leave now, and he says the words that echo his dying words, “This is the end for us, isn’t it?” his expression is just so beautifully, tragically poignant; so much sadness and lingering love, expressed in his face and in the single tear that falls from his eyes. Oof.
The other moment that really gets me, is on the bridge to the afterlife, when he looks upon Man Wol for the last time, hand outstretched, hoping that she will take it. There’s so much wistfulness and tenderness in that moment; I just feel like he knows it’s almost futile to ask, but he can’t help but ask anyway; she means that much to him. Augh.
Lee Tae Sun as Yeon Woo / Young Soo
We don’t see very much of Lee Tae Sun on our screens as either Yeon Woo or Young Soo, but I quickly found him endearing, despite the short glimpses of him that Show served up. There’s a distinctly warm quality about him, and I especially found his smile very naturally disarming. There’s just a very friendly, genial, pleasant quality about both Yeon Woo and Young Soo that I enjoyed very much.
Of course, Yeon Woo’s arc, of being willing to literally die to Man Wol, makes him all the more appealing. When things fall apart in episode 8, Yeon Woo doesn’t hesitate for a second, to prioritize Man Wol’s life over his own; he essentially tells Chung Myung not to save him, so that Man Wol’s survival will be assured. So giving, so loving, and so self-sacrificing. Gulp.
I was really sad about Yeon Woo’s death, so when Lee Tae Sun popped up later in the show, as reincarnated Yeon Woo, now police officer Young Soo, I quickly grew fond of him too. Every time he flashed his warm smile, my heart melted a little.
Young Soo never becomes properly cognizant of his past life connection with Man Wol, but I really like the scene in episode 10, when he and Man Wol lock gazes; she with tears brimming in her eyes at the sight of her long-lost friend, alive and well again after so long, and he with a wonderment at the unexplained, unspoken connection that he feels with the stranger in red. So much is communicated in that one single gaze, and the connection between them feels alive, like something once left for dead, is now sparking again, and waking up. It’s beautiful.
After all that Yeon Woo went through in his previous life, I welcomed the idea of him having a happier personal story in this lifetime. However, I liked this better in concept than in execution, which I’ll talk more about later.
P.O as Hyun Joong
I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed P.O as Hyun Joong.
There’s something so joyful, earnest and warm about Hyun Joong, no matter what he’s doing. I love the fact that he’s fond of Chan Seong, even while the other hotel staff remain ambivalent in Show’s early episodes. It shows how easily he gives affection, which I like. Plus, he’s just got this adorable goof sort of quality about him that I found very appealing.
[SPOILER] I also found it utterly poignant, that his arc mainly revolved around waiting for his little sister’s time to be up in this world, so that they could go to the afterlife together. What a sweet and loving big brother he is. [END SPOILER]
I’m also quite blown away by P.O’s acting chops, considering that he’s an idol actor who hasn’t had a whole lot of acting experience. He always looked completely natural onscreen, and he made Hyun Joong really pop as a character, for me. On top of that, he handled Hyun Joong’s most difficult scenes really well (I’ll talk more about this in the section which puts the spotlight on the penultimate episode), and made it look effortless, to boot. I am duly impressed.
Hyun Joong’s little loveline with Yoo Na
Fairly early in its run, Show starts drawing our two youngest characters Hyun Joong and Yoo Na (Kang Mi Na) together, and I was happily surprised by how cute these two are, opposite each other.
P.O and Kang Mi Na share a youthful, warm, sparky sort of chemistry that I found very believable and endearing. From the time that they first become friends, to when things turn romantic, I consistently found them as cute as a pair of puppies, even if the moment in question defied logic (like the one above, which I’ll talk more about later, in the section on logic stretches).
It says a lot about the wholesome charm of this pair of little lovebirds, that I enjoyed their loveline more than that of the actual OTP (heh. You’re right; I did enjoy just about every loveline in this story world more than I did the actual OTP. I’ll.. talk more about that later.)
The hotel staff as a group
Over the course of my watch, I grew fond of the hotel staff as a group. From prim Manager Choi, to gruff Bartender Kim, to goofy Hyun Joong, they all brought something a little different to the table, and I liked that they were united in the way they found meaning and importance in helping their ghost guests fulfill the wishes they couldn’t in life.
Credit to Show, for bringing each of these characters to life by dedicating time to exploring each of their backstories, and making them pop as real people with real histories, rather than mere ghosts who happened to be staffing our magical hotel.
By Show’s final stretch, our staffers’ affection for one another – and for Man Wol and Chan Seong – is clearer than ever, and I very much liked watching them demonstrate care, concern and loyalty for one another, even as our story drew to a close.
Kang Hong Suk as the Grim Reaper
Grim Reaper remains on the periphery of our story all the way through, but gets a shout-out because I have an existing affection for Kang Hong Suk, and I feel that he gave our Grim Reaper a measure of warmth and a touch of comedy, even, which I appreciated. I would’ve loved to have seen more of the Grim Reaper, to be honest. Maybe Show could’ve fleshed out his backstory too, since we get to see almost everyone else’s backstories.
Cho Hyun Chul as Sanchez
Sanchez gets a shout-out purely because of Cho Hyun Chul’s personal affability and charm. I found Sanchez likable, even though I had problems with how Show utilized him more as a convenient prop with minimal feelings than as a proper character (more on that later). For now, I’ll just say that I thought Sanchez deserved more thoughtful characterization than what he got.
STUFF THAT WAS JUST OK
Overall, the writing in this show was just ok, for me.
On the upside, I thought the Hong sisters did a nice job creating our magical, ghostly drama world. I generally liked the concept of their ideas themselves, and mostly chafed more at the execution, where logic often took a beating (more on that later).
I also found the backstory that Man Wol shares with Chung Myung, Yeon Woo and the princess / Mi Ra (Park Yoo Na) completely absorbing; this arc always left me wanting more, and a good amount of credit definitely goes to the writing.
Still on the upside, there are some moments that I thought were written very nicely.
[SPOILER] For example, I really liked the way Man Wol articulates her feelings at the end of episode 6. Chan Seong comes to the hotel’s beach and sits her with, and remarks that the ocean is beautiful. Man Wol replies,”Yes, indeed. It makes me sad. I’m a little sad because the ocean looks more beautiful now… than it did earlier.” It’s a perfect callback to the flashback scene where Chung Myung tells her that things will look different to her because he’s with her, and yet, it’s vague enough to be opaque to Chan Seong. Very elegantly done, I felt. [END SPOILER]
On the downside, there were things that bugged me about the writing, and which took away from my enjoyment of the show as a whole.
Here’s an overview of what I thought were the main issues with the writing, in this show.
E4. I feel like the Hong sisters started writing this episode wondering how to throw Man Wol and Chan Seong into a kissing type of situation by the end, because we get Man Wol insisting to Chan Seong that he sleep next to her, all episode long, even though it makes no sense that she’d be able to tell if he’s dreaming about her for real, and then finally, while trying to keep Chan Seong quiet so as not to draw the attention of the guest in room 13, she seals his lips by kissing him. Egad. That is so kdrama, I just can’t.
E12. At this stage of the drama, all the side stories are about grief and fear of loss, to provoke / prepare Chan Seong with regards to Man Wol’s impending departure. I get that concept, but it’s not so great in execution. It’s so obvious that each of this stories was inserted with that purpose in mind, and it all feels shoehorned in, rather than organically grown.
People not behaving like people
E8. I found the writing rather clunky this episode, with the old lady who created the imaginary spirit behaving like no human being would. Not only is the detour obviously there just to give Man Wol the idea of making an imaginary spirit, the old lady’s behavior is just so unbelievable. I mean, you walk into your private study, find strangers in it, and very quickly, send your son and daughter-in-law out so that you can sit down and chit chat with the strangers, admitting that you created an imaginary character in order to make your life more exciting? Who does that?
E11. The honeymoon couple was a weird arc as well. They don’t seem at all flustered to be staying at a ghost hotel, and even if they didn’t know it was a ghost hotel, they didn’t seem at all flustered to step out of the hotel room, and into a completely different place. Who behaves like that?
E11. It seemed really weird to me that the men in suits just appeared inside Sanchez’s house grounds without first knocking, and Chan Seong would just go with them, no questions asked. Who behaves like that? The second time the men come, they’re shown just walking through the gate, no doorbell or knocking whatsoever. It’s just very weird.
E13. When Sanchez sees Man Wol for the first time since visiting the hotel, he’s so matter-of-fact about it all, even though he now knows that she’s a supernatural being with powers. He doesn’t seem at all fazed by it, even though this is all new to him. That’s really weird, and not at all how I would expect a normal human to behave.
Characters used as props
E10. I am so underwhelmed at the treatment of the arc around Chan Seong’s mother. It was introduced so abruptly and randomly, and it exited just as suddenly and abruptly. It doesn’t feel at all well thought through, and I would have expected a lot more consideration for a key character.
Chan Seong doesn’t get any closure with his mother, whom he didn’t even know died. He doesn’t get any answers for why she chose not to be with him, or whether she regretted her decision, or if she thought of him. All he gets is one “sorry” and then she leaves? What gives? That is so unsatisfying from a viewer’s point of view, and more than that, so unfair to Chan Seong as a character.
I would have expected his mother to have stayed at the hotel for a while, because she’d regretted not getting to know her son, and then we could have seen Chan Seong talking with his mother, and there could have been some mutual healing, before he finally sent her off to the other side. Why didn’t we get that? And, if the writers hadn’t been prepared to deal with this arc in a manner that respected Chan Seong as a character, then why introduce it at all? I do not understand, and I feel frustrated on Chan Seong’s behalf.
E11. The Hong sisters seem to keep randomly introducing characters, mostly to kill them off. We had that with Chan Seong’s mother, and this episode, we have Sanchez’s girlfriend. We never even knew he had a girlfriend until this episode where he’s suddenly having a video call with her and talking about proposing to her – and then she dies. How sudden and weird.
It feels like she was introduced for the sole purpose of getting killed off, which feels quite unnecessary, really. With such a long episode, it would have been perfectly fine to do without Veronica and her death and Sanchez’s goodbye with her. It feels unnecessarily cruel, to do this to Sanchez. If this was just to have Chan Seong be confronted with the idea of loss, we could’ve done without this, and expanded his mother’s arc instead, and have him personally experience the loss?
Yeo Jin Goo as Chan Seong
I really hate to say it, because I thought Yeo Jin Goo was flat-out amazing in The Crowned Clown, but I find Yeo Jin Goo rather, uh, uninteresting as Chan Seong. I know he’s capable of so much more range, nuance and intensity, but somehow, he just never popped for me, in this role. If I had to summarize it in a single sentence, it feels like he’s following the script and going through the motions, but not really feeling it, himself. I.. don’t understand it, and I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but that’s honestly how I received his performance as Chan Seong, overall.
I’m inclined to think that this is due to the writing, Yeo Jin Goo’s delivery, and the direction given by PD-nim.
Here are the three main things that bothered me about the treatment and delivery of Chan Seong as a character.
The funny seems to sit uncomfortably on him
Show has a bit of a comic bent and tends to pepper any given episode with some spots of funny. And I must say that Yeo Jin Goo commits 100% to all of Chan Seong’s flaily terror, which we see most in Show’s early episodes. However, I fancy that the funny doesn’t actually become him; I always felt at those times, that he was play-acting through the scene, but that it didn’t come across as authentic or natural.
Of course, this is my subjective observation, and it’s completely possible that this is just me and my usual struggle to jive with k-humor.
Character evolution sometimes doesn’t feel organic
When we are first introduced to Chan Seong, he’s a complete scaredy cat and is consistently flailing in terror in front of Man Wol &/or the ghosts in front of him. However, there’s a sudden shift at around the episode 4 mark, when Chan Seong suddenly develops a sassy side, which he isn’t afraid of showing when he talks to Man Wol. He even says to Man Wol that maybe it’s not that she forced him into working at the hotel, but he was drawn to the hotel himself.
Generally speaking, I found the sassy version of Chan Seong more interesting than the flaily version, but I found the change sudden and unexplained. On a related tangent, I also felt like the sass and the intended funny that comes with it, didn’t land so well, for me. Again, I’m referring to how I felt like Yeo Jin Goo’s delivery leaned perfunctory, even though he is actually putting in effort.
Chan Seong is written / delivered as overly stoic
Personally, I found Chan Seong oddly overly stoic as a character. There were multiple occasions where I felt like it would have been appropriate for Chan Seong to show more emotion, but consistently, he was so restrained that it kinda felt like he wasn’t actually feeling anything at all. I found this hard to engage with, and this made me feel alienated from Chan Seong as a character, unfortunately.
For example, it is very weird to me that the ghosts working at the hotel appear to have more emotions about the flowers wilting on the Moon Tree, than Chan Seong himself, in episode 13. I mean, I get that he’s accepted that his role is to help Man Wol move on to the afterlife, but the thing is, despite that, he’s still supposed to love her. However, we don’t see much in terms of any kind of wistful emotions, in their couple scenes.
And then when Man Wol tells him that she will remember him till her last step on the bridge to the afterlife, even though she won’t be able to remember him afterwards, I would’ve expected Chan Seong to have some regret or wistfulness or sadness – any emotion, really – in response to the idea that she will forget him completely and forever. Instead, what we get is a genial smile, with no hint of other emotions running undercurrent. I’m sorry, but this reminds me of Yeo Jin Goo’s outing as Zero Nine in My Absolute Boyfriend, because Zero Nine the robot was designed to be exactly that: genial, polite and agreeable; the perfect robot boyfriend.
Mi Ra’s loveline with Young Soo [SPOILERS]
I get where Show is going with pairing up Young Soo and Mi Ra in this lifetime, because there’s that Korean saying, when people are bickering &/or fighting a lot, that they were enemies in their past lives.
The problem for me is, the bickering between Mi Ran and Young Soo does not come across as cute. In episode 11, we see Mi Ra arguing over the phone with Young Soo over something insignificant, and my sense was that Show intended this scene to be funny, but to my eyes, the scene was played too straight and hard to be at all funny or cute. I don’t understand why PD-nim approved the cut, honestly.
At the same time, given how Mi Ra had basically ordered Young Soo’s death in their past lives, it does feel unfair to me, that Young Soo would end up in this very uncute bickering relationship with her in this life. What I would have preferred, is if Mi Ra had been written to be completely and utterly smitten with Young Soo. This way, it would have felt like Mi Ra was making it up to him, for how she’d treated him in their past lives. That would have felt a lot more satisfying, no?
The hotel guest side stories
Generally speaking, I found most of the ghostly side stories on the “just ok” side of things. Like I mentioned earlier in this review, at a certain point, it felt like just about all the side stories were shoehorned in there, purely to mirror the main narrative in some way, or point our main characters in certain specific directions. That felt overly obvious to me, unfortunately, and took away from my ability to appreciate the side stories.
However, I did like these 3 side stories, for varying reasons.
E4. The arc of the old man and his dog was so very bittersweet. I felt so sad for the dog, who refused to leave his dead owner’s side, even though the door was open. But it was sweet – and yet, still sad – that in the end, the dog left for heaven, together with his owner. Sniffle. So poignant.
E6. I liked the arc of the actor ghost getting to fulfill his life’s dream of acting in the lead role that he’d prepared so hard for. That felt quite meaningful and momentous.
E7. The story of the vengeful ghost, who was a victim of being secretly filmed, and then having the sex tape ruin her life, driving her to suicide, hits really close to home, especially in the light of 2019’s sex tape scandals. It’s uncomfortable to watch, but perhaps this story will help bring some awareness and empathy for the plight of the victims.
Seo Yi Sook as Mago
Seo Yi Sook hams it up for the camera as multiple versions of the deity Mago, and I was mildly amused at the idea that Mago has seemingly endless lookalike sisters who look just like her – and also, are her. Sometimes they appear to be distinct beings who have separate memories and at other times they appear to be one and the same. Kinda weird, sure. To rationalize this, I decided that the strange idea was just one of those supernatural things that the human mind can’t quite wrap around.
However, I did struggle with the idea of Mago being both benevolent and capricious; that didn’t quite sit well with me.
[SPOILER] In episode 14, I am annoyed and bemused by the way Mago basically purposely misleads Man Wol into believing that Chan Seong and Chung Myung were the same person. She doesn’t say the words specifically, but she says things that hint heavily that Man Wol is right to think that Chan Seong is Chung Myung, which then puts Man Wol on a murderous path, and essentially puts Chan Seong’s life in danger. Yes, I can rationalize that Mago probably knew that Man Wol wouldn’t actually kill Chan Seong, but because our characters are given free will, there was an actual chance that Man Wol might’ve killed him anyway. Playing around in a way that tests one person, but puts another person in mortal danger is not ok, in my books. [END SPOILER]
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
The romantic connection between Man Wol and Chan Seong
By this point of the review, you’d probably know that I just wasn’t feeling the romance between Man Wol and Chan Seong.
Perceived chemistry is a funny thing because some people might see lots of chemistry where others don’t see any and vice versa. And to be brutally honest with you guys, I didn’t feel any chemistry between IU and Yeo Jin Goo, from the beginning to the end of this drama, save for one scene in episode 11 where they laughed together, which had seemed more like the result of an ad-lib, than something that was actually scripted and planned for.
Whether Man Wol and Chan Seong were merely employer and employee, or just friends, or actual lovers, their connection just didn’t spark, for me. I just didn’t feel it, unfortunately, and that was a real downer on my watch, since this OTP relationship plays an important role in Man Wol’s personal journey, which is the whole backbone of this show.
Honestly, I would have preferred it if Show had kept Chan Seong’s connection with Man Wol platonic; a platonic soulmate, who genuinely cared for her and would do anything to protect her. I would’ve liked that a lot more, I think. Especially since this way, we would have been able to preserve the epicness of Man Wol’s love for Chung Myung, rather than dilute it with mild and unsparky feelings for Chan Seong. Having Man Wol’s connection with Chan Seong be romantic just invited comparison, and unfortunately, in this comparison, it’s Man Wol’s connection with Chung Myung that comes out as the sparky, organic pairing, hands down.
Because the OTP connection takes centerstage more and more as we get deeper into our episodes, I found my inability to jive with this OTP a distinct damper on my watch.
Here’s a look at my various thoughts on this OTP, over the course of the show.
E6. The running gag of Chan Seong nagging Man Wol to curb her spending and do more good, in order not to be reborn as a dog or cat is reasonably amusing, and I do appreciate that Chan Seong has good intentions and this is coming from a place of care.
E6. I can see why Man Wol might grow fond of Chan Seong. He’s not always in agreement with her, but he’s caring and decent, and he’s considerate of her. The way he went out of his way to get the autograph for her was thoughtful and sweet, and I can see how that would melt her down and win her over, over time. On Chan Seong’s side, I don’t feel any special feelings or intentions at this point. His efforts to take care of her feel guileless and pure, and quite platonic.
E8. In theory, I can understand why Man Wol would be drawn to Chan Seong, and why Chan Seong would come to care about her. But I’m just not feeling it. Even when Chan Seong is saying to Man Wol that he will never leave her side – a love confession by almost any kdrama’s standards – I don’t detect any lashings of romantic intention, only stoic seriousness. I hate to say it, but I feel like romance might not be Yeo Jin Goo’s strength. I love him as a dramatic actor, and the sweet, restrained, formal romance in The Crowned Clown suited him well, but other than that, so far, I’ve not found him to share believable romantic chemistry with anyone.
E9. The romance between Chan Seong and Man Wol is very subtle, to the point where I’m not feeling it at all, even though Chan Seong articulates this episode, that he likes her, and his deepest fear is her disappearing into nothing, and Man Wol consistently refuses to let him get into dangerous situations.
E10. The scenes between Man Wol and Chan Seong, where emotions are high and things get intense, just doesn’t pop for me. It feels like they’re going through the motions in a detailed manner, adjusting tones of voice and intensity of gaze accordingly, but, even though I get it in my head, it’s just not coming alive, for me.
E11. Man Wol’s bantering scenes with Chan Seong seem overly scripted and devoid of actual rhythm and chemistry. That moment, when Chan Seong said he’d eat Man Wol’s earrings and Man Wol laughed, was the only moment that felt organic and sparky between IU and Yeo Jin Goo, and this really seemed more like an ad-libbed scene than a scripted one.
E13. Romantic scenes between the OTP all fall flat for me, like when Chan Seong draws the moon symbol on his hand, and tells Man Wol that this proves that he is hers. It feels like Yeo Jin Goo is just going through the motions; it’s just not popping for me. Some of this has to do with the writing, because it’s true the writing is patchy. But it’s also on PD-nim, who’s definitely not directing Yeo Jin Goo in a way that’s helpful. And I wonder if it’s also Yeo Jin Goo’s lack of experience with romantic roles – reel and real. He’s got heaps of experience playing dramatic roles, and he truly excels in those, but so far, anything romantic I’ve seen him in – except for the muted romance with the queen in The Crowned Clown, which worked because of its restraint and innocence – has fallen flat.
E13. The flirtation between Chan Seong and Man Wol, where she threatens to take off his clothes and he dares her to do it, is supposed to be cheeky, funny and salacious, but it’s just not landing for me.
The funny didn’t appeal to me so much
Generally speaking, the Intended Funny didn’t land so well, for me. This isn’t new for me, in the sense that I often find myself unable to jive with the Intended Funny in many kdramas. But, it is true that most of the time, when Show’s musical cues indicated that I was watching a funny scene, I found it more awkward – sometimes painfully so – than actually amusing.
However, there were a couple of times when I did feel genuinely tickled, so here they are, for the record.
E4. Chan Seong fondling all the bakers’ hands, in the name of finding the mystery guy that the blind lady ghost is looking for, is quite hilarious. Of course everyone thinks he’s a creepy weirdo.
E6. Lol at the drama mentioning The Moon Embraces The Sun, and spoofing The Crown Clown with that Crowned Queen parody. That was cute.
I know I said that it’s best to keep a looser grip on one’s need for logic with this show, because this general disregard for logical detail is pretty much how the Hong sisters roll, but I have to admit that the lack of cohesiveness, which reared its head quite often, bugged me and put a damper on my watch experience.
If you feel like it would be too much of a downer to look at all the logic stretches laid out next, feel free to skip to the following section, heh. Some logic lapses are smaller and easier to overlook, while others are bigger offenders and therefore harder to ignore.
E2. There’s a level of suspension of disbelief required, with watching this show. Like when Chan Seong lost his luggage, and then remarks that he doesn’t have it, and then we see him in the very next scene, with the lost luggage next to him. Are we supposed to infer that Man Wol got it back for him?
E2. Chan Seong is supposed to be able to see ghosts all the time, just as they are – after all, that’s the gift that Man Wol gave him. So unless she’s shielding him from it, he should be able to see everything. But when he goes to the hotel for the first time at night, it feels like everything is revealed to him in stages, like light switches being put on. I get that this is for dramatic effect, but I’m not sure I follow the logic of it. Is there a magical veil over the hotel lobby that needs to be manually removed, before anyone can see the guests?
E3. I feel that the lack of logic around the murdered girl and the necklace is typical Hong sisters type of glossing over. There’s no logic in the explanation that once the necklace is destroyed, the murderer cannot return to her body, and given that this is by the Hong sisters, I expect that there will be no further explanation given. Bleah. The best rationalization I can give, is that because the murdered girl’s grudge is said to be deep, and the necklace appears to mean a lot to her, once the necklace is destroyed, there will be no way of pacifying her, and she will never leave the murderer’s body.
E4. The set-up of the guest in room 13 is decidedly odd. We’ve been told that ghosts stay at the hotel in order to fulfill the dreams that they didn’t while they were alive, or complete any unfinished business that they might have. The hotel is also described as a place where ghosts stay to heal. So why is room 13 portrayed like some kind of dungeon prison? I mean, Chan Seong has to go through a dark hallway, then unlatch a door, before he comes to the cabinet in which the ghost stays. That doesn’t seem like a healing place to me?
E5. I acknowledge that the writers served up some twists with the ghost bride arc, but I personally don’t enjoy this style of writing. The twists don’t feel clever, they feel manipulative and deceptive. Like, one moment, everyone on screen seems to believe that the human groom will go through the ghost wedding like a quick nightmare, and be on his merry way, and the next moment, Man Wol is declaring that the human groom will die and go to the afterlife with the bride, and everyone’s scurrying to pass the red pouch around.
If Man Wol had known about this to begin with, she could’ve gone straight to the bride’s almost-dead boyfriend and invited his spirit to marry the bride, instead of the whole thing where Man Wol literally throws Sanchez at the red pouch, knowing that he’s Chan Seong’s friend. Also, the thing where the parents turn out to be parents of the guy and not the girl, seems tenuous at best. Just because his ring won’t come off his finger, they conclude that it’s the dead girlfriend refusing to leave him behind? It wasn’t even the case, in the end, since she’d been determined to go to the afterlife alone, until they arranged the ghost wedding. Man Wol’s declaration that the desperate wish sealed in the pouch belongs to the woman who must get married before she leaves, makes no sense either, since the ghost bride keeps saying that she’d prefer to go to the afterlife alone.
E6. The vengeful ghost from Room 13 seems to have died having suffered because of being used for some kind of porn. My question is, why is she able to touch humans, when other ghosts can’t? She holds the first victim by the head, and when the second victim is trying to run away, she grabs him from around the corner.
E6. The idea of Hyun Joong playing the piano on Yoo Na’s hands while reminiscing about his little sister is poignant and bittersweet, but there is no way that that sound could have been achieved by someone’s hands playing on another’s.
E9. This episode is an example of when things don’t seem so logically handled, in this show. It’s obvious that Chan Seong would be able to find the hotel again, given that he can see ghosts, and he can easily follow a ghost to the hotel’s new location, but this “twist” is played for drama. That fell rather flat for me, to be honest. But ok, I can rationalize that Man Wol thought that Chan Seong would jump at the chance of cutting himself loose from the hotel.
And also, given that Man Wol has poofed her way around before, I feel like the logistics around moving a large group of ghosts between hotel locations is also exaggerated. I don’t understand why they felt they had to hurry the ghosts who were ready, to get on the bus to the afterlife.
E12. Hate from netizens is giving the serial killer’s ghost power? But, why? And, how? This is a bit too hard to rationalize, for me.
E12. The logic around the parents’ lifelines being given to their son as a response to their desperation is shaky too. Who is granting these desperate wishes? The deity Mago isn’t interfering, and the Grim Reaper wants the soul, so it makes sense that we should be introduced to the force that is able to grant those wishes?
E13. Ji Won’s (David Lee) murderous ghost is handled very weirdly as well. I can buy that he would go after Chan Sung’s loved ones, and that’s why Sanchez is a target, and maybe even Mi Ra, but for the ghost to go after Young Soo too, is stretching it. And, while all the drama is going on in the movie theater, with Man Wol attempting to catch the ghost, and Young Soo knocked out cold on the floor, the rest of the audience in the theater just sits there without reacting? What?
TANGENT #1: A COUPLE OF ALTERNATIVE ENDINGS / SCENE EXECUTION
Ok, so hear me out; I know the writers had their own Big Plan with regard to our characters and how they are intertwined by this Big Fate, but there were several occasions when I thought Show could have chosen a different direction and ending, and it would’ve been pretty darn effective – in my personal opinion, and if I do say so myself.
Indulge me a little, as I share ’em with you?
Alternative Ending #1
E8. Unpopular opinion: the show could’ve ended right here at the end of episode 8 – when Man Wol disappears together with the hotel, and Chan Seong is left crying by himself at a bus-stop – and I would’ve been happy. It’s the perfect bittersweet note on which to leave a story, with an open ending that hints at a forever of pathos. It feels like how a movie would end. (It reminds me of how A Werewolf Boy ended.)
Chan Seong’s brief encounter with the supernatural brought to an abrupt end; Man Wol’s tragic backstory finally revealed; Man Wol leaving Chan Seong and taking the hotel with her, to bear her burden alone, forever isolated, and keeping the memory of Chung Myung and Yeon Woo alive. Augh. That would’ve hurt so good.
Alternative Scene Execution
E13. The final scene of the episode, where Chan Seong exits the tunnel, and Man Wol runs to hug him, could have been played better, I feel. We know that this is supposed to be Chung Myung in Chan Seong’s body, because of how he cradles the back of Man Wol’s head in his hand as he holds her. I think the scene would have been so much more satisfying and powerful to watch, if PD-nim would’ve let us see Chung Myung holding Man Wol, just for a split second, before Man Wol pulls away and sees Chan Seong in front of her.
The main reason I think this would’ve worked better for me, is because I feel the angst between Man Wol and Chung Myung, so acutely, while I don’t feel the OTP connection, at all. If Show would’ve chosen Chung Myung to be Man Wol’s endgame (like in the next alternative ending), I would’ve much preferred it, and this scene, played out this way, would’ve been perfect.
Alternative Ending #2
E14. Show should’ve gone in a different direction, and ended with Chung Myung’s journey on the bridge to the afterlife. I feel like Man Wol should’ve gone with Chung Myung, on that bridge. She’s loved him for a thousand years, and the way he looks at her, hand stretched out, silently inviting her to go with him so that they can start over together, is so compellingly poignant.
Plus, Chan Seong’s role has always been to help Man Wol cross over. Yes, Chan Seong would’ve been left crying by himself at the bus-stop, but he had accepted that his love for Man Wol would end in goodbye after he’d helped her cross over, so this wouldn’t have been out of his expectations.
This would have been the perfect way to end the show on a narratively fitting, haunting, heart-squeezingly poignant-yet-romantic way: Man Wol and Chung Myung finally reunited in the cycle of life and death, while Chan Seong mourns her departure, alone, but forever impacted by the experience of walking her through to healing and the re-starting of her passage of time. Augh. How poetic.
TANGENT #2: A HYPOTHETICAL SWITCHING OF MALE LEADS?
As I became more and more bemused at how uninteresting I found the OTP pairing, and how much I did love Man Wol’s connection with Chung Myung, I began to toy with the hypothetical idea of switching male leads, and I came away very intrigued.
[SPOILER] For example, in episode 14, when Man Wol walks away from Chung Myung on the bridge to the afterlife, turning back towards Chan Seong, I’d felt like I wanted her to go with Chung Myung, even though that’s obviously not what the writers intended.
On the other hand, if Yeo Jin Goo had played Chung Myung, and Lee Do Hyun had played Chan Seong, I feel like everything would have been different, for me. I would’ve been on board with Man Wol going back to Chan Seong, because I would have felt convinced of the compelling connection and chemistry between Man Wol and Chan Seong. And, every romantic line Chan Seong had ever uttered, would have landed with more oomph, for me, if Lee Do Hyun delivered the lines the way he delivered Chung Myung’s lines to Man Wol. [END SPOILER]
This is the train of thought that made me think that my whole issue with the OTP could have been a simple casting issue.
SPOTLIGHT ON THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE [SPOILERS]
We get some solid nuggets of narrative development this episode, but I have to admit that I still feel kind of meh overall, at the so-called key relationship of our OTP.
We finally get to see the backstory of Hyun Joong’s death, and everything gets turned on its head. It turns out that Hyun Joong never was a soldier, but had died in a soldier’s uniform because his best friend had threatened him with a gun, to swop clothes. How in character for Hyun Joong, to have made his dying wish that his friend take care of his sister.
I thought P.O did an outstanding job playing out the entire flashback, with his signature warmth and touch of goofiness, and yet, with so much burgeoning emotion, at the various story milestones. The shock, sadness and helpless was communicated so well, in Hyun Joong’s death scene. So good, that he had me tearing up as he teared up.
I have a small quibble with the fact that Yoo Na is able to bring the fake, living Hyun Joong to the hotel without an express invitation from Man Wol, but I’m willing to look past it.
I also liked the honorary graduation ceremony that they organize for Hyun Joong, and besides Hyun Joong’s pleased-as-punch smile from ear to ear, I also loved Grim Reaper’s pleased smirk in the corner, probably proud of himself for having provided a bus to transport all the ghost guests. Cute.
I also like the idea of Chan Seong visiting Man Wol Lodge, and getting to interact with the versions of Man Wol and his colleagues from that time. That was a nice touch of levity, and also, it was narratively important for Chan Seong to make that choice, not to drink the cup of wine that Joseon Man Wol offered, that would have allowed him to stay there and not have to angst over her impending disappearance, opting instead to return to the present, to await Present Man Wol’s return.
The thing is, though, everything else in this episode that is about Chan Seong and Man Wol’s relationship, falls flat for me. Man Wol mentions to Manager Choi that both she and Chan Seong are aware of her impending departure, but that neither of them talks about it. My issue is that there’s just not enough for us as viewers, in terms of glimpses into any inner conflict that they might feel about this.
When Chan Seong stops Man Wol from drinking the wine that would enable her to stay on as owner of the hotel, I liked how IU played Man Wol’s response. There is a mix of sadness and gladness in her response, as Man Wol thanks Chan Seong with tears in her eyes, and tells him that she loves him. But, Chan Seong’s response is weirdly flat. He simply smiles genially and tells her that he loves her too.
I don’t know if this is, at its root, an actor thing or a director thing, but since PD-nim would have had the final say on whether a scene made the cut, I’m putting this on PD-nim. Why have Chan Seong display so little emotion over the departure of someone whom he’s allegedly deeply in love with? That’s unbelievable and inorganic, and it takes me out of the scene, and the story, a lot.
From beginning to end, I have had trouble buying the supposedly strong love between Chan Seong and Man Wol, and thus, the scene where he picks her up off the suitcase and she points to the bedroom, was very awkward to watch, for me. It just felt very forced and unnatural. Sigh.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
This ending was just ok for me, to be brutally honest. There were some things that worked better for me than others, and altogether, it works out to just alright.
The finale is made up of successive goodbyes, as each person on the hotel team takes their turn to move on to the afterlife. Bartender Kim goes first, after finally feeling satisfied that his name has been cleared to the maximum that it can be cleared – thanks to the intervention of Man Wol, along with the help of a literal ghost writer, lol.
Hyun Joong leaves next, after his sister Hyun Mi finally dies. It’s an emotional reunion for Hyun Joong, who’s waited 70 years for his little sister, and also, it’s an emotional goodbye for him and Yoo Na, who makes a last minute rush to the heavenly tunnel with a bunch of magic lilies, which she negotiates from Mago, in exchange for a promise to live well.
The two little lovebirds share a tearful farewell, as she tells him that he doesn’t have to worry about her, and he thanks her, telling her he won’t. They both cry their hearts out, as he leaves in the limousine with his little sister, and she watches them go. Aw.
Young Soo and Mi Ra make marriage plans, and bicker over which refrigerator to buy. Man Wol drops by and in a rather clever PPL insertion, buys the couple a flat-screen TV that pivots as a congratulatory gift, while squeezing in a bit of hypnotic threatening, telling Mi Ra – well, Song Hwa – that she better treat Yeon Woo right, or she would turn her life upside down just like the TV. Ok, Show. Hur.
Manager Choi leaves next, after an emotional conversation with the mother of the unborn baby who will be born to her husband’s family line, where she realizes that whether the baby is a boy or a girl, its mother intends to raise the child herself, without any help from the baby’s father’s family.
Before Manager Choi boards the limousine, she and Man Wol share an emotional hug, finally articulating thanks, comfort and concern for each other, that they’ve kept in their hearts all along.
Man Wol grows sleepy as her time to depart draws near, and Chan Seong and her take a nap, where they dream the same dream, and learn that when Man Wol was a child, Chan Seong had found her and comforted her about her dead family, telling her about the Guest House of the Moon. And so, it finally makes sense now, why he’d be the one chosen to send her away, from the same guest house that he’d once told her about.
At the heavenly tunnel, Man Wol tearfully expresses her love and thanks to Chan Seong, telling him that she doesn’t want to leave him behind, and asks that they meet again in their next lives. Chan Seong remains fairly stoic even as he cries a little bit, and they say their final goodbye.
We soon see Man Wol walking along on the bridge to the afterlife, looking back with a peaceful smile on her face, while Chan Seong finally cries out loud at her departure, as he stands alone at the entrance to the tunnel.
To be honest, I feel quite underwhelmed by this goodbye scene, even though I get the idea that Chan Seong is holding back his emotions so that Man Wol can leave him behind with a lighter heart. Compared to the goodbye scene between Hyun Joong and Yoo Na, which had felt equally wistful and poignant on both sides, this felt a lot more.. lopsided. It felt like all the emotion was on Man Wol’s side, while Chan Seong was overly stoic. On top of that, he said so very little to her. It would’ve been nice if Chan Seong had expressed himself more, instead of leaving all the love confession and emotional outpouring to Man Wol. He could’ve comforted her and told her not to cry (or that it was ok to cry); he could’ve assured her that they would meet again; he could’ve told her he loved her.
In a scene where Chan Seong emotes so little in the moment, and says so little as well, it feels like we’re not getting anything from him, really. If he’d been more expressive in his facial expression, his gaze, and his body language, then perhaps the “Goodbye, Man Wol,” would have felt like enough. But because he’s so stoic through her departure, it just feels frustrating that there’s so little coming forth from him, given that he’s supposed to love her so much. Even his tears after her departure feel like they’re not enough, to my eyes. I just wanted something more from him, y’know?
Given that this is a goodbye scene that Show’s been working up to over the course of its entire story, this feels extra underwhelming to me, unfortunately.
Unspecified (and to my eyes, quite sudden) time skip later, we see that it’s winter and Chan Seong is preparing to leave for New York. We also learn that he’s given the special medicine that Man Wol had left him, to Yoo Na, and that it’s helped her enormously in being able to focus on her studies, because she’s no longer distracted by her ability to see ghosts.
The scene then (quite suddenly and weirdly, I might add) changes to an unspecified location, where we see our various characters all over again. Bartender Kim jogs in the park, Manager Choi plays with a little puppy, Hyun Joong plays basketball, and Chan Seong sits reading on a bench, while Man Wol arrives to sit with him and lay her head on his shoulder.
Show is vague on what this scene is supposed to mean, but I rationalize that Show is probably trying to say that sometime, some place, somehow, our characters are (or will be) happy and no longer holding grudges in their hearts. Show then closes off with an epilogue of a very dapper Kim Soo Hyun, opening the new hotel, named Hotel Blue Moon, for business.
I do like the idea of the hotel continuing with a new and different owner, and Show manages to make the new owner seem immediately intriguing, with his whiskey-swirling ways, slow deliberate swagger, gold rings and snazzy appearance, which makes me think that there will surely be interesting developments at the new hotel. That’s quite a lot communicated in a few short minutes, and I’m quite impressed.
Overall, though, I’m left feeling rather underwhelmed by Show’s finale because the closure of the key relationship in this story didn’t feel sufficiently satisfying, to me. However, I’m quite content with Man Wol’s choice to walk the bridge to the afterlife alone, while she smiles back upon her life. That seemed quite fitting, I thought.
Also, I take the idea that Show serves up, that everything moves in seasons, including love, relationships and friendships. As each of our hotel friends’ seasons at the hotel came to an end, there were wistful goodbyes, but there was also a consistent sense of looking forward to an as-yet-unknown future. And even though, according to Show’s lore, our characters won’t remember any of the memories that they made together as fellow caretakers of the hotel, it doesn’t take away from the value of the season that they shared.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Creative concept, but the execution leans blah, unfortunately, underneath Show’s shiny surface.
FINAL GRADE: B-