You say Hong Sisters’ drama, I say epic with a touch of macabre. From My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, Master’s Sun, Hwayugi and now, with Hotel Del Luna, the screenwriting duo are masters of creating romances set in fantasy worlds. And if there’s one thing I know about drama fans, it’s that we can’t resist a good mishmash of genres. Which explains why this story about a hotel for ghosts and its owner, a centuries-old woman obsessed with riches and revenge, became so popular. And when you add bankable actors like IU and Yeo Jin-goo to the mix, the drama expectedly turned out to be a howling success.
The heroine, Jang Man-wol (Lee Ji-eun aka IU), is not the typical K-drama leading lady—she’s mean, cranky, bitter and obsessed with money. Quite a departure from the sweet, innocent character we’re used to, right? Not only is she stuck between life and death because of a grudge that’s as old as her, but she also cares more about dining at the best restaurants and buying herself designer clothes and cars than the well-being of her hotel’s guests.
Enter: Goo Chan-sung (Yeo Jin-goo), a business management graduate from Harvard who has been ill-fated to work at Hotel del Luna since he was a child because his father made a deal with Man-wol. Where Man-wol’s morality falls in the grey area, Chan-sung is a righteous young man who pushes Man-wol to be nice, thus giving us a classic good vs. evil conflict, but this time, between the lead pair. A lot of the show’s comedy comes from the hilarious clashes between Man-wol and Chan-sung.
IU fully embodies the crankiness of Man-wol, while Chan-sung, naive as he is, manages to stand up to her bullying. As the two start falling in love, we realize that Man-wol isn’t boxed into her evil traits—she’s actually hiding a sensitive, kind heart underneath. My favorite thing about this show is the fact that it doesn’t fall into the trap women-led dramas usually end up in. The story starts off centering around Man-wol and continues to do so till it ends. The romance arc doesn’t compromise with the focus of the show, which is Man-wol’s redemption.
Through flashbacks into Man-wol’s past, 1300 years ago, the show manages to create a backstory for her that is both engrossing and tragic. I’ve never seen a more fleshed-out female lead, considering what a world of difference there is between Man-wol of the past and Man-wol of the present. A lot of the show’s viewers have joked that Hotel Del Luna was just IU modeling a lot of pretty, expensive clothes. And I don’t disagree, but my view is that by doing this the show managed to focus on its heroine even more.
Yeo Jin-goo also gave an incredible performance and managed to leave an impression despite the show’s focus on IU. His character, Chan-sung, was very relatable because as a viewer, I was able to empathize with this completely normal man with a normal life suddenly getting whisked away into a supernatural roller-coaster and falling in love with a woman he couldn’t be with. We get it, Chan-sung. And just like you, we suffered withdrawals when Man-wol left our lives too.
Any show which has the production scale and budget of this one is bound to have viewers commenting on things they don’t usually notice in other dramas—like the colors and sets and cinematography. In these regards, I wasn’t disappointed. The majority of the action takes place in the opulent corridors and rooms of the ancient, mystical hotel, and the sets made sure we saw the grandeur. There are a lot of blue, purple, and black tones in the show which look gorgeous against mystical lighting and have constantly kept me aware that I was watching a fantasy, which I really appreciated.
The sub-plots of the series, which deal with the secondary characters like Man-wol’s loyal staff members Sun-bi (Shin Jung-geun), Seo-hee (Bae Hae-sun), Yu-na (Mina) and Hyun-joong (Pyo Ji-hoon) have equally interesting backstories as they each have their reasons for choosing to stay on as spirits. In Chan-sung’s real life, his friend Sanchez (Jo Hyun-chul) makes an impression. Two key figures from Man-wol’s past life—Yeon-woo (Lee Tae-sun) and Princess Seong-hwa (Park Yoo-na)—turn out to be Chan-sung’s friends in this life, fulfilling the inevitable reincarnation trope that the show promised while also injecting the plot with angst.
Mythological characters like Grim Reaper (Kang Hong-suk) and Goddess Mago (Seo Yi-sook) keep the thrill of encountering mythical characters alive. I always say that well-written supporting characters are half the battle won for any show, and this show gave us not one but two standout performances. There’s Chung-myung (Lee Do-hyun), who starts off as a villain by murdering Man-wol’s clan and becomes the target of her revenge, and Seol Ji-won (Lee David), who turns from a serial killer to a malevolent spirit, bent on harming Chan-sung. I love it when dramas introduce me to new talent, and these two I’ll definitely be looking out for.
Another great thing about this show, which constantly kept it in the headlines and contributed to high ratings, was the sheer amount of cameo appearances, from Lee Joon-gi, Lee Si-eon, Lee Yi-kyung, Sulli and to Kim Soo-hyun. Sometimes I felt that these appearances were cloaking the lack of writing, but they were fun, so I wasn’t too bothered about that.
Hotel Del Luna has decent amounts of everything that makes a drama tick—romance, spooky chills, emotional devastation, Korean mythology, and impressive portrayal of the characters. Perhaps the show’s greatest strength is that it has many interesting sub-plots, but it doesn’t focus too long on any of them. That makes for an easy, entertaining watch, but not so easy that it lacks an emotional connection. Maybe that’s why it reminds me of 2016’s Goblin, and comparing the ratings of the two shows, I’d say I’m not the only one. Finally, if you’re in the mood for an entertaining watch that’s also spooky in all the right ways, I recommend hopping onto the hype train.