The K-List #7: Hotel Del Luna
As clockwork, I’m back with another entry of my K-List, a small and comfortable place in my baseball-filled mind, where I can breathe out of the usual statistical rarified air and have a look at some of the best productions South Korea has to offer.
This time around it’s a new drama but an old friend: the FL here is the same as in a previous K-Drama I reviewed, yet another amazing acting display in a polar opposite role. It’s also one of the most talked about dramas at the time it aired, a blockbuster in terms of production, actors and buzz surrounding it.
Enough with the pleasantries and let’s review Hotel Del Luna, a 2019 tvN production.
- Death is not the end
The after-death shenanigans are one of the most used and abused topics in TV series: Heaven and Hell are scenarios as common as Beverly Hills, angels and demons are your run of the mill characters and every single monstrous entity got its 15 minutes of fame in the small screen.
While Hotel Del Luna is a classic spirits and souls folk-tale on the surface, it’s one remarkably well done: a hotel, tied to a person as a burden until the end of time, serves as a place where wandering souls of the dead, filled with either anger, sadness or regret are given a chance at fulfilling their last wishes, for a price mind you, to then depart into a classy limo to Paradise.
The hotel itself is a great quirk: every room is different, from simple ones to those more akin to prisons for “particular” sojourners, moreover this one of a kind establishment is exploited in all grandiosity, having a sky-bar, a beach (yes, literally) and seemingly infinite connections to wherever in the world, an otherwordly construction that rivals the Doctor’s Tardis.
For a series about death, it’s also incredibly careful at separating bad, pure evil from humanly sins: there are some souls who are just doomed to never be freed, nasty and vindicative spirits that are to be dissolved into thin air but for the most part it’s about being condescending, patient and helping the remnants of lives gone by in their quest for peace. As they were human to begin with, they still are so after they are gone and as such they need time and support.
That brings to the main point of the series, which is the utmost importance of human connection: avoiding all contacts and relationship, while protecting from pains that derive from just getting in touch with others, makes your existence stagnant and it’s the reason a lot of the souls are stuck, not able to move forward.
Only when they are helped by the hotel staff, in both shady and honest ways, they can finally make amends and leave. Sometimes it’s just too hard to find your path alone, and the one those souls took luckily led them to the hotel.
- Strength in numbers
There’s a reason Hotel Del Luna was such a hit as it aired, and while being a good drama doesn’t assure you ratings, having an All Star cast does, even moreso with a couple of leads among the Hallyu scene.
The ML here is Yeo Jin Goo, one of the most talented and sought-after young actors in South Korea, a child actor who grew up quite well and made a name for himself in morning dramas, School series and sageuks. He is one of the most interesting faces out there as, while being young, he shows the dignity and grace of a veteran method actor, a voice that is straight from the basement, low and deep, and an acting that is never overdone, expressive and solid.
For such a by-the-book performer the role of a skilled hotelier, one that studied at Harvard, suits to the nines: he looks cool as hell but it’s his poise that jumps out, an elegance that is both in clothes and manners a distinctive trait of the occupation. It also works wonders in contrast to the FL’s free spirit, so he stands out more as a scaredy cat, a well dressed one though, and a stern arbiter that gets swayed by a restless partner.
The engine of the whole series is the FL and allow me to welcome back IU in all her beauty: do you remember her poor, street-running looks in My Mister? Forget that, because here she’s got one of the most stupendous wardrobes ever, a collection of bright long dresses, hats, shoes, luxury accessories and everything that screames “rich spoiled girl”.
Interestingly enough she’s not: truth to be told she’s the owner of the hotel, or rather she is chained to it as in a punishment of sorts so she’s got to run it waiting for her turn to come. As you can imagine, having lived for hundreds of years, she’s become less and less interested in humans and souls, a me-first hedonist, drinking champagne and driving an array of sports cars instead of helping spirits.
When these two characters clash, not fate but a deal she made with his father as we get to know early, it can only be fireworks: he is all business, she can’t be bothered so the fight is on and, as usual, it ends with them getting to fall for each other. Thankfully the romance is well done, spread out without rushing too much, not just a gimmick but a way to develop both characters. Also, when you both look great, act great and have amazing chemistry, there’s no ruining such a picture perfect couple.
The entire cast is great though: between otherworldly entities and simple friends there are a bunch of secondaries and most of them are well designed, different from each other and useful, a balanced mix of well-known actors, veterans and a couple of idols making their way into acting. A plause for the hotel staff, three characters that are so entertaining and endearing you really get into their stories, something that almost never happens if not for the leads.
- Big fight, big guns
If it weren’t for the cast, there’s also to say that Hotel Del Luna and who produced it didn’t hold back a thing, splurging the cash on a myriad of high-level values: costumes are unreal, OSTs are classics among dramas, not to mention the whole CGI and directing.
There’s almost no limit to the budget they allowed to special effects and visuals: some scenes are breath-takingly beautiful, going from a jungle of colors and action to static and dark emotional moments; the director makes a competent job avoiding too much movement, allowing the graphic elation of such a blockbuster to unravel the audience; dialogues are the cherry on top of the cake, somber but witty, ironic when needed yet simple and heart-wrenching when push comes to shove.
An abundance of quality, enough said.
- Chopping the flow
As much as Hotel Del Luna shines on the outside, it has some major problems on the inside: while the plot is well thought, storylines are entertaining and characters forthcoming in making it an above average series, the whole structure is not supported by an adequate handling of pacing and rythm.
As such, Hotel Del Luna looks like a drama divided in three blocks, each one with his own pace and flow, so that it lacks fluidity and hinders its marvelous aesthetics. Starting off with a couple of slow eps HDL builds its scenarios and stories and the change of pace to action-filled, fast spirit tales is welcomed but it lasts not too long as the series goes back to a quiet walking in his second half, one that focuses on the main couple and the FL’s issues in particular.
That’s not that bad if it wasn’t that, in the last two eps, the drama goes into overdrive, closing sidestories and characters that we learned to love in a matter of minutes, making what was a great build-up just a mere castle of cards blown away by a swivel of wind. Those secondaries deserved much better than quick-fire nice endings and theatricals for the sake of moving the spectator.
In that sense HDL is like a cake that looks amazing but tastes just fine, not what you’d have expected from such a piece of art.
- Left wide open
The real point of contention with HDL is its ending: as soon as it aired in Korea it sent viewers into a frenzy as it’s…not really an ending!
Not only the last few scenes introduce a new character, hinting to a Season 2 that never came (for now) but the whole ep.16 is the definition of head-scratcher: what are we looking at? Dreams? Reality? And what about our beloved couple? What happened to them both?
As it turned out, leaving a lot of metaphors and questions to the audience to answer was done on purpose by writer and director so that everyone could come up with his own interpretation, still that makes it a puzzling watch, an unnerving sequence of scenes you can’t tie together and all you’re left with are guesses.
Yes, looking at what the others got out of it, their concoctions, almost fanfiction-like, can only help the series’ popularity and create a word of mouth effect, but to be honest HDL, with all qualities and merits, didn’t really need such an escapism and it would have been much better if closed shut, either with a standard good ending or why not, even a sad one.
Hotel Del Luna is by no means a perfect series, lacking in key aspects such as pacing and ending, but it looks the part of a classic both visually and emotionally.
Touching themes such as death, fate, karma, harm and punishment HDL is not your average fantasy drama and is not treated as one, but rather as a movie: a sky-high budget is used to the pennies in every bit of visually pleasing tecnique, from dresses and costumes to CGI and scores.
Actors are not only well-knit and permeated by a thick veil of chemistry, they are also simply good stand-alone, with IU yet again shining as one of the brightest stars in the Hallyu wave and Yeo Jin Goo bidding for a place with the greats.
If something looks good, sounds good and is brought to life by talented professionals, that can overcome a lot of flaws behind the scenes. That’s what Hotel Del Luna is: a magnificent establishment, one with weak foundations but splendid and flashy on the outside.
That’s it for me, at least for now, I’ll see you again in the next stop of the train called K-List, waiting for you to come aboard!