K-drama “Hotel Del Luna”: A Horror Show with a Heart

Minor spoilers ahead.

I don’t do horror. Haunted houses, scary movies, TV shows that make you petrified to be at home alone – I hate them all!

Now suspense, I’m okay with. But ever since I saw one of The Omen movies on a friend’s HBO in third grade, I’ve stayed faaaaaaaaaaar away from ghost stories, slasher flicks, and tales of demons run amuck. Real life is already hard enough with all of its anxieties and fears! I don’t need freaky images and ideas making it even more stressful.

My antipathy towards the horror genre has made my obsession with this summer’s megahit Korean drama Hotel Del Luna a big surprise to even myself. Not only was I sucked into following yet another K-drama – something I would never have done a few months ago – but I also found myself taking huge delight in this series about the undead, of all things.  

The friendly staff of Hotel Del Luna! Note the extra arm, sans body, hanging onto Ku Chan-sung (in the navy blue suit).

Really, I’m a sucker for movies and TV shows that entertain, yet affirm deep truths about life. That’s why readers of this blog have seen me repeatedly praise Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger, one of the best TV series I’ve experienced in my nearly 48 years. (I do it here, too.) In Hotel Del Luna, I’ve found another show that combines extraordinary storytelling and tremendous acting with serious, meaningful themes that anyone can identify with and take to heart. 

But at first glance, it’s not a show I should like. There are some pretty creepy visuals, especially in the first half of the 16-episode run, and several grotesque deaths are depicted or implied throughout the series. Dead people, in fact, are initially shown in the state their bodies ended up in, meaning there’s a good deal of blood on those who died violently.

Rather ordinary in appearance by day, the hotel becomes spectacular at night – although rare is the living soul that can see it.

The entire setup of the series is highly macabre, too. The titular hotel, unseen by most living folks, is a waystation for souls of the deceased who still need to work through something before they proceed to the afterlife. Often, they have a task that they really wish to complete, like writing a novel or reading through the contents of an entire library. Sometimes, what they’re still struggling with is a grudge against a person who either defamed or even killed them, and they’re awaiting the chance to clear their name or see justice done.

Despite the recurring dose of the ghastly, what kept me watching was the fact that this isn’t a Motel Hell house of horrors or even a sinister Hotel California, where you can check out but never leave. Rather, the Hotel Del Luna is primarily meant for healing and rest. 

The hotel pool is a case in point; it’s actually a beautiful beach that guests can enjoy. Hotel interiors, ordinary by day, become luminous and luxurious at night. Want to kick back with other dead souls – and maybe even the handsome, brooding hunk of a Grim Reaper – over fine cocktails? There’s the lavish hotel skybar a zillion stories up, with an outdoor patio providing breathtaking views of urban Seoul below.

Man-wol 1300 years ago. Note the reflection of her eyes in the blade.

Though the horror stuff made me cringe, so much of Hotel Del Luna is just wonderful. The series is, in one sense, a historical epic spanning the 1300-year life of the female lead Jang Man-wol (played by actress and pop idol Lee Ji-eun, a.k.a. IU). Her aging has been halted while her spirit is tied to a mysterious tree on the hotel grounds. Operating the hotel as its owner is the penance to which she is sentenced by the goddess Ma Go, in payment for her sins of killing numerous soldiers in a long-ago rebellion against a ruling family.

Like any K-drama worth its salt, Hotel Del Luna also features compelling potential romances. The primary will-they-or-won’t-they relationship involves the initially cold and narcissistic Man-wol, who grows in affection for her new hotel manager, Ku Chan-sung (played by relative newcomer Yeo Jin-goo). Chan-sung is a confident, almost cocky, recent graduate from Harvard’s MBA program, which he doesn’t hesitate to tell anyone who will listen. He just returned to South Korea to help to manage a prestigious Forbes-rated five-star hotel, and at first, he wants absolutely nothing to do with Man-wol or her hotel for ghosts. But once he realizes that his “gift” from Man-wol, the ability to see spirits, prevents him from doing anything normal, he very reluctantly decides to make the best of a bad situation and work for her. 

Dude, it’s just a ghost!

Over time, the naturally kind-hearted Chan-sung warms to Man-wol, and their relationship begins to change them both, melting her iciness and challenging his arrogance. The series’ main tension becomes whether Man-wol and Chan-sung can actually find love together, given that Ma Go has actually brought the new manager into the hotelier’s life to help her finish her penance and leave for the afterlife. (Technically, it’s a different Ma Go than the one who made her run the hotel, because Ma Go appears as at least six very different incarnations during the series, all played by the wonderful Seo Yi-sook.) 

The poignant supporting character arcs are also an impressive part of the show, and the dramatic skills of the cast brought me to tears – twice! The quirky humor is icing on the cake, making what could be a somber narrative about death into an actually fun adventure.

Oh, and I can’t leave out the soundtrack. The music for the series is deeply affecting and even, shall I say, haunting.

From the not-serious-or-meaningful-theme department. Man-wol goes through an incredible number of outfits during the series’ 16 episodes. Here’s a sampling.

As far as serious, meaningful themes go, the one that comes through most powerfully is that of letting go, and it manifests in two ways. First, there’s the letting go of grudges and a thirst for revenge, and second, there’s the letting go of this life and those that we love when death comes.

I was pleasantly surprised by the strong emphasis on letting resentments go, even over deeply harmful offenses. That strikes me as running counter to traditional Asian cultures. More often in Asian cultures, if someone isn’t in a position to give an eye for an eye, she or he will keep a distance from the offenders, finding ways to passive-aggressively undermine them and verbally damage their reputations. Then the person will nurse the grudge against the offenders, often carrying it to the grave.

Yet in Hotel Del Luna, there is a harsh penalty that Ma Go (yes, a third Ma Go) imposes on dead souls who take revenge on humans. Those who take vengeance into their own hands disintegrate into nothingness in a manner similar to Thanos’ snap in the Avengers movies, ceasing to exist and losing the chance to enter the afterlife. This is one of the core conflicts burning within hotel owner Man-wol, as she has held the bitterest of all grudges against the lover who betrayed her and her rebels 1300 years ago. When his human reincarnation crosses her path, as she anticipates will happen very soon, she has every intention of slaughtering him. 

This scene is not what you think it is. Or is it?

And there are times when she suspects that Chan-sung is himself the reincarnation of that man, and the TV audience doesn’t know for sure, either. Ah, the plot thickens!

The second letting-go motif is even more dominant in the series, that of letting go of this life and those that we love. Without spoiling the plot for you any more than I already have, I’ll say that all the central characters have to wrestle with this in one way or another, and even several of the supporting characters do as well. All of their losses are heartbreaking to watch, yet I couldn’t help but admire them for their courage in facing their pain and not running from it.

Three of Ma Go’s many faces.

This courage is something that’s explicitly mentioned by Ma Go (a fourth one). She says, “It takes more courage to let go than to hold on.” It’s clear from the series’ storylines that it takes not just more courage, but a more mature love.

This resonates deeply with me. In fact, it made me think of something Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says, “All great spirituality is about letting go.” In a similar vein, death has been called by some The Great Letting Go.

So there you have it: Hotel Del Luna is the kind of show that I’m a sucker for – one that greatly entertains, yet affirms deep truths about life. I highly recommended Search: WWW, but I rank Hotel Del Luna even higher! I’ll give it 4.5 out of 5 stars! (Or in the case of this series, 4.5 out of 5 lunas, or moons!)

Until next time, I leave you with these questions: Will Man-wol and Chan-sung find love with each other? Will he succeed in helping her to move on to the afterlife, or will she take revenge on the man who betrayed her and blip out Thanos-style? Is Chan-sung actually the reincarnation of that man? Who else will have to let go of something or someone? How much more dramatic can this get?

See Hotel Del Luna with English subtitles on Viki.com. Watch an extended trailer.

These are just some of the ones in black!