1 November 2019 | lyntonadam
IU TO THE WORLD : HERE I AM, AND THIS IS WHAT I CAN DO !
Yes, I'm here to praise this excellent show, though you can probably work that out from the ten stars. I must, however, admit to some general pessimism before I started.
Why ? I'd recently begun to watch a newish show ( let's not mention the title in case you love it ) and gave up by episode two. It had yet another rich, handsome, arrogant A-hole thrown together with a pretty young woman with much less money etc and so on. What a VERY original storyline ! I'm so sick of these formula plots ! And it wasn't even well written, which would've been something. I've also been underwhelmed recently by boring new shows from established actresses, so I began HDL hoping really hard that it'd be good. True, the VIKI rating is 9.8, which is helpful, and now I'm done.
Relief. That's the word best suited to my overall impression ( "pleasure" is obviously close behind ! ). Relief to have found a quality series for a change, and such a relief to have a WOMAN as the lead character instead of some self-absorbed chaebol MAN. And what a fascinating character to watch. The absence of the standard K Drama clichés is also refreshing.
Ms Jang ( played by singer IU ) is the owner of the titular hotel, a place for the dead to rest and sort their affairs before the Grim Reaper sends them on the road to the Afterlife. I won't bore you with a lengthy story description because you can get that from VIKI or IMDB. What's crucial is the quality of the writing ( thank you Hong sisters ) and all the characters benefit. Everyone has a substantial back story and each of the ghosts passing through has an interesting tale to tell. The supernatural clearly plays a major part in the story ( especially re-incarnation ) and you'll discover the difference between a vengeful ghost and an evil one. As with all the best K dramas, there's a satisfying mix of drama, humour and tears here, as well as a goodly dose of the scary. Even the Reaper gets a cutely comical scene towards the end, and especially in the last third, a number of scenes surprise and delight with their creativity. And of course you'll cry a lot at the final episode !
Back to Ms Jang, and what a role this is. I'm sure every young actress in South Korea would've been chasing it because there's so many layers to the character. Being around for more than a thousand years enhances the scope, so we see her as a tough thief with a gang in olden times. That's where her bitterness arose, and a sword is wielded as well as a sharp tongue. In modern times, a rather jaded Ms Jang has become cynical and sarcastic and doesn't suffer fools gladly. She's also a dedicated materialist, lusting after yachts, paintings and expensive cars. There is, naturally, a good heart beneath the frosty exterior, just waiting for the right person to help it blossom.
Good writing needs a good cast to do it justice, and Yeo Jin Goo as the fresh-faced human manager Mr Gu is the perfect foil to the caustic Ms Jang. His natural affability was an asset in the recent "Absolute Boyfriend" ( which, by the way, was remarkable for confirming that Japan, Taiwan and also Korea couldn't quite get it right ) and his youth gives their interplay a bit of a cradle-snatching angle since she's about four years older in reality. The romance angle is possibly not what we might have expected, yet is nevertheless moving and heartfelt. K Popper P.O. is sweet as the bellboy, Bae Hae Sun is enjoyably maternal as the Room Manager and Shin Jung Geun is avuncular as the crusty barman. Also making a strong impression is Kang Mina ( another K Popper, from the group Gugudan ) as the managerial intern. This quintet are the central "family" of the hotel, and their backstories are extremely affecting. A group of other actors do good work in supporting roles, while Seo Yi Sook is excellent playing a variety of gods who seem to be related. Of the various cameos, the most obviously poignant is that of IU's friend Sulli, who tragically committed suicide recently. The role and it's outcome acquires a sad extra dimension with that in mind.
And so to IU. Ms Jang dominates the show as the planet around which everyone else revolves and the singer/actress pulls off all the many moods and emotions with convincing assurance. Whether it's the ferocity of a warrior in a fight or a girlish giggle or a moving speech full of emotion, this woman can do it all. It's also interesting for such a small and slightly built person to play such an alpha personality. The icing on the cake here is the outfits : IU is a beautiful young woman in her physical prime and the dazzling array of clothes she has to wear present a true combo treat for the eyes. And she looks particularly stunning during a scene set in olden times wearing a light blue costume with her hair coiled at the sides of her head. HDL is almost a demo reel for IU, as if she's saying to the world : here I am, and this is what I can do. The phrase "A Star Is Born" definitely comes to mind. Movies must surely be the next step; I was watching the excellent "Parasite" again and she could have easily managed the part of the poor family's daughter. As to the arty mini-series "Persona" she did this year for Netflix, it hints at a pleasing desire to take chances.
Director Oh Choong Hwan should be applauded for the smooth flow/pacing on display, and the show looks beautiful thanks to the DP. Not quite in the same esteemed league as the lustrous "Mr Sunshine" but lovely nonetheless and ditto for the production design of a hotel which is like a character in the story. And a nod to the music which is very good too.
Gripes ? Well, just a personal preference : since the camera is usually using a long lens in close ups or mid shots, the background is fuzzed out and so the gorgeous hotel and its décor are lost. Yes, I know this tactic ( the so-called "vanity shot" ) is designed to keep the performers front/centre and avoid distractions, but it's a waste here in my view. And.....who or what was in room 404 ? Hmm ? All Mr Gu had to do towards the end is open the door, peek in and say "oh, it's you", then laugh. Or peek, scream and run like hell; an explicit explanation isn't vital. Some closure would've been nice, or did they just forget ?
Anyway, do watch HDL. Put simply, it provides what we all look for : a good story well told. Actually, make that "very" well told.