“If you don’t like how things are, change it! You‘re not a tree. You have the ability to totally transform every area in your life—and it all begins with your very own power of choice.”Jim Rohn
I like this quote a lot. It means that we humans are not static creatures. We can choose to change who we are and how we engage with the world. The power of this particular quote and its meaning started resonating a lot more after my second viewing of Hotel Del Luna on Netflix. This 2019 South-Korean drama series was a welcome change of tone after watching the more comedic My Love from the Star. It feels more grounded, and because of its storytelling roots in religion and folklore the narrative setting feels more relatable than the upper class romance story between a film star and an alien.
What is Hotel Del Luna?
Hotel Del Luna (HDL) is best described as a drama series with romantic and fantasy elements. The titular hotel is a place where the recently deceased can rest before they leave this world for the afterlife. They rest at the hotel to relieve themselves of grudges they held onto from their life. When done so satisfactory they leave for the mythical Samdo River1 to proceed to the afterlife.
The owner of the hotel is the sharp-tongued Jang Man-Wol. This woman has a love for expensive things and a deep grudge that has held her in this place for the last 1300 years. Only after the arrival of the new human manager things slowly start to change. The new manager, Goo Chan-sung is needed to assist with all the chores that the ghosts cannot do themselves. Especially monetary affairs since ghosts don’t deal in real world currency anymore. The hard working and kind hearted man initially doesn’t want to work at this unknown hotel. Especially since he is wanted by a lot of high-profile hotels in Korea because of his Harvard MBA and work experience. Only after his interest is peaked by the initial events of the story he decides to stay and fulfill the task the deity Mago gave him.
This is as far as I’ll go spoiler free. If you have not watched the show, I highly recommend you do. If you’re not sure if it’s for you, I’d advise you to watch the trailer or the first and second episode. That will give you a good indication.
Spoilers start now!
There is only one Moon tree
The moon tree as depicted in the show is fictional. I cannot find any story from myth or folklore in which this iteration of a tree has the same function. However we do often find old trees as guiding mentors in stories. But contrary to those stories, the Moon Tree in HDL is static and only communicates through visual means. In the narrative it holds all the remaining life of the hotel’s owner from the moment she was bound to this place. The Moon Tree can be seen as a representation of the character’s emotional state. So for 1300 years it has looked dead with its roots firmly placed in the grudges of the past. And we can clearly see that Jang Man-Wol is a character in limbo, unable to move on to the afterlife until she releases her grudges. But because she is unable to, her situation2 is basically a self created hellscape. This is partially the reason for her rough attitude. She takes what she wants and she drinks a lot to forget her predicament. But while she is unable to age physically, the magic of the tree has not taken the capability from her to grow psychologically.
She hates her precious
On a basic level Jang Man-Wol has a similar relationship with the Moon Tree as Gollum has with the One Ring. They are bound in a parasitic way where the living creature (Gollum and Jang Man-Wol) cannot live without the apparent lifeless object even when they both hate it. I will not delve deeper into Gollum’s relationship with the One Ring, but contrary to Jang Man-Wol he actively went to search for it after it was taken from him. For Jang Man-Wol it is different because the Moon Tree will follow her if she does not return to the hotel within the next day.
Despite appearances I believe the Moon Tree is not just an object of hate because it also is the only thing that reminds her of her (happy) life before she was bound to it. And like I mentioned earlier it is a piece of herself, a piece that she needs to face and eventually needs to accept so she can move on. And while it looks like she doesn’t want to release her grudges, I believe that on a deeper level she doesn’t know how to do it.
We all have our challenges, which sometimes look like multiple Great Walls stacked upon each other. The challenges we face are individual. You have different life challenges than I do. And while it initially may seem that the grudges of the ghosts in HDL are all aimed at old friends, family or loved ones; they are in fact unresolved personal issues. The ghosts need to learn to forgive themselves before they will be able to move on. Jang Man-Wol is one of them. She has no one to really talk to. No one takes the time to listen on a deeper level to what she has to say because of her aggressive demeanor. Which makes her a very lonely person. And while there may have been some characters who have been a pillar of support, none have the impact that Goo Chan-sung has.
I like the way the concept of reincarnation is woven into HDL. It implies that there is a high chance you will encounter a soul from your past life in the next one. So it seems only fitting that the boy who saved Jang Man-Wol in a past life will aid her again. Goo Chan-Sung is not afraid to have discussions about practical matters or ask the hard questions without expecting a proper answer. In that way I respect the character for his understanding of the human psyche. How often do we twist and turn to not give an honest answer to a difficult question. Or laugh because we are speechless and we have no ability to construct an immediate answer. Goo Chan-sung has the ability to ask the question and wait patiently until he receives a satisfying answer. This skill eventually breaks through Jang Man-Wol’s (self erected) barrier and over time she accepts that what happened was not her fault. She was as much a victim of the situation as she was responsible for killing Go Chung-myung. And when she realizes this and slowly releases her pain, the tree begins to bloom.
HDL is full of emotional healing. It shows us that when you share your pain with a trusted person, it will soften. When pain is released, we humans are able to emotionally move on. We have no reason to keep our roots stuck in the past. We can grow and change in such a fundamental way that we look like a completely different person to the outside world. But all you did was bring out your inner beauty. Grow flowers on your branches for other people to appreciate. Be a complete human being who is able to enjoy life with the full spectrum of emotions. Because if Hotel Del Luna taught me anything, it is that we never want to be like a dead tree.