The humanity in My Mister

Life is a complicated mess. We all have challenges and traumas that we carry with us on a daily basis. It might feel that the world is a hostile place and you keep asking the same questions. “Why am I here? Why does it feel like the whole world is laden upon my shoulders?”

These are questions that belong to what I call the greater mystery of life. Questions that we often see asked by characters in books, films and tv shows. These are not easy to answer, especially when we struggle with them ourselves in real life. But through exploration of options, by the act of trying different responses based on the encountered situation we may gain a level of insight in ourselves. An insight into our morality if you will. The Korean drama My Mister is such an exploration. 

Premise of My Mister

My Mister follows the characters Lee Ji-an and Park Dong-hoon* as they form an unlikely connection whilst dealing with the misery in their life. The character of Ji-an is a 21 year old dealing with massive debts left by her mother while at the same time caring for her sick, deaf grandmother. 

Dong-hoon is the manager of Ji-an’s department at a structural engineering company. He is under constant scrutiny and manipulation by his supervisors, family and friends. We see him carry that weight tenfold because he is viewed as the only one from his neighborhood who made it big since he works at a big company. 

The plot starts moving when Dong-hoon receives a bribe that was not intended for him. Dong-hoon’s rival in the company sees this as an oppertunity to get rid him. Both our characters get involved from different angles which causes an exploration and eventually deepening of their relationship.

Besides the main characters there are at least 10 interesting side characters who interact with these main characters whilst dealing with their personal issues. While the drama is layered with Korean social norms the problems of these characters are distinctly human. Situations at work and relationship issues with family and friends. This is what makes the show accessible and recognisable. **

The human condition

When I was searching the internet to get a broader perspective for this drama I stumbled upon this article where Brazilian author Paulo Coelho praised the show for its portrayal of the human condition. In My Mister we see this human condition play out and the characters deal with it. And whether the viewer has experienced similar problems or not, it is clear that life is a complicated mess. It is the morality of the characters that decides how they deal with this mess. For Ji-an it is to work like a crazy person and take no shit so she can care for her grandmother. For Dong-hoon it’s carrying his burden and that of others without complaint in the hope that someday, somehow things will change for the better. In fact, this behaviour is rooted in the very core of these characters as their respective names mean (if I recall correctly): “to (reach) comfort”  and “the strong pillar”. Behaviour which turns out to be their saving grace.

Morality as saving grace

Our moral or ethical behaviour is constructed by our view on life, our view of the human condition. It does not matter if its basis is rooted in a particular philosophy, religion or culture. Our first morality is always constructed when growing up. It is learned through family, peers and the media we consume. In simpler terms: it is learned through our environment. So it is fair to state that we are our environment

It is only natural that when we change our environment, our morality changes. This is what happens in My Mister. With the encounter of Dong-hoon and Ji-an, combined with the events of the show, the personal environment of these two respective characters start to change. Through their interactions they gain a new perspective. A new insight into their character. Insight that was hidden beneath the surface. Something that could have been suppressed or simply never manifested in this way before. For Ji-an it is as simple as learning to have tfaith in another person, and accepting that there are people who want to help and support you without anything in return. For Dong-hoon it is to take less shit from the people around him. He stands up for himself, because it is the thing that needs to happen so he can follow his own path. 

Real life introspection

My Mister provides us with a level of introspection that can be applied to real life. Not just because some situations are common to happen in everyday life but because it shows that we humans can adapt. Through interacting with others we can feel support in our cause to help a sick family member, pay our debts, or even learn that if we take a stand for someone we care about we also take a stand for ourselves. We take a stand for what we believe is the right thing to do. Humans are adaptation machines if they realize that they don’t need to invent the wheel themselves. They just need to be open to learn from others, even if you hate those people the most in life. 

If you are able to see the starting point, the process and reasoning behind decisions, you will learn from it. That’s why interaction with people and media on a deeper level is important. So that we can deduce what our own course of action would be. This way we can implement reasoning in our system and become stronger human beings because of it.***

Subtle but powerful

What I like most about My Mister is the subtleness of the changes. Over its 16 episode runtime we see characters slowly realize how they’ve been living over the past years and that a simple change can be meaningful. Take for example Dong-hoon’s younger brother Ki-hoon. At the start of the show he is a person who is stuck in his past, thinking about who people said he was 20 years ago. He never reached the potential people said he had. He feels depressed and scared because of a bad experience connected to that time and has become an inactive person because of it.

But with the single, subtle decision to start working as a cleaner with Sang-hoon we see him grow as a character. He becomes a person who learns to stand up for himself and talk more open about the things on his mind. A seemingly small choice but with powerful consequences. 

The switch from dying to living

Another subtle change is that Dong-hoon’s older brother Sang-hoon stops talking about their mother’s funeral. And this might be the most powerful change in the entire show. For at the start, the characters are concerned about death. Death of others and themselves. Especially since their life feels dead to them. They are wondering if their life would’ve been worth it when their time would finally come. But when at the show’s end enjoying life and caring about the people around you is the most prevalent sentiment. A dichotomy best shown in the football game after the funeral. 

“Life is a complicated mess, but we cannot let the negatives control us” is one of the simple and powerful messages of the show.**** We can only fully experience our humanity when we are alive. So live. And I hope that you may experience the beauty of life for yourself.

*Note that Lee and Park are the Korean family names, so for ease of reading I will refer to them by their first name

**It is also part of why the critical reception has been good. With 21 award nominations overall and winning the category best drama and screenplay at the 55th Baeksang Arts Awards. Not forgetting the 9.1 IMDB and MyDramaList rating

***The critical Drinker has something sensible to say about meaning in contemporary films

****Have some more life lessons from the show

Other sources and further reading

Francisco J. Ayala (2010): The difference of being human: Morality

My Mister fansite: give me slippers!

3 Quarks Daily review of the show

Motivational video: Humans as adaptation machines

How Hotel Del Luna frames its narrative around a tree

“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. 

Great Wall

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.

  1. Similar to the Sanzu river the river Styx
  2. As she mentions in episode 1: “I’m not dead. I still haven’t died. I’m just here.”