Hotelier (2001) Review: Revisiting a classic and cutting into it.

Hello. It is getting cooler with September rolling in to chase away the heat devils that have been wandering the earth here in Korea. Today, I’m bringing you are look into the 2001 Korean drama classic that many newer fans may have heard of but not have actually watched. It is the “Hotelier” starring Bae Yong-Joon, Song Yoon-A, Song Hye-Kyo, and Kim Seung-Woo. It was a pretty heavy hitting cast at the time but, in retrospect, it was a pretty awesome cast.

I’ll get to the cast a little bit later.

Why am I writing about this show now after about 14 years since it was first aired in the living rooms of Korea? Well, I recently made a fan edit of this drama trimming it down to about 2 hours and 30 minutes divided into 3 parts for easy consumption. I had previously attempted to review this show a few times but never, for some reason, was able to finish it. This editing process, which means basically going through scene by scene and sometimes frame by frame, made me more appreciative of this show.

Oh I’m Prof. AKIA who talks about Korean dramas on this blog!

The show “Hotelier” is located in an interesting place among Korean drama history. During the mid-1990s, Korean drama started to make a small but significant leap forward with the “Trendy Miniseries” format including shows such as “Jealousy” (1992) and “Pilot” (1993). In many aspects that even Koreans acknowledge, “Trendy Miniseries” was basically “copying” the content and feel of late 80s Japanese dramas. And it felt like it. In many ways, it didn’t totally represent mainstream Korean tastes. There were still elements that felt alien to Korean audience which the young folks liked and the older people didn’t. The remaining decade was more of a process of copying and localizing the “Trendy Miniseries” format to make it look more like what we consider Korean drama now.

This foundation building period lasted until the end of the 20th century. The 21st century was going to open a new age of Korean drama with a big bang. “Hotelier” (2001) was not that show. That honor of ushering the new age in was given to “Autumn in my Heart / Autumn in the Heart / Autumn Fairy Tale” (2000), a show that most Korean drama fans have at least heard about. It was a show that compressed all the development in Japanese dramas and movies over the decade and then really made it Korean. It starred many now familiar faces but Song Seung-Heon and Song Hye-Kyo were the Marquee names.

“Hotelier” (2001) was the successful follow up to “Autumn in my Heart / Autumn in the Heart / Autumn Fairy Tale” (2000) showing that this was not a fluke but the new direction of Korean dramas. Well the actual spiritual successor was “Winter Sonata” (2002) but you get the gist of it. Even now, watching other Korean dramas from the 2001s, “Hotelier” (2001) is the only one that really holds up in terms of its sophistication relative to other shows such as Beautiful Days (2001), Delicious Proposal (2001), and Life is Beautiful (2001). Those shows feel very rough on the edges in comparison.

In addition, “Hotelier” (2001) was at the peak of Korean dramas’ actual wonder regarding exotic profession. Before this show, I had no real idea what the word “Hotelier” meant. Hadn’t even heard of such a thing and I was not in a minority. As a result, the show actually spends a lot of time delving into the nitty gritty of the biz. This is the same for the whole M&A raider thing but that is more of a gimmick. The show has no idea of basic economics. Now, professions in Korean dramas are window dressing there for mostly as an excuse to justify why characters have money and wear expensive clothes. The wonder is gone…

The Plot
What is the story about?

At a hotel located in Seoul aptly named “Seoul Hotel,” we have our protagonist, a not-hooker Julia Roberts, working as an assistant manager there. Things are turbulent for her at the moment. In her work life, the hotel is experiencing some issues with a recent tragedy in upper management and subsequent financial problems. In her personal life, her ex-boyfriend came back from living in America and has reentered her life but only as friends.

So, things not peachy for her but not terrible.

As the old saying goes, when it rains it pours. A new man enters her life. A Richard Gere you may say. He is a rich VIP guest at the hotel and is aggressively courting her. “Hotelier” (2001) is a show about this female protagonist’s life through this period of change in her life. She is played by Song Yoon-A.

The Show & Pretty Woman
“Hotelier” (2001) is essentially “Pretty Woman” (1990) without the hooker angle. I would say “Pretty Woman” (1990) set in a hotel but, thinking about it, a lot of that movie was located in a hotel. I am not joking! “Hotelier” (2001) is a blatant “Pretty Woman” (1990) clone from characters to basic plot.

First it is about a Korean-American M&A specialist trying to take over a hotel. In “Pretty Woman” (1990), it was an American M&A specialist trying to take over a navy ship builder. Bae Yong-Joon is cast in the Richard Gere role.

Second, in both cases, the M&A specialist has a change of heart under the influence of a woman. They decide to get away from raiding companies and start getting involved in the running of them. In other words, love warmed the Grinch’s heart. Also, both characters have massive daddy issues.

The similarities are numerous.  “Hotelier” (2001) has an equivalent of Jason Alexander’s character in “Pretty Woman” (1990) with basically the same character dynamic and subplot excluding the attempted rape thing. Everyone has to have a happy ending as this is a Korean drama after all. “Hotelier” (2001) did not start this trend and it was not that last. The two also have a similar feel to their looks. “Hotelier” (2001) even has a character that performs what is basically Laura San Giacomo’s wacky sidekick character. While there is not a one to one parallel to Héctor Elizondo’s career defining “Pretty Woman” (1990) character in “Hotelier” (2001), that role is spread across multiple roles in the show.

One even dies in the first episode!

The Protagonist
The biggest difference between the show’s and movie’s characters is that the protagonist is not a street “hooker!” Considering that Korean dramas never really touches on the subject of prostitution, this is not a surprising change. Even in historical dramas where you could get away with more, I cannot remember a show with a courtesan protagonist. At most, they are white washed side characters. I’m talking about you “Dr. Jin” (2012). While I do get why this is so, this white washing is still a little weird considering Korea’s rather huge underground prostitution rackets.

Koreans may not be global front runners in many things but our tendencies toward sleazy sex can compete on a global area. Oddly enough this is not so in porn. Korea makes a lot of porn that try to also be a drama. The result is a lot of dull porn. But we got sidetracked here.

If you look at Song Yoon-A’s character in “Hotelier” (2001), she is difficult to describe. Well other than she is not a hooker and does not dress like one from “Pretty woman” (1990). Have you seen that movie recently? Oh the early 90s!  Back to point, she is not Julia Roberts. The protagonist is, first, competent at her job. However, she is not a typical maternal or workaholic type also. At the same time, she is not totally a mess in her personal life although she can be somewhat of a klutz at times.  She is also pretty sweet and well-liked by everyone. I may describe her a half Meg Ryan and half Julia Roberts but I’m not sure about the proportions.

What I am trying to get is that the character is rather rough on the edges and complex unlike the well packaged and streamlined female characters you see nowadays. Even though she is a character on a show, she seems more real as it seems that she was not designed to perform a single story function with a pretty face and nice clothes. Okay she is pretty but also has random issues and faults. I mean, even though she is a good person, she can be a jerk and be petty from time to time like all of us.

This can actually be said for most of the female characters in the show. They all have a rough surface to them that make them more realistic. This aspect of character creation is a remnant of the 80s and early 90s Japanese drama influence which got removed from Korean dramas in the late 2000s as the industry got more formulaic and streamed lined.  

I miss those days but I’m an old man that wants you to get off his lawn!

The Cast
Let’s talk about the cast for a moment.

Because of his hit show “Winter Sonata” (2002) the following year, “Hotelier” (2001) is remembered as Bae Yong-Joon’s show. The older Japanese lady fans of his didn’t help with this perception. However, “Hotelier” (2001) is really Song Yoon-A’s tour de force show. While she had been in a few shows prior to this, this show was her breakout role that she milked for years after in product commercials.

She was the girl next door.
She was the girl who you bring to your parents.
The older folks loved her which sold a lot of stuff!

The early 2000s was a rather weird time where several high profile Korean drama actors stopped acting in favor of just working in product commercials. Song Yoon-A has a huge gap in her resume for the rest of the 2000s except for a few exceptions like “On air” (2007). Bae Yong-Joon basically retired after 2007’s “The Legend.” Lee Young-Ae of “A Jewel in the Palace” (2003) fame basically did the same thing.

Not sure why…

Many newer foreign Korean drama fans tend to dislike Song Yoon-A because their only exposure to her was “On Air” (2007). I like the show but I do have to say that she felt a little rusty and over did it with her character at times. However, in the silent moments, you see some of what we saw in “Hotelier” (2001). Song Yoon-A is an actress of a lot of subtle body language underneath her energetic characters. Editing through “Hotelier” (2001) made it difficult to cut scenes as I was rather impressed by slight changes in her body language in every frame. It would have been sad to leave them on the cutting room floor. The conclusion is that she is great in “Hotelier” (2001) which oddly enough may not make her well suited to the current trend of Korean dramas.

“Winter Sonata” (2002) fans may ask “What about Bae Yong-Joon?”

“Hotelier” (2001) is mostly a two person romance although there is somewhat of a third wheel. Among the two main male actors, Bae Yong-Joon is the weaker one in terms of acting. Kim Seung-Woo of many Korean dramas is a steady dependable actor albeit may not be leading man material. In contrast, Bae Yong-Joon reminds me of an early career Brad Pitt before he turned respectable actor. I mean the pretty boy phase of his career.  Bae Yong-Joon is pretty but his performance is just serviceable as it is just not as robust as the majority of the other cast members. Well he may be better than Song Hye-Kyo at the time. She got much better later in her career. Sadly, Bae Yong-Joon never attempted to try to be the Brad Pitt of now as he basically gave up before he ever reached that point.

What a shame!

I do have to give credit to him that he was able to deliver a lot of cheesy lines with a straight face. If I think about it, not being the best of actors may have helped with this. “Hotelier” (2001) makes Bae Yong-Joon deliver the most dialogue of his rather limited career. I mean he talks too much.  The script of “Hotelier” (2001) tends to be very talky especially for the ladies’ roles. In comparison, the male roles are more silent strong types. In the case of Bae Yong-Joon’s role, this also applies except for romantic scenes. Then, he just explains the scene via dialogue going on and on when a single glance should suffice.

I was there shouting at the screen, “shut up and just kiss her!”

I think part of the reason for this was that they needed to fill in time as can be seen by the fact that there are a lot of lingering shots and establishing shots throughout the show. Another part is that the “silent but strong men” type was going out of fashion at the time. Contrary to newer Korean drama fans’ understandings of Korea, the rugged manly man was the ideal portrait of Korean men until quite recently. Now metrosexual is all the fashion. In any case, Korean women who made up the majority of Korean drama audience wanted a man who would actually talk to them. Thus, Bae Yong-Joon’s role was born.

Being a Korean Drama
I said previously, “Hotelier” (2001) is a “Pretty Woman” (1990) clone with even the movie’s lack of understanding regarding economics. However, “Pretty Woman” (1990) was a 125 minute movie and there is not that much to expand on beyond what has been done in the movie. “Hotelier” (2001), by removing the hooker angle, doesn’t even do the makeover montage. The best it does is to get a deliveryman to show up with some random stuff the protagonist ends up making the guy return. You’ll have to wait until 2004’s “Lovers in Paris” for some proper makeover scenes. So, this means that there is a need for more plot to fill up the 20 episode run time.

So, “Hotelier” (2001) does what Korean dramas are known to do except for the fact that it does it slightly differently. I mean inserting unnecessary filler material. Like in “Pretty Woman” (1990), “Hotelier” (2001) is a two person core story. However, how can a Korean drama do that even then? Just two persons? Where is my love triangle?

Actually, a lot of the early “Trendy Dramas” tended to move away from the love triangle as an influences of Japanese dramas. “Hotelier” (2001) takes somewhat of a middle position by adding a third wheel to the romantic equation but in a rather unique way. The third wheel played by Kim Seung-Woo is an ex and the head manager at the hotel. The unique part is that the third wheel’s part in the romance equation already was put mostly to rest even before the show started. What is left is the left-over emotional baggage the protagonist has to clean up. Thus, it keeps mostly to being a two character show.

In many ways, the head manager’s story is mostly a subplot albeit a big one dealing with the whole M&A hostile take up plot point. Talking about subplots, there are actually many in the show. The head manager even gets his own somewhat romantic subplot involving Song Hye-Kyo‘s character. Considering “Autumn in my Heart” (2000) was a huge hit, Song Hye-Kyo‘s role in “Hotelier” (2001) is oddly a rather unnecessary side character in many ways although it does tie in to a lot of other subplots. This show has a lot of them.

Not going to list them all!

 A huge difference between “Pretty Woman” (1990) and “Hotelier” (2001) is the fact that the former doesn’t have an antagonist. Just think about it. Yes, Jason Alexander’s character plays a bad guy but he is not the antagonist of the movie. Rather that role is Richard Gear’s part to play. You can call “Pretty Woman” (1990) a character piece as the problems the characters have is generated from within and not from beyond. Also, this makes what would look like a lackluster ending on paper work. Richard Gear’s character just decides to change and that is it. End of movie.

Korean dramas can’t really do this. “Hotelier” (2001) goes close but it still needed to create an actually antagonist for the show which ends up being the rich/mob-like character who is also Song Hye-Kyo‘s character’s father. Now we see Korean drama’s story-wise inbred characteristics rear its nasty head up. It is not enough that the lead guy changes his mind. He has to fight the big bad before the show could end and he gets his happy ending.

Stuff that does not work
This is where the show goes rapidly downhill although not reaching the gutter like more recent Korean dramas. The other subplots you can take or leave. In many ways, other than filling in time without being terrible, there is no need for them to exist. However, because of the setup of the show, you have to deal with the M&A plot at the end.

The show tends to mostly ignore this plot until episode 12 or so as it was distracted with the romance stuff. There are a lot of problems with the episodes after this shift. First, the show’s understandings of the reality of M&A are rather crude making the whole attempt to allocate at least more than 90 minutes in total on that subject rather laughable. Second, in the emotional responses of the characters, there is a sense that the show was putting in artificial hurdles to slow down their progress which was actually proceeding at a fast pace. Third, the show ends up solving the whole M&A plot by using the even then cliché “rich bad person is basically a gangster” approach.

Fanedit Trailer

Cutting in
Now let’s talk about my fan edit which I call "The Guest at the Hotel." You may guess what I did from what I have written up to this point.

I made it…

I made it a cleaner cut “Pretty Woman” clone as much as I could! The two person love story was the core in that movie and is also true for the Korean drama. This mean cutting a lot of subplots out.

For examples, the whole “will the ex-boyfriend become head manager” subplot is cut. Most of the post episode 12 M&A stuff are cut including the whole antagonist part. This means that Kim Seung-Woo’s role as the head manager at the hotel is significantly reduced although he still is an important supporting character. Song Hye-Kyo is totally cut out of the fan edit and you will not miss her. Later in the show, there is a long lost sister subplot which is totally shoehorned in. That is gone now.

In terms of the two main characters, most of their courtship is retained although trimmed. A lot of the rather awkward emotional flip flopping is gone. In terms of Bae Yong-Joon’s talky romance scenes, I trimmed them as a look suffices.  The male lead’s daddy issues are still there although the rather hastily happy resolution is excised.

This leaves only the happy ending.

In the show, there is a big confrontation with the bad guy that leads into the happy ending. Considering I removed most of the bad guy’s role in the fan edit, this creates somewhat of a problem. Thus, I kept with the “keeping it like ‘Pretty woman’” approach. The conclusion of the conflict ends with the lead guy changing his mind. In other words, there is no big confrontation. And I think it works.

The only problem is that, after the big confrontation, the show has another subplot regarding “will the female lead leave the hotel with the male lead” conflict. If I included this, the pacing of the story would be off. Thus, I removed this which makes cutting around it rather tricky. I think I made it work but not totally sure.

At the end
The movie “Pretty Woman” was released in Korea in 1990 and I still remember the hoopla about that movie. It was a smash hit in Korean and made Julia Roberts a big star here which is weird in retrospect. She does not have the look Koreans go for.

A decade later, Koreans made its first and really last “Pretty Woman” clone. I cannot remember any more shows or movies that come as close to “Pretty Woman” since then. It is as if the Korean entertainment industry was announcing that they were all grown up. They proved they could do what was done in the past by Hollywood but now they were moving on.

This is also true for the Japanese drama influences on Korean dramas. “Hotelier” (2001) is one of the last shows that still was heavily influenced by the late 80s and early 90s Japanese dramas. Entering the mid-2000s, Korean dramas really went their own way. This makes the Japanese remake “Hotelier” (2007) really weird in concept. That remakes was done in the post 2000 style of Japanese dramas which is very different from the prior style that actually influenced the source material.

Also that show was bad for even Japanese drama standards of the day.

While not the first one to usher in the second phase of the Korean drama renaissance, “Hotelier” (2001) made a firm impact on Korean drama history by proving that this was not a fluke. It is an important show that one should watch. It does not hurt that it mostly holds up.

At this point, grading this show doesn’t mean much but I give in an A anyway.

Score: A or 9/10

This was Prof. AKIA and thanks for reading. If you want to get a chance to see my fanedit, the easiest way now is to get into the early access previews. You can get in by joining on of my raffles I have going on. 

Other articles you may enjoy!
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The Virtual Bride / The Eccentric Daughter-in-Law (2015) First Impressions

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