Edited by Seo Hae Lan
Translated by Kim Hoyeun
The youth historical drama has become a genre of its own. Set in a fictional space-time based on historical facts, young and passionate protagonists fall in love and grow. The overall tone is generally light, filled with excitement and emotion. In that sense, The Secret Romantic Guesthouse is a typical youth historical drama. However, this recently released drama holds more depth and seriousness than anticipated.
The drama follows Yun Dan O (Shin Ye Eun), a hardworking noblewoman who runs a guesthouse named Yihwawon, which is the only property left after her father’s death. Among the guests are Kang San (Ryeoun), who’s preparing for the state examination, aristocrat Jung Yoo Ha (Jung Gun Joo), and Kim Si Yeol (Kang Hoon), the son of a high-ranking official. One day, Dan O receives a notice to pay off her father’s long-standing debt, but she has no way to come up with the money. To solve her financial woes, Dan O makes a deal to have her debt waived by solving the greatest mystery in the city – uncovering the true identity of Lee Seol, the dethroned prince who disappeared several years ago. The three handsome men also join Dan O in her quest of protecting Yihwawon.
The Secret Romantic Guesthouse has two main storylines. One is the romance between Dan O and the three young men, each with distinct personalities and charms, who get closer to her in their own ways. The other is the search for Lee Seol, the prince who went into hiding during the so-called “War of the Princes,” which turned the country upside down. Even after ten years, Lee Seol’s existence remains a concern for the royal family and the top officials. As they track him down, various incidents occur, and in that process, the emotions of the three men and Dan O surge and ebb, and the secrets come to surface slowly but surely.
Unfortunately, the romance and mystery in The Secret Romantic Guesthouse don’t blend seamlessly. And yet, the mystery aspect of the drama is intriguing. The reasons why people are after Lee Seol are clear, and the process of Yun Dan O diving into the investigation is convincing. The drama limits the search for Lee Seol within Dan O’s capabilities by providing various clues to indicate that he is closer than expected. However, the most unexpected point is how the show reveals the answer to “Who is Lee Seol?” quite early on, clarifying that it is not the most critical question of the drama (regardless of whether the person revealed now is the real Lee Seol or not).
On the other hand, the romance part doesn’t unfold so smoothly. Kang San is the most likely one to become romantically involved with Dan O, but his identity remains unknown, making his motives and emotions towards her ambiguous. Yoo Ha has feelings for Dan O, but we know he wouldn’t end up with her (that’s the fate of a sub-lead), and Si Yeol remains as an observer of the emotional turmoil between the three characters. The directing of the romantic scenes in the drama also feels somewhat forced. The hand-holding, eye contact, and dialogue between the male and female leads feel like they are shouting out loud, “Now, it’s time for romance!” It may be the stereotypical composition and directing for a youth historical drama, but it feels lacking compared to the excellent structure and direction of the Lee Seol investigation.
The character setting feels reminiscent of Sungkyunkwan Scandal. The four characters living in the same space and working on the same task while sharing friendship and love has a familiar setup. Therefore, the acting and directing feels even more crucial. So far, the actors are passing with flying colors. Yun Dan O is one of the better-centered female characters in recent youth historical dramas. She’s nosy but just the right amount, tough yet delicate, and realistic yet hopeful. Shin Ye Eun portrays the Dan O character flawlessly with her honed acting skills. The actors who play the three young men also portray their roles well, but Kang Hoon as Kim Si Yeol stands out the most. The character of Si Yeol in The Secret Romantic Guesthouse, which is quite different from Kang Hoon’s previous drama The Red Sleeve, becomes all the more intriguing with the actor’s enigmatic expressions.
The Secret Romantic Guesthouse made it difficult to predict the upcoming story by making different choices from the original web novel in the early stages of the drama. And with these changes, the impact Lee Seol will have on Dan O’s life and the fate of Joseon became more critical than Lee Seol’s real identity. Now the question is, will the future development be able to make up for the fact that the mystery is more exciting than the romance? St what will the two stories be organically connected, and what kind of waves of emotions will the characters go through? And last but not least, who will become Dan O’s “partner”? (6/10)
Editor Seo Hae Lan: I’m not picky and like all genres. I am in constant search of a balance between criticism and a fan’s heart.