I know that the first impression of a drama should be written or posted as early as possible, like in the first week of the drama premiere or even better, right after the first episode, but I have to admit something: I actually missed the fact that The Secret Romantic Guesthouse (꽃선비 열애사, literally ‘Flower Scholars’ Love Story’) would be a Mon-Tue drama, so I only got to catch up with the pilot week episodes over the weekend. Oopsie. But the episodes that have aired so far (4!) are such a delight that I can’t help but eagerly wait for Monday to come.
Despite the mouthful English title (yeah, I know…), the title hints at the other aspects of the drama aside from the Korean title: there are flower scholars, there are love stories, there are secrets, there are guesthouses, and of course, there is romance. Billed as a ‘mysterious, gripping romance’ series, Romantic Guesthouse features Shin Ye-eun as the titular guesthouse owner Yoon Dan-o, and her flower scholar guests: Jung Yu-ha (Jung Gun-joo), Kim Si-yeol (Kang Hoon), and Kang San (Ryeoun). On the surface, this drama looks like a generic love square waiting to blossom, but there is more to it.
Dan-o is no ordinary middle-class woman or a commoner running a guesthouse, but she is actually a noble lady in her 10th year of running her business. Unlike noble ladies her age living in comfort and preparing themselves to become potential brides, Dan-o has to support herself as she has lost her parents at an early age, leaving her to fend for herself and protect the house left behind by her father. Despite her situation, she never loses her bright and cheeky attitude and grows up to be a resilient and resourceful business owner. She might be going around wearing humble clothes, but one can see her noble grace when the time calls for it. Her seemingly normal daily life takes a new turn with the emergence of an old debt belonging to her father, which then forces her to join hands with someone looking for a traitor…
Now, the traitor is not someone who had killed somebody or committed a treacherous act, but rather a young boy whose birth status was the very reason for him to become a traitor. The missing Deposed Grand Heir Lee Seol escaped from the palace years ago after losing his parents and the throne to his ambitious (and the real treacherous) uncle. Dan-o actually met him when they were both young, but she was not made aware of his real status and name for the sake of sparing her life. The national examination season means young scholars flocking to the capital, so the runaway royal utilizes this opportunity to sneak into the capital and stay in one of the guesthouses in the area. So, since Dan-o is our leading lady, of course, the Grand Heir has to be one of the flower scholars around her. The big question is, which one of them is actually him?
Yu-ha is the one that is closest and most familiar with Dan-o, with him joining the guesthouse slightly earlier than the other two. He is a studious scholar and he even has his own study group, although the goal of the group seems to be quite shady for the time being, with all the book transcription and all. Still, Yu-ha appears to be a prim and proper scholar, dressing accordingly every day and carrying himself with poise and dignity. Dan-o treats him like a kind and thoughtful older brother, but his actions suggest that he might be harbouring feelings secretly toward her. Despite his noble status, he is actually an illegitimate son of his father brought into the house when his father was alive, but the family grows even more distant with his father’s passing. It seems that there is a birth secret in the making for Yu-ha..
Si-yeol happens to save Dan-o from a pestering nobleman trying to court her relentlessly, but soon he is dragged away by the patrol for the crime of running without paying his tabs. Ah yes, I forget to mention that he is the epitome of sleaze, fooling around drinking and finding joy in gambling. He either wins or loses on the gambling table, so he is someone with debts here and there. He enjoys making snide remarks and doing commentaries for others, but he cannot stand being left behind or being in the dark about something, hence his endless effort in feeding his curiosity. Unlike Yu-ha, Si-yeol openly admits that he is an illegitimate son of his family and he does nothing to chase ranks or pass the examination, just living his best life and finding himself a family at the guesthouse. However, his clothes are way too crisp for someone living recklessly..
Kang San is downright suspicious from the very beginning, judging from how he tries to evade the patrolling guards around the town all the time. He is clearly not from the nearby area, but his martial arts skills prove to be useful for him on his way to the boarding town. He is ‘tricked’ into being a guest of Dan-o’s, but this tsundere guy is just a puddle waiting for his icy cold exterior to melt. Gosh, he is the epitome of tsundere, from how he is grudgingly following after the others on their missions but ends up doing up the most in protecting Dan-o. The way he smiles when he looks at Dan-o when she is not looking will turn you into a puddle. Aha….excuse me for the fangirling. But then, it remains a mystery whether his warning for Dan-o to stop looking for the missing Grand Heir is out of concern for her safety or his own..
The leading cast is such a boost of vitamin for me and it is so enjoyable seeing them both in character and offscreen. Thanks to their similar age group, they appear to be having fun behind the camera and that translates well into their characters’ interaction onscreen. There are also lots of familiar faces among the supporting cast, most of them being actors and actresses I adore in their previous works. Hyun Woo is back as a king in SBS historical drama but this time, he is doing all the bad things instead of being the one getting the short end of the stick like in Jackpot. Ahn Nae-sang is the sharp and loyal Left State Minister searching for Lee Seol, and Oh Man-seok plays Officer Jang, the one hunting Lee Seol in order to catch the person who killed his son. Not to forget Han Chae-ah, this time not a Crown Princess but the charismatic owner of a courtesan house Buyounggak. Lee Mi-do portrays Dan-o’s wet nurse and closest confidante who is like a mother figure to Dan-o, and there is also In Gyo-jin as the long term guest of Dan-o’s guesthouse and also an acquaintance of her father, Yuk Yuk-ho. I am also curious on how a new face at Buyounggak, a courtesan named Ban-ya (portrayed by Hwang Boreumbyeol~love her name!) who is a fallen noble lady forced into servitude, will play her part in the whole picture, since her scene with Kang San literally leaves me wanting for more. Ah…
All in all, I would like to recommend giving this sageuk a try! It is light and not too dry so far; a good choice for those who wanted to try watching historical dramas but have been steering off the genre in fear of the heavy theme it always carries. What I love the most about The Secret Romantic Guesthouse so far is the way the characters speak, properly addressing people according to their social ranks. Thanks to the writer for the decent writing of the lines and the cast’s delivery of the script, my ears are singing praises for the ear candies. Oh, my eyes are also thankful for the beautiful shots and pretty faces on the screen. so kudos to the filming director and the casting director! Go and watch it already if have not done so! 😉
(By the way, I also like how the name of Dan-o’s guesthouse is such a sweet gesture of the person who named it, probably her late father. Yihwawon (이화원, 二花院) is translated in subs as Garden of Flowers, but the Hanja can be literally translated as ‘House of Two Flowers’. Why two flowers? Check out the drama, now streaming on VIU)