The Secret Romantic Guesthouse sounds like a love story about young couples who meet at a guesthouse and fall in love despite their social differences. Yes, there are love stories in this series that break the barrier of social status, but the series goes above and beyond that plot. Set in the era of Joseon around the 15th century, it is a fictional story about Lee Seol, the deposed grand heir to the throne, who returns to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the current king, Lee Chang. The king was cruel to kill his own brother to take the throne, and he is even more cruel to the people of Joseon. The youngsters, Kang San, Jung Yu Ha, Kim Si Yeol, and Dan Oh, are the progressive minds of the Joseon who don’t fear breaking social stereotypes and oppressive customs.
The first one has to be Lee Chang, the king of the country, who is feared by everyone, from his officials to his subjects. The man is a menace who killed his older brother, Lee Pyeong, who was the crown prince and the inheritor of the throne. Lee Chang managed to get the highest position in the country, but he has never had one night of peaceful sleep since then. He killed Lee Pyeong’s wife, but he failed to kill his son, Lee Seol. It has been thirteen years, and he has spent each day worrying that Lee Seol will come back and kill him one day. His cowardly and egotistic self kills anyone who even brings up the topic of Lee Seol returning. Lee Chang is ruthless, and people are suffering because of him. He doesn’t forgive people if they speak against him. Any word against him is called treason and results in the person being beheaded on the spot. He is insecure and unconfident because a lot of fortune tellers have predicted that Lee Seol is going to return to take the throne. He involves himself in many shamanistic rituals to change his fate and even brings in someone else’s baby as his son because neither his wife nor consorts have been able to give birth to a son. Lee Chang doesn’t like to lose, as his pride doesn’t allow him to do so. Even in his last moments, he preferred to kill himself rather than beg Kang San to spare him. He never deserved to be king, and the way he died showed just how miserable he lived even when he was king. However, he wished to live as royalty and die as royalty, so he didn’t even think twice before killing himself as he saw his royal status being taken away. He died as a king.
Kang San/Lee Seol
If determination was a person, it would be Kang San. He waited for more than a decade to find the right opportunity to get his revenge. He escaped the palace as a scared kid who saw his parents getting killed in front of him. Had it not been for young Dan Oh’s help, who provided him shelter to hide from the guards, he wouldn’t have survived. Years later, he returns to Hanyang and searches for Dan Oh first. The king is still on the lookout for Lee Seol, but no one knows if he is even alive or dead. Kang San got his new name from his adoptive family, who knew about his roots. Kang San came up with a plan, and he wasn’t going to let anyone hinder it. He acts rude and distant from everyone because his past taught him a huge lesson about not trusting anyone. He gets comfortable with the people of the guesthouse as Dan Oh, Yu Ha, and Si Yeol become good friends with him. Eventually, everyone finds out his real identity, but in different ways and at different times. They support his revenge and help him take down the king. In the process, Kang San finds his only remaining family member, Lee Gyeom, his half-brother, who is none other than Yu Ha. Kang San is brave and driven for revenge but not greedy for the throne. After deposing the king, he refuses to sit on the throne because he knows his limitations. He willingly gives the throne to Yu Ha with no regret. He chooses to live as Kang San with the love of his wife, Dan Oh. Kang San not only regretted the lives that were lost in order to protect him but made things right by finding the families of the people who died and helping them live normal life again.
Jung Yu Ha/Lee Gyeom
The ideal man himself, often called the most eligible bachelor in Hanyang, Jung Yu Ha is a longtime resident of Dan Oh’s guesthouse and also has a crush on her. He is not only intelligent but also courageous. Although he comes from a noble and rich family, only his family knows that he was adopted. He doesn’t know who his real parents are and always thinks about looking for them someday. He is a progressive person who wishes to enlighten people of all social classes and becomes a part of a secret organization for the same reason. Joining the secret organization named ‘Mokinhoe’ becomes the turning point of his life. Tired of the king’s unjust reign, Mokinhoe plans a rebellion to overthrow the king’s government. One of the members of Mokinhoe is Hwa Ryeong, who used to be the crown prince’s maid. She comes as a beam of hope in his life as she shows him who he really is. From her, he finds out that his real father is the late crown prince, Lee Gyeom. He remembers his father promising to take him home but never returning again, and now he knows why he never returned. Before Yu Ha knew who Lee Seol was, he borrowed his name to lead Mokinhoe in the rebellion. However, when he finds out that Kang San is the real Lee Seol, he even goes so far as to sacrifice himself in his name so that the real one can live. Yu Ha is the epitome of selflessness, and that’s the quality that led him to become the king of Joseon. He lived a pitiful life and could call his real mother by her name only once when Hwa Ryeong died in his arms trying to save him. The two brothers are different yet similar, and being born into different social classes didn’t affect their opinions of each other.
Kim Si Yeol
The most mysterious character, who held onto his real identity for the longest time, Si Yeol was trained to become the secret and personal guard of the royal family. His assigned master is Lee Seol, but even Lee Seol has no idea who he is. Si Yeol has been living as Lee Seol’s shadow and has been trained from childhood in all kinds of martial arts. He is always around Lee Seol, and to hide his identity, he acts completely opposite to his real personality. He first meets Dan Oh at a gambling house, where he is known to be a womanizer and a spoiled rich kid. He begs Dan Oh to let him live in her guesthouse when he finds out that Kang San is living there. Si Yeol always gives the impression of a good-for-nothing person who only likes to fool around. However, behind the charming and happy face is a sad heart that wishes to escape reality. Si Yeol grew up while learning to become a protector, but that life didn’t amuse him. He didn’t like killing people, but he didn’t know what else to do because he couldn’t throw away the responsibility at his feet. He finds comfort in Dan Oh’s sister, Hong Ju, who has been locked up in her house because of external forces trying to kill her. He finds their lives similar: living but not really living, trapped in a brutal reality. His happiness doesn’t last long when he finds out that he killed Hong Ju’s fiance, and that’s the reason Hong Ju has to live in hiding. He dreamed of a different life with Hong Ju, but his reality wasn’t going to let that happen. Despite his pain and wanting to run away, he protected Kang San until the end, not as his personal guard but as a friend. One’s suffering has to end someday, and so did Si Yeol’s. Hong Ju forgives and understands Si Yeol, even if it takes time. After wandering around alone, Si Yeol returns to Hanyang and finds his happiness again, this time forever.
Yoon Dan Oh
And for the last one, we have Yoon Dan Oh, the pivotal character and the one who was braver than all the other characters mentioned. Dan Oh’s life is also as miserable as the other characters. She lost her parents when she was very young, and later, her sister’s fiance’s father tried to kill her after his son died. For a young orphan girl to live on her own in Joseon is no more than an act of bravery. Even if she is of noble birth, just because she is a working woman, people see her as if she is from a lowly family. The men sending her marriage proposals are rich merchants from the market who are way over her age and can’t find a bride because of their bad reputation. Despite her struggle to survive in a patriarchal society, she never once feels hopeless. She is not afraid to take on challenges and believes that nothing is impossible. She treasures her family the most, and apart from Hong Ju, she also considers others at the guesthouse her family as well. When the situation worsens for Kang San, she doesn’t leave his side and decides to fight together with him, despite his opposition. She even learns archery from Kang San to protect herself, but in the end, she uses her skills to save Kang San himself. She was the one who brought many people together, and without her, the rebellion would have fallen apart. The kindness she gave to the world, despite her own hardships, was returned to her tenfold, as in the end, everyone around her became happy, and she could live her dream of traveling the country with Kang San.