I…really don’t know what to make of Secret Hotel. On the surface, it appears the usual light and frothy rom-com with an office setting (so expect the usual frenemies, office scandals, blahblah), but juz out of range from your peripheral vision, you sense something sinister lurking. (and waiting to pounce) The effect is kinda jarring, like drinking a sweet rice punch when you suddenly discover a finger inside? (erm ok, maybe that image is more disgusting than jarring. :P) Is this the effect the producers want when they claim Secret to be a “killing romance”? Sinisterly romantic? Or romantically sinister?
- Yoo In-na (from Queen In-hyun’s Man) as Nam Sang-hyo. 7 years ago, she was married to Koo Hae-young — in Vegas. They divorced and she came back to Korea to work in Secret Hotel as a manager for the Events Department, mainly handling wedding recepts. In accordance with kdramaland’s laws, her ex-husband returns to her life — as her next customer. For reasons unknown, she feels she is the wronged party in her previous marriage.
- Jin Lee-han (from Empress Ki) as Koo Hae-young. Sang-hyo’s ex-husband, though he still harbours feelings for his ex-wife, whom he fondly remembers looking like a bunny when scared. Makes me wonder why he’d marry the immature heiress, Jung Soo-ah. In case you are thinking it’s for the $$, Hae-young himself is not poor. He owns an architectural firm, and is a totally as*y boss and a demanding perfectionist.
- Namgung-min (from I Need Romance) as MD Jo Sung-gyeom. Managing Director of Secret Hotel and Sang-hyo’s boss. He plays Sang-hyo and her frenemy, Eun-joo, to his advantage, leaving the whole of the hotel’s staff tittering about their handsome MD and his two “love rivals”.
- Lee Young-un as Yeo Eun-joo. Sang-hyo’s frenemy and colleague from the rival PR Department. The two girls trade barbs on a daily basis and get hissy fits when each sees the other with MD Jo, but you get the feel that they do care about each other somewhat.
- Choi Jung-woo (from God’s Quiz1-3) as GM Lee Moo-yang. The General Manager of Secret Hotel and Sang-hyo’s direct boss, who probably feels threatened by MD Jo’s youth and recognition. GM Lee has worked many years in Secret Hotel, whereas MD Jo is poached by headhunters but chooses instead to work in the Secret Hotel. Thus the unhappiness. For reasons unknown (again), he is shielding the tardy Asst Mgr Hwang from being fired by the hotel.
- Kim Byung-choon (from Grandpas over Flowers Investigative Team) as Asst Manager Hwang Dong-bae. Eh…a really shady figure. Besides being the Asst Mgr in the Events Dept with Sang-hyo, he has a sideline as an ice sculptor (?), handling all the ice sculptures for the hotel. But he has a tendency to disappear on the job, and is always seen polishing and waving his ice pick at people’s faces. (sounds psychotic enough?) We are (maybe) led to believe that the murder at Secret Hotel is somewhat linked to him and GM Lee. Oh, and he is an itinerant gambler, frequenting shady gambling dens.
- Ha Yeon-joo as Jung Soo-ah. Hae-young’s wife to be. A typical (rich) airhead.
Read Dramabeans if you want a blow-by-blow recap.
We open to the wedding of Sang-hyo’s ex (Hae-young) and his bride. Sang-hyo has ensured all the necessary preparations are done, but the groom seems to have doubts about getting married. In fact, I kinda feel he wants Sang-hyo to ruin/ stop his marriage. Well, he does get his wish, a dead body (Asst Mgr Hwang) drops down from the domed ceiling to land in front of him (juz mere inches from crushing him to death).
Roll back to 2 weeks ago, when Sang-hyo is at a staff meeting and getting ticked off by Managing Director Jo for leaking the stats on a telephone survey she did a while back. The survey results show that couples who get married in Secret Hotel end up in a divorce in less than 3 months. (oops) But after the meeting, MD Jo calls her into his office, and sweet talks her, claiming that he needs to be “fiercer” to staff whom he deems are “his”. Sang-hyo is flattered, and even more so when MD Jo invites her to dinner.
Meanwhile, we get introduced to Hae-young in his architectural firm, and his meeting gets disturbed by a lady who claims he has “wronged” her…by being so handsome and smooth talking, so much so that she has been holding a torch for him for 8 years. (duh?) Next day, Hae-young drags himself to the meeting his fiancee has arranged at Secret Hotel to discuss their wedding plans. And both Sang-hyo and Hae-young are shocked at seeing each other — they are previously married to each other in Vegas 7 years ago. We don’t know why they break up — their romance and marriage 7 years ago feel genuine (based on their mental flashbacks), but we get hints that Sang-hyo feels wronged in the previous relationship.
Hae-young initially wants a change in wedding venue, but decides to irritate Sang-hyo by sticking to the plan. With no choice, Sang-hyo decides to be totally professional about it, though it seems like Hae-young is disappointed by her seemingly “good” ability to draw a clear line between work and her personal life. On the other hand, we know that Sang-hyo is very disturbed at seeing Hae-young — judging by the tears, the temper tantrums and aegyo-angsty faces Sang-hyo displays when alone.
Meanwhile, ep1-2 also briefly run through the other co-workers in Sang-hyo’s office. Besides the murdered Asst Manager Hwang, other fishy characters include a jealous intern (or maknae) Heo Young-mi, who can’t stand Sang-hyo cos she is pretty and well-liked by the other colleagues. Young-mi kinda finds out about Asst Manager Hwang’s shady otherside, but gets caught by him (though she doesn’t seemed to be harmed). The other notable character is Sang-hyo’s right hand (wo)man, Yang Gyung-hee, who appears the quiet, capable and supportive type to Sang-hyo’s more volatile character. However, in ep2, Hae-young accidentally stumbles across her sobbing her heart out alone at night in the hotel. Methinks it’s due to bad news from her health check up.
Like I said, I really can’t decide whether I like Secret Hotel or not. I am interested in some of the characters and their relationships to one another, but I also find I can’t stand some characters. Ironically, the like/dislike categories have some overlaps. Obviously I am interested in Sang-hyo/ Hae-young’s past — they still love and care for each other, and I want to know what (or who) broke them up to the point that Sang-hyo needs to run away from Vegas to Seoul. Sang-hyo is likeable as the usual feisty female lead, but I really can’t stand her unprofessionalism at times. On the surface, she claims to have “forgetten” and is totally “over” the 7-years ago relationship, but she screams and rants like a madwoman…in the office? Granted, she thinks nobody is around…but I don’t suppose the walls are soundproof. Anyway, they are definitely not, cos Asst Manager Hwang overhears and is the first to discover her link with Hae-young.
Next, Hae-young: he plays the typical, annoying male lead who has that usual softie side towards the girl he likes. Both he and Sang-hyo have some serious communication issues to work around, it seems that both parties have selective hearing and tend to misinterpret each other’s intents. If he still loves Sang-hyo to the point that he thinks about her (even before he is made aware that she is his wedding planner) and wonders about her reaction to his impending marriage…why is he marrying the airhead Soo-ah then? Although he claims it’s Soo-ah who proposed, he doesn’t need to accept it if he doesn’t love her right? From his actions — he throws her physically off him to receive a call from Sang-hyo, he mentally switches off when Soo-ah starts talking, he has zero interest in taking part in the wedding plans — they point to a super reluctant groom. Which all cluminate in his zombie walk down the aisle, before narrowly being missed crushed to pulp by Asst Manager Hwang’s body.
Then of course, there’s the second male lead. Ok, he inherits the typical I-am-egnimatic-but-I-am-fully-on-your-side trait of most kdramas’ second male leads. However, the “on-your-side” comes with strings attached. MD Jo always catches Sang-hyo at her weakest moments — another minus point in Sang-hyo’s “professionalism”. She is drunk and gibberish in MD Jo’s arms, caught by MD Jo in tears of frustration with Hae-young — not exactly an image you want to give your boss isn’t it? But back to MD Jo — the vibes he gives off are ambiguous. Does he like Sang-hyo as a person, or is he using her only as a tool? He loves to dangle carrots and plays favouritism — pitting Sang-hyo and Eun-joo against each other. It’s kinda manipulative. But I don’t really know what is the purpose behind the manipulations. Like Sang-hyo points out: segregating the staff in two camps and visibly showing favouritism/animoisity will create tension and suspicions among the workers. Is he setting out to destroy the hotel? And that’s why he rejects a headhunter’s offer in another prestigious hotel chain only to take up the current position in Secret Hotel?
Lastly, I feel very ambivalent towards the mystery-romance thingy. Although I’m a lover of whodunnits and a sucker for rom-coms, somehow the mix in Secret is a little off. For one, the editing is a little choppy. There’s this scene where Sang-hyo de-stresses with her colleagues in a noraebang and snotty Young-mi goes off for a smoke, to discover Asst Manager Hwang talking with GM Lee. Their conversation sounds suspicious enough, but as Young-mi smirks and walks off with this tidbit, someone (Asst Manager Hwang?) hair pulls her in a threatening way…and then the scene gets loped off. Next we see is Asst Manager Hwang in a shady gambling den and him stabbing/slicing a gangster’s fingers off to recoup his losses. These 2 back-to-back scenes left me bewildered. If this is suppose to feel mysterious”, I’m sorry, it doesn’t work. It’s more like confusing or annoying.