By Bryan Tan
This review, which contains spoilers, covers episodes 1-4 of Royal Secret Agent, which is currently available on iQiyi.
Enter Royal Secret Agent, a semi-comedic series helmed by director Kim Jung Min, who is well-loved for his work in popular sageuk dramas, with titles like Gunman In Joseon (2014), Grand Prince (2018) and Selection: The War Between Women (2019/20).
Royal Secret Agent was produced by the KBS network but is available in Singapore through iQiyi, which is expanding its streaming services beyond China.
Kim Myung Soo, from the popular K-pop boy band Infinite, plays Sung Yi Gyeom, a disgruntled civil servant (with incredibly good looks) in the Joseon dynasty’s civil service, who gambles after work and inadvertently becomes chosen to become a royal secret agent.
He comes across Hong Da In (Kwon Na Ra), a spy for the Chief Secretary (Ahn Nae Sang) in the king’s (Hwang Dong Joo) cabinet. Together with his trusty and very ditsy servant Park Chun Sam (Lee Yi Kyung), the trio attempt to dispense the king’s justice while remaining undercover, and in the process uncovering sinister plots and politicking amongst Joseon’s aristocrats.
The Royal Secret Agent is appointed
The pilot episode starts with the death of the current royal secret agent, Park Cheol Gyu (Kim Seung Su) at the hands of corrupt officials and their henchmen. The Chief State Councillor (Son Byung Ho) attempts to dissuade the king from appointing other inspectors, on the pretext that they cannot be trusted.
Sung Yi Gyeom gambles illegally at night with other civil servants, and frequents courtesan houses or gibang to entertain his colleagues. He gets into a tussle with Honglang a.k.a Hong Da In, the most sought after courtesan, and is humiliated in front of his superiors in the gibang.
Da In secretly liaises with Chief Secretary to exchange information on the Chief State Councillor, who also frequents the gibang. While making his rounds, the Chief Secretary discovers Yi Gyeom’s little gambling den.
Instead of punishing the itinerant civil servant, the Chief Secretary appoints him as a royal secret agent, trusting that Yi Gyeom’s righteous instincts as a former top civil exam scorer will prevail. Unfortunately, his trust is immediately proven wrong when Yi Gyeom gets comically drunk at an inn and yells loudly about his new appointment.
Da In is dispatched to join Yi Gyeom and his servant after her cover as a spy is blown. The trio are sent to the village where the former royal agent was killed to find out more about how he died.
The irony is not lost as even though the identity of the royal ‘secret’ agent is meant to be a ‘secret’, everyone seems to know about it. Will Yi Gyeom be able to carry out his duties as an agent of the king?
Who is the real Royal Secret Agent?
The royal secret agent’s entourage reaches the outskirts of the town they are supposed to investigate. Hilarity ensues when they find a small spring and Da In strips to take a dip at night, and bumps right into Yi Gyeom, who also has the same idea.
Kim Myung Soo finally bares his amazing abs and rock-solid body in this scene, completing his Greek god-like image with flawless features and remarkable visuals. Definitely boyfriend material!
In the town, Yi Gyeom formulates a plan to curry favour with the magistrate and suss out information. He sells Da In as a courtesan to the local gibang and buys a bow to hunt down a wild boar that has been terrorising the locals.
Da In pursues a lead in the late royal secret agent’s journal and establishes her dominance in the local gibang. Yi Gyeom successfully hunts down the boar and presents it to the ‘’Big Sheriff’’ (Jun Sung Hwan), the local magistrate and his son Kang Jong Gil (Han Jae Suk), ‘’the Little Sheriff’’, who have been extorting the locals with exorbitant taxes.
Things get out of control when Chun Sam, Yi Gyeom’s servant, flashes the royal secret agent’s badge with which he was entrusted with, to save a young mother and her children from being seized by tax officials.
Da In tries to persuade a pregnant courtesan, Sawol (Kim Ju Young) to provide information on the former royal secret agent. Alas, the existence of a secret royal agent is exposed to the magistrate, and he goes into a panic.
A servant disgraced
Sawol, although initially hesitant to cooperate with Da In for fear of reprisal, is shot by an arrow on the verge of revealing crucial information. She then gives birth against all odds, and breathes her last after her son is born.
Another comical scene arises when Sawol’s baby cries, and Da In tells the two men that it needs to be fed. Both of them stare at the baby, then at Da In, and slowly gaze downwards towards her chest.
Chun Sam is thought to be the royal secret agent, and is treated to a meal and bribed with gold by the Big Sheriff. Yi Gyeom tries to find out who made the arrow that killed Sawol, but finds out that the bow maker who made it was already dead.
It’s fairly clear by now that Yi Gyeom has developed feelings for Da In, as he punches the Little Sheriff for being a little too touchy with her whilst she was trying to get him drunk to fish for information.
Chun Sam is punished and dismissed from Yi Gyeom’s entourage when he finds out that she posed as the secret royal agent. Yi Gyeom finds out where the late royal secret agent was buried and is captured by Kang Jong Gil.
Infiltrating the mountain of gold
Both Yi Gyeom and Chun Sam are sent to work deep in the mountains, where apparently the aristocrats have been gathering slave labourers to dig for gold.
Da In lures the Big Sheriff into a meeting with the Chief of the Royal Guard Choi Do Gwan (Shin Ji Hoon), who takes out his guards and helps her to escape. It turns out that Do Gwan was there to receive reports from Da In on Yi Gyeom’s movements.
Yi Gyeom and Chun Sam try their best to survive in the mountain quarry, but Yi Gyeom gets into a scuffle with the guards. He witnesses first-hand how the labourers are abused with hard work and little food, and devises a plan to escape with their help.
Da In and Do Gwan pretend to be wine traders and infiltrate the mountain quarry, lulling the guards to sleep with numbing wine. Yi Gyeom and Chun Sam also bust out of prison by pretending to quarrel and knocking the guards out when they open the prison doors.
Amusingly, they evade each other as Yi Gyeom and Chun Sam were both dressed up as the quarry guards. A huge fight ensues when Kang Jong Gil shows up at the quarry and all the labourers take up arms.
Jong Gil manages to escape the quarry during the fight, with Da In as a hostage. Yi Gyeom tries to rescue her but she is tossed down the side of a cliff.
Well, obviously she survives, because we’re only halfway through the series. Watch out for our review of the remaining episodes of Royal Secret Agent!
Read more recaps for Royal Secret Agent here.