Gil Ra-Im (played by Ha Ji-Won)
Joo-Won (played by Hyun Bin)
Oska (played by Yoon Sang-Hyun)
Han Tae-Sun (played by Lee Jong-Suk)
There’s a lot going on in this K-Drama, which originally aired on SBS in South Korea in the winter of 2010. To be honest, the beginning was slow and not particularly engaging, which is why it took me several months before I decided to give the second episode a chance. But “Secret Garden” is one of those dramas that gets better as it progresses — even if that progression sometimes moves at a snail’s pace.
Joo-Won is a pampered rich man who runs his family’s fancy department store — when he shows up at work, that is. Gil Ra-Im is a hardworking stuntwoman, who was orphaned as a teenager. When the two meet, it’s a case of mistaken identity. He thinks she’s an actress who is having romantic problems with his cousin, Hallyu star Oska. It turns out that Ra-Im does indeed have a crush on Oska, but it’s not something that goes beyond being a fangirl.
Because this is a K-Drama, you now know that the plot has been set up for a complicated romance and a strong case of second lead syndrome. (Oska not only remembers having met Ra-Im before, but also her name!)
But … plot twist! There’s a third lead syndrome — Ra-Im’s boss, who quietly longs for her.
As handsome as Hyun Bin is, his early career included playing leading roles where the characters were unlikable for a good chunk of the series (“My Lovely Sam Soon” is another example). “Secret Garden” is no exception. Joo-Won has no qualms talking down to Ra-Im because she’s poor, uneducated and has a career that he doesn’t view as ideal. But when he finds himself crushing on her, he blames her for bewitching him.
Hmmmm. But there is an element of bewitching, which I’ll talk about in the spoiler alert below.
Some of the plot points that I enjoyed were when the characters discussed class issues and the unfairness of being treated better just because one has money. As Joo-Won points out, the rich view fairness as a ridiculous concept.
Because he’s petty and too immature to tell her that he likes her, Joo-Won conjures up ways to remain in her life. When Ra-Im is injured during a stunt, he insists on taking her to the hospital so that her injury is tended to. But he also demands that she repay him the $45 he paid for her emergency room treatment. Of course, it’s all a ruse so he can see her again.
But I almost couldn’t concentrate during this scene for two reasons. Most of us Americans can’t imagine a world where a visit to the E.R. without insurance costs so little. And also…that fugly sequined tracksuit, which he insisted was wonderful because it was expensive, made in Italy and one of a kind.
This series includes a supporting role by Lee Jong-Suk, who played a musical prodigy who has a love/hate relationship with Oska. His character is gay. It was a relief to see him treated as a wunderkind (because of his abilities as a songwriter and producer), rather than as a “freak” because of his sexual preference. It was nice to see his sexuality presented as a part of his life, rather than a cause for concern. Lee was barely 21 when he filmed this series and already showed signs of the star he would become.
There are some K-Drama tropes that don’t make any sense. For instance, Ra-Im is a taekwondo expert who can fight off multiple men. But she struggles when a man grabs her wrist. Really?
But I loved the ending to this series. It’s not a spoiler to say that there is a general sense of happily ever after, with a strong dose of reality thrown in.
Airdates: Twenty hour-long episodes aired on SBS from November 13, 2010 to January 16, 2011.
Spoiler Alert: When he was a teenager, Joo-Won was trapped in an elevator during a fire. Ra-Im’s firefighter dad rescued him, sacrificing his own life for Joo-Won’s. Understandably traumatized by the tragedy, Joo-Won is paralyzed with fear around elevators and refuses to ride them. He also has blocked out memories from that time in his life. In an odd move, his family (including Oska) kept up a charade that Joo-Won’s memory loss was caused by an automobile accident.
As he was dying, Ra-Im’s father seemed at peace, knowing that he had saved a life. But somehow, his death results in Joo-Won and Ra-Im being connected. After drinking liquor made by a mysterious woman they meet in the woods (because, really, that seems safe to drink, right?), the two end up switching bodies whenever it rains. They don’t return to their original bodies until it rains again. Good thing they don’t live in Seattle …
Joo-Won’s chaebol mother, Moon Boon-Hong, (played with malice by the superb Park Joon Geum) rarely shows signs of humanity, but she almost tricks viewers into thinking she’s a nice person. When she realizes that the firefighter who rescued her son was Ra-Im’s father, she begs Ra-Im to leave her son, because the shared history between the couple will be too much for his mind to handle. But then she quickly shows her true colors by turning spiteful and nasty again. It all boils down to the fact that she views Ra-Im as beneath her. If the latter came from a “good” family and had money in her bank account, I’m sure she would’ve accepted her as her son’s partner.
The mother actually has the nerve to tell Ra-Im that she owes nothing to her because she had already done enough for her family. I’m not even sure what she’s talking about. She didn’t buy Ra-Im a house after her father’s death. She didn’t give her a stipend to help pay her bills. And she certainly didn’t give her money to attend college. What exactly did she do? Besides visiting the firefighter’s urn annually to pay respect to him, it appears she has done nothing else.
She forbids her son to be involved with Ra-Im and says that if he refuses to listen to her, she will disown him and take away all his material goods.
The final episode shows Joo-Won and Ra-Im happily married, with three adorable children. They wait outside the gate to Boon-Hong’s house. She is ecstatic to see her grandchildren, who she takes into her home for their visit. But she closes the gate on the adults. She has stayed true to her word. Rather than being bitter, Ra-Im says that her mother in law looks healthy.
There are only so many things you can change in the world. Body switching was a breeze compared to dealing with Boon-Hong, whose pride won’t let her acknowledge that she didn’t know what was best for her son. But ultimately, he figures out how to live his best life with a family of his own.
Rating: 2.5/4 (You can watch this classic series on KOCOWA.)
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