Although there have been many other reviews on Secret Garden, I thought, “what the hell, why not jump into the mix” and also due to that constant reminder that I (or at least have someone who is so much more capable) write up a review for the dramas that I have seen this year- this drama appropriately enough will start off the batch. I say it’s a good way to start off 2011 with one riveting drama that was so bloody addicting and enchanting- that all semblance of a social life (without the daily essentials and necessities of life) went down the tubes for those 10 weeks…
As most of our fellow readers know, I have been
sort of very much MIA for quite some time. After much thought, researching for some good ol’ gossip (which I am happy to say I have not been quite so delusional on)- an affirmation that my gossip 6th sense is still intact, searching for endless hours for spoilers, and finally meeting some great friends and reuniting with some of the old timers on SG’s thread- I think I can finally add this drama to my All Time Favorite Dramas List. Also, this drama gave me hope and a reminder (more like a swift kick to the shins) to work towards pursuing our other goal (Bluesy knows this all too well and we really should get crackin’….).
First things first, I am so bloody overdue for posting and after bouts of illness/ crazy work traveling, deadlines, more piles of work, and yada yada yada) a huge round of applause (and gratitude) to our guest blogger, Joonni for writing the review because I don’t think I could have done it without being a blabbering incoherent mess. One because she brought up some very interesting ways to look at the drama from a different perspective, two because she wrote it so eloquently well, and three- despite some of my disagreements with her thoughts she never failed to bring a fresh interpretation to scenes and analyses. And if you could do all three, I am utterly sold!
So everyone, let us give a warm (huge bear-hug) welcome to Joonni ( who I would hope will write many more for us?!??!) !
Hello, readers! Joonni here. This is my first time writing a review for a Korean drama although I have been watching them for more than twenty years. I posted some of my thoughts on Secret Garden at soompi’s thread and that is where I met bellaangel012. I was tickled to be invited by her to write this review and soon became overzealous. So while this review aims to be comprehensive, it falls short (Bella: total BS!) of my wishes. This review is long, bringing together the pieces I wrote at soompi, and other additions. FYI, I love this drama. I just fell in love without reason or doubt. This review, however, grew out of trying to explain why I love this drama. The explanations, then, are set against reasons why other viewers didn’t like it. I started reading comments on the internet about this drama about half way in the airing of the series and found the comments of people who didn’t like this drama stimulating. I fully understand and sympathize with the negative comments. If I look at the drama objectively, I can see why people would not like this drama and why other people would. This review is an attempt at explaining why and how Secret Garden captured viewers like me. I take the position of analyzing what is there instead of what isn’t there. I am not dwelling on what could have been but what it was.
A Fairytale Love Story
“Have you ever had the sensation of looking at someone for the first time and ever so quickly the past and future seem to fuse? Does that not mean something? That we felt so much, so deeply, before even speaking?” Charles Dickens from Nicholas Nickleby
The quote above from Charles Dicken’s Nicholas Nickleby describes a single moment in which the whole world seems to be condensed into. It also describes a wordless, single gaze in which an incomprehensible love starts. I put the quote in this review because it accurately describes the scene I describe below.
In episode 1, about 45 minutes in, there is a scene when Joo Won, in his sparkly tracksuit, has finished dealing with Oska’s girlfriend, Chae Rin, and sees Ra Im doing her stunts in her black leather outfit. The director of the drama establishes the world of Secret Garden in this single scene. The viewer is given two perspectives in this scene: that of Joo Won watching Ra Im, and that of the viewer watching Joo Won watch Ra Im. In this single moment of camera work, the viewer is invited to see Joo Won fall in love with Ra Im, and for us to see Ra Im through Joo Won’s eyes. This scene is a wordless scene; there is no dialogue and no narrative to describe how Joo Won feels except the sad music in the background- Baek Ji Young’s “That Man” whose lyrics describes the sad and painful love of a man.
I remember reading an interview with Noh Hee Kyung, a famous Korean writer, who wrote the drama, Worlds Within. In that interview, Noh Hee Kyung said something along the lines of “how can you explain why and how people fall in love?” I think this scene in episode 1 and the quote from Dickens speaks to that sentiment. I think some viewers felt that there was a lack of explanation about why and how Joo Won and Ra Im fell in love with each other, especially since both of them aren’t the nicest people to each other and they don’t seem to have any redeemable qualities in the beginning for each other to fall in love with. These viewers couldn’t get on board with Joo Won and Ra Im because of the dearth of explanations of their love for each other but for a viewer like me, it wasn’t the case. I don’t adhere to “love at first sight” or the idea that love is unexplainable. I believe that there are many different types of love, some which can be explained, some that can’t, some that are healthy, some that are detrimental, some that are passionate, and some that are platonic. I think the love story of Joo Won and Ra Im is of the unexplainable and fiery kind. It might not be the best or most healthy kind but it is what Joo Won and Ra Im experience.
Secret Garden is thus a drama told through and about Joo Won and Ra Im, and their inexplicable love story. If you couldn’t get on board with either one of the characters or their love story, this drama wasn’t for you. But if you were able to connect with the love story and the characters in that scene in episode 1 (or in a similar scene in episode 2 at the stunt school) where Joo Won falls in love with Ra Im, you fell in love in a fiery, and inexplicably way with this drama.
What Secret Garden turns out to be is simply a story of two people who love each other. It is a “Love Story of Their Own.” If fairytales have the effect of making viewers identify with the princess, maiden, or downtrodden girl, so that we wish that we were Ra Im or Joo Won or that the same thing might happen to us, this drama does not do that. Rather, we are left with dreaming that these two people are really out there in the real world, loving each other.
“Love Story of Their Own”
Secret Garden is populated with distinct characters. Every single character has his or her own personality and style of speech. From Oska’s shamelessness, to Director Park’s desire to imitate Joo Won, we are given memorable characters that play distinct roles in the story. What is most refreshing about these characters is that they have no scruples in saying what they want. They called people perverted or crazy, they yell at their boss, they tell off other women who dare interfere with our lovebirds, they proudly proclaim that they can’t sing despite being a singer.
While all the characters in Secret Garden are memorable and hold their own, the drama is ultimately about Joo Won and Ra Im. The strength of the feeling viewers have with this drama builds off the connection we can make with Joo Won and Ra Im. They are the reason why we either hate or love this drama.
It is then important to analyze the connection the viewer has with Joo Won and Ra Im. If we can perhaps see Oska as some model of a Korean singer who has to endure the trials and consequences of being a widely known singer, we really can’t see Joo Won or Ra Im as a model for anything. They are too distinct, too much of their own person for viewers to personally identify with these characters. So I believe that the connection we have with Joo Won and Ra Im is not of the identification type, but something else. I think we are supposed to just see Joo Won and Ra Im as they are and it is up to the viewer to like them or not. We are invited in this drama to learn more about who these people are as they already are.
We learn to love Joo Won and Ra Im just as they learn to love each other. We are watching their love story, not identifying with it. A drama like Queen of Housewives invites viewers to identity with a middle-aged, married woman so they can live vicariously through her. This is not what is expected in Secret Garden. We are simply just watching Ra Im and Joo Won’s love story.
Secret Garden (2010) is a romantic-fantasy kdrama. The fantasy genre is not one that Korean dramas take on very often. And many of Korea’s fantasy dramas have used the body-swap device, notably in Who Are You? (2008) and Please Come Back, Soon-ae (2006). The body-swap, in general storytelling history, has been used to help two characters learn more about each other, or “walk in another’s shoes.” The body-swap is a literary device used to enlighten and change characters. They are supposed to end up better than they started as. It’s supposed to be meaningful. So we would expect Joo Won to understand the plight of the poor better, to understand women better, and to stop being such as jerk to Ra Im.
The body-swap in Secret Garden does not explicitly seem to be used in that manner. Hence, the criticism that the body-swap was not used to the fullest extent and instead, used more for laughs. And give us laughs, it did. Watching Joo Won and Ra Im navigate through their counterpart’s unfamiliar worlds, so different due to their gender and class status, brought a lot of laughs, crazy looks from their friends, and hilarious misunderstandings. But are Joo Won and Ra Im better people/enlightened at the end of their body-swap?
Finding the answer to “What did Joo Won and Ra Im learn from inhabiting each other’s bodies and lives?” is difficult because it is not laid out in front of us. Case 1: Joo Won finds the bruises and scars on Ra Im’s body. As viewers, we are never clearly told what Joo Won got out of from this experience. Did he have a newfound appreciation for Ra Im’s job as a stuntwoman? Did he find her even more pitiful or have more sympathy for her life? Does he even acknowledge to Ra Im in any meaningful way except to later tease her about a woman having those types of bruises on her body?
If we continue this line of questioning what could have and should have been, all the body-swap becomes is a superficial fantastical plot device that didn’t get us anywhere in character developments. All we got were laughs and gimmicks. And I will truthfully say that I felt the plot movement stalled for a bit during the body-swap, that I was also expecting character growth, and that I felt the chemistry between Joo Won and Ra Im died a bit during the three episodes of body-swap. I could talk about the way the body-swap failed but I will instead write about what the body-swap succeeded in doing. We shouldn’t ask, for this drama, what the body-swap is supposed to do for the characters, but what the body-swap is telling us about these characters. Why did the body-swap really change nothing significant about these characters? What is interesting to note is that Joo Won and Ra Im don’t try very hard at all to even pretend to be the person whose body they inhabit. They really aren’t fooling anyone. They go to each other’s jobs and live in each other’s homes, but their speech, actions, and hilariously, “clothing tastes,” stay the same.
So the body-swap as a literary device doesn’t really move the characters forward in the sense that they progress into our expectations or ideals. Instead we are given a firmer sense of who Joo Won and Ra Im are, and time for these characters to learn how to be together and fall in love. The body-swap can’t change who these people are. We are peeling the onion rather than moving from A to Z.
Logic, Not Realism in Fantasy
Being fantasy, this drama doesn’t go for realism. It does try to ground us in reality, in the sense that we can imagine these characters really out there in the world. But for the plot devices of body-swapping and waking up from brain death, reality is not the goal.
There is logic, however, in the story itself. Ra Im herself explains the logic for Ra Im waking up from brain death to Joo Won’s therapist; in a world where body-swaps happen, it is also possible to wake up from brain death.
Nothing about the body-swap is explicitly explained in the drama, which leaves some viewers feeling that the there are too many holes, easy shortcuts, and illogical events happening in the body-swap arc. It was enough to turn some people off. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case for me because I was more invested in the characters than the body-swap. My love for the drama left me wanting to respond to the criticisms by trying to understand and explain the logics of the body-swap. The logic in this drama is not perfect and I concede that there are flaws and holes. But I am taking the position of working with what we get from the drama instead of pointing out what we don’t get. What follows is a guide to understanding the body-swap, based on clues from the drama and my deductions.
1. Ra Im’s father is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. All he is able to do is brew-up a body-swapping drink.
Ra Im’s father is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. Starting our timeline from when Ra Im was 29, he died 13 years ago. At that point, he did not know what would happen to his daughter 13 years later. Destiny or fate is not set in stone from the moment we are born but in the decisions we make each day of our lives. So when Ra Im is still a high school student, her dad in heaven does not know she is going to die 13 years later. So only when 13 years later, Ra Im is a stuntwoman, can her father see the Dark Blood audition coming up and that she is going to get hurt or die from it.
This point is important because I do not believe that he brought Joo Won and Ra Im together when she was 29. Ra Im’s father did not pick Joo Won from the beginning, 13 years ago. Hey, he had no idea when he died of how Joo Won would turn out. What he knew only was that Joo Won was a 21-year old boy who felt a connection to his daughter, wanted to say sorry but couldn’t, and also desired to press away the frowns of a young girl’s forehead. So basically he was a good kid.
The boy forgets, though, and Joo Won’s dad lets it be because he is not omnipotent. He can’t control the people on earth in that way.
The boy becomes a 34-year old man and meets his daughter. The father doesn’t control their meeting nor could he have foretold this. Perhaps powers higher than the father brought them together but he didn’t bring them together. (If he did, this would mean that he controlled Ra Im doing stunts for Oska, Oska getting in trouble with Chae Rin, Director Im secretly loving Ra Im and putting her in for the Jeju trip with Oska, etc.) I don’t think Ra Im’s dad could be that powerful. He also did not know nor make Joo Won fall in love with his daughter. But fortuitously, Joo Won did because he just did. (I’m getting philosophical here, but what reason is there for love? How do you explain why two people fall in love?)
So the father knows at this point that Ra Im is headed for death. He says, after he gave the drink to the two, and the female restaurant owner is revealed to be Ra Im’s dad, “I’m sorry to you (Joo Won), but this is the only way to save my daughter’s life.” He also now has Joo Won in Ra Im’s life. Wow, how nicely things have lined up for Ra Im’s father. Here is Joo Won who likes his daughter and whom he has saved 13 years ago. This makes the body-switch work much better because it is not just a random person, the father is not making a stranger do it, and it is someone who might in the end be thankful for the body-switch.
Then what about the scream in the forest and the house? I have argued that the father can’t control people throughout their whole lives. But probably what he can do is maneuver certain things within the space and time needed for him to deliver the drink to our OTP. But that is the end of his powers.
2. The body-switch occurs when it rains in our OTP’s immediate area. Therefore the magic wasn’t to ensure that Ra Im would miss the audition for Dark Blood but for the CHANCE that she just might.
The father does not control rain. Rainfall is random. There is nothing in the drama to suggest that the father makes it rain. So to leave the body-switch up to rainfall leads me to think that the father can’t be all knowing or all powerful. The father is only providing a chance that Ra Im will miss the audition for Dark Blood. Hopefully it will rain and not rain long enough for Ra Im to miss the audition because she is not in her own body. His magic only provides the chance and opportunity for things to happen. Remember he said in episode 18 that his magic was like a handshake for two people who have met for the first time.
Thankfully, the body switch led to Ra Im missing the audition. But the father did not know that Joo Won would fall so deeply in love with his daughter to make the audition happen anyway and then voluntarily switch bodies.
So here we have the physical body of his daughter in a coma and her soul in the body of a man who loves her. So the father did the only thing he could do which was to end the switch. He knew the switch would put the souls back to their right place.
3. The question is, “Did Ra Im’s father know that the end of his magic would wake Ra Im up and make Joo Won 21 years old?”
If the answer is yes that Ra Im’s father’s magic made Ra Im wake up, then the critique would be, “Then why the body-switch? Couldn’t he have just used his magic to wake her up later without the body-switch?”
Like I have explained above, all the father is capable of doing is making the drink for the body-switch.
My answer is that he knew that there was something to make Ra Im wake up so he was comfortable with returning RI’s soul to a comatose body. BUT and this is a big BUT, his magic didn’t make Joo Won 21 years old or make RI wake up.
Joo Won’s love did that.
Their Magic Starts
As the father said, his magic was just like a handshake. He is not all-powerful. The father also said after he gave them the drink in the dream that this when our OTP’s magic starts. Their love is the magic. He also said that it was okay if Joo Won did not remember him. The father did not force Joo Won into 21-year old to make him remember who saved him. Joo Won’s love was the magic for our miracle. Ra Im was able to wake up and Joo Won found his memories of being 21 years old through his love.
Remember that Joo Won felt that he was missing something precious by not rememberinghis accident. He had a feeling it was linked to Ra Im. It was his love for Ra Im that brought him back to being a 21-year old.
What was the point of the amnesia and 21 year-old Joo Won?
It wasn’t just to increase the angst or hilarity of the story. It was only 21-year old Joo Won who could find his way back into his memories and remember his encounter with Ra Im. It wasn’t forced by Ra Im’s father but rather by Joo Won himself.
But Joo Won as 21 still couldn’t remember who saved him.
And now with Ra Im’s love as that special little ingredient, Joo Won found his way back all the way to the day of the accident to remember who saved him and the girl he could not say sorry to face-to-face.
The Final Episode
After all the speculations on the ending, the writer and the director of Secret Garden really had to navigate carefully around their desires, and viewer’s guesses and expectations. The body-swap, brain death, and amnesia conflict had all ended in the previous episodes. Now all we had left were various couples and characters to find resolution and happiness.
And it was truly a beautiful ending. Joo Won chooses to give up his life to marry Ra Im. And Ra Im, confident in her love for him and his love for her, consents. In contrast to all the flash, spectacle, and drama of their courtship, Joo Won and Ra Im marry simply, with no candles or flowers, and with two witnesses who have been their cupids. We get a view into their married life as two very happy and physically active people who have found a way to be together and commit to each other. Ra Im continues to be a stuntwoman, and Joo Won continues to be a department store CEO. What is interesting to note is how their respective occupations, which served as a symbolic ocean or wall between them, stay the same. They each continue to occupy a bit of their old world, but now, they know how to share their worlds together.
Joo Won knew he had to give up his money and inheritance if he chose to marry Ra Im, as his mother warned. He also knew that he have to give up his mother and cause her pain. Relinquishing the money and inheritance was easy, but not his relationship with his mother. He honestly loves and respects her. It is through his belief and respect for his mother, that he “negotiates” with her. He presents, in adherence to his character, logically and reasonably that he is the best person for the job of the CEO, and just like the son, Joo Won’s mom agrees. But she takes away everything else from him, making him pay for the land that his house is on. She also declares that he is not her son anymore, and while she accepts her grandchildren, she continues to ignore Joo Won and Ra Im even five years into the future.
Through Oska and Seul, Secretary Kim and Ah Young, we see people who continue to love each other and work on that love. Tae Sun, Director Im, and Director Park pursue their dreams and find their stride.
Ra Im narrates, as she and Joo Won walk in step in the cold, winter evening,
We still don’t even have a single wedding photo.
Yet, we love and receive love everyday, living magical lives.
Perhaps, loving is like nurturing a garden.
We hope that in your garden beautiful flowers bloom, cool winds blow, and the sun shines brilliantly.
And sometimes, that a magical rain falls.
Joo Won and Ra Im live ordinary lives made extraordinary by their love. And they wish for us the same.
The Final Scene
The final scene is not as complicated as people want it to be. It is simply a flashback in Ra Im and Joo Won’s past. A young girl cried in her sleep; perhaps this was when Ra Im’s bad dreams started. A young boy touches her forehead to stop the bad dreams. Joo Won wants to stop the bad dreams that perhaps he feels he started. We are reminded of the same gesture that appears two other times in the drama. The gesture was unimportant in the first episode but very unique. I remember thinking that it was beautiful but strange; normally, people just shake people up from bad dreams. The same gesture happens again in the twelfth episode where Ra Im not only stops dreaming, but also wakes up. We don’t know if she stops having those bad dreams but what we do know is that Ra Im will not consider them bad anymore because she has Joo Won in them.
The final scene completes the narrative arc, illustrating to us that “This is where their story began.” And perhaps, where their magic really started.
Character Analysis and Kdrama Character Molds
Here I want to lay out two things that I see are foundation to how I viewed all the characters in this drama.
- Secret Garden drama is character driven. Characters and unique plot turns stand out the most in this drama. We have very memorable and pronounced characters in this drama like Joo Won and Oska. So this drama is driven by characters but is not about character development. In order to have character development, there has to be in a sense, a moral to the story and/or higher standard that the characters to grow into. For example, another kdrama, Brilliant Legacy (2009) starring Lee Seung Gi and Han Hyo Joo, had a moral element to the story. That drama was about character growth. In the beginning of Brilliant Legacy, Lee Seung Gi’s character is cruel (e.g., he throws money in people’s faces) and he doesn’t understand money and he is immature. We are set up by the writer of BL for LSG to learn about the value of money, kindness, etc. There is a moral to the story. The character change from the despicable brat to the kind-hearted boy needs to happen in this drama for it to succeed in telling that moral story. Secret Garden has no “moral” element to the story and there is no higher standard into which the characters should grow into. Instead of watching a character grow and change, in Secret Garden…
- We are invited to see the world the way the characters see it. As I have written above, Secret Garden is a love story about Joo Won and Ra Im. In other words, the writer of Secret Garden invites us into Joo Won’s world and connects us to how Joo Won thinks. She doesn’t invite us to watch how he changes into a better human being. We aren’t asked to see Joo Won as this poor little kid who was ruined by riches and a tragedy in his life (like in LSG) but the writer wants us to see the world the way JW sees it. She accomplishes it by JW spitting out all the harsh realities that face RI and him. As RI says, JW is right. And as the audience, we grudgingly agree because we can see the world through JW’s eyes.
So honestly, I never thought that much about Ra Im’s character. I had a few problems here and there but it wasn’t really about her character but more about her physicality, which I will write more about later.
I saw Ra Im through Joo Won’s eyes. I fell in love with Ra Im when Joo Won fell in love with her. So I saw Ra Im as the object of Joo Won’s affection, regardless of what kind of person she was.
So in sum, Ra Im was who she was, because the writer wanted to tell a love story of Joo Won and Ra Im. I did not need to qualify her, judge her, or analyze her because she was “real.” She was this human being who I could and could not understand. She was like any other person that is real in my world. She was as multi-faceted, complex, contradictory, and as incomprehensible as any real human being was. Just like I can’t understand everything about my friend or my parents, I take Ra Im for who she is, as she is.
Joo Won and Ra Im were like my friends, like two people out there in the real world perhaps, whose story the writer chose to tell us. So as characters within themselves, I don’t have much to say. But as characters within the context of kdrama land, I do have something to say.
Joo Won and Ra Im
Many Korean dramas seem like Cinderella stories because if we superficially describe them, a lot of kdramas are about a rich boy and a poor girl falling in love. But there are many types of Cinderella stories in Korean dramas. There is the Prince Charming and the hard-working Cinderella type. There is also the “seemingly Cinderella story but not really” in dramas like Coffee Prince. There is the Mr. Darcy type in which the rich boy is not Prince Charming but rather an arrogant jerk. What a lot of Korean dramas try to do is to explain that arrogance and coldness as a symptom of being rich and/or of a tragic past. The coldness of the male character is due to his parents or because other people trying to define him by his money. So heroes of this type are in their CEO position because they never had another option, their parents forced them, or they aren’t allowed to have dreams of their own. They are misunderstood. They are tragic Mr. Darcy’s. These days, however, I think you see can see a different trend of Mr. Darcy’s. Actually, these Mr. Darcy’s like their money. They enjoy it. They are loud and proud about it. They are happy little arrogant Mr. Darcy’s.
The heroines of Cinderella stories are poor. In general, that would mean that even though life has been hard on them, they are positive, they have a strong work-ethic, and they are good and pure people who won’t let the world tell them that money can buy happiness. They are strong, perfect people who won’t let others be knocked down but won’t let themselves be knocked down either.
Our hero, Kim Joo Won, is a third-generation chaebol. With that single word, “chaebol,” we should know all about his character. A typical chaebol is filthy rich; he is CEO of something, he is cold and unapproachable; and he has family issues. We know he is going to fall in love with a poor girl, his family is going to oppose him, then his family is going to realize that the girl is good for him and give in (e.g., the boy gives up everything, the family sees how much he loves her, they can’t lose a son, and the family comes around to see that the poor girl’s positive characteristics mean more than her poverty).
Our Joo Won seems to follows the typical mold of the chaebol. He is the CEO of the Loel department store. He is filthy rich. He lives in an estate that houses several buildings, and has staff and security manning it. But Joo Won also breaks the mold apart in interesting and funny ways. First, he can’t and doesn’t want to give up anything for Ra Im. He later does decide to do this but in his incredibly logical way, he negotiates retaining his CEO position. What also makes Joo Won not like the typical chaebol character is his love of the sparkly blue tracksuit. Joo Won revels in his wealthy. He is proud of it and he enjoys it. He has never had a problem with it and thinks that arranged marriages are good business deals. He flashes his wealth to the world with his expensive, DESIGNER tracksuit that was hand-stitched thread by thread. In it, he says, “I earn a lot of money. I have a lot of money. I spend a lot of money.” He is the happy little arrogant Mr. Darcy.
His tracksuit draws Joo Won as someone who is very comfortable in his wealth. It also achieves a sort of ridiculousness in him. His character is made approachable by how everyone else thinks he is crazy for wearing some cheap and flamboyant tracksuit but Joo Won himself doesn’t see it. We can laugh and laugh at this funny little rich boy. (Side note: This tracksuit has got to the one of the most brilliant things in kdrama history. Not only is it a highly superficial and commodifiable object but it also distinguishes Joo Won apart from as a different kind of chaebol. It is very iconic. It is sort of like Gu Jun Pyo’s curly hair of Boys Over Flowers. But the tracksuit is more powerful because Joo Won chooses to wear it; Jun Pyo has no choice in his hair.)
Joo Won, unlike many Korean drama characters has a mental disorder. His elevator accident gave him claustrophobia and memory loss of the incident. Before the accident, which we can see through Joo Won reverting back to a 21-year old, Joo Won was a quite a normal and healthy young man who liked girls, climbed staircases, and loved his mom. But because of the accident causing him claustrophobia and memory loss, Joo Won became colder to the people around him and more controlled so he could keep his claustrophobia hidden and keep people from suspecting him. Joo Won would rather be seen as irresponsible and a privileged rich guy than let others find out his weakness.
One important part of his character which I feel needs to be touched up is his absolute confidence, shamelessness, and logical mind. Perhaps this analysis is swayed by my personal inclination to confident and well-spoken people, but Kim Joo Won’s main charm as a hero of a drama is his self-confidence and his highly logical mind. Kim Joo Won knows he looks good and that he is smart and capable. And he is. Despite how he acts toward Director Park and his secretary, Joo Won is an intelligent and qualified CEO. We hate him, but we can’t help but love him. He is right when he says that in case of sexual harassment, the correct path would be to take down both sides, check the CCTV cameras, and then file a police report. He is right when he says that two people who have nothing in common such as background or family can’t really be a good match for each other. He’s right when he doesn’t defend Ra Im in front of his mom because that won’t solve anything. He knows the rules and norms of his world. And he has no shame in saying those things.
There is similar speech in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which the original Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennett outlining how different and impossible they are and how awful her family is. While Mr. Darcy apologizes for this later and becomes a gentler and nicer man, I don’t think that Joo Won is exactly like that. Yes, we learn that he feels regret for the things he has said and done to Ra Im but he actually never tells her so. He doesn’t apologize. I feel like Mr. Darcy in the book is given a 180 degree turn because the book is generally about the morals of pride and prejudice. Like I said, this drama is not a moral drama so with Joo Won, it is not really a 180 degree turn. He is different in a way by the end but yet still the same. And I appreciate that as a uniqueness to his character. If this drama was more realistic, this sort of change-non-change would not have worked. But because this drama is a fantasy love story, I think viewers can love Joo Won just for the way he is. And because he wears a sparkly tracksuit.
Now comes the most difficult part of this review: the analysis of Gil Ra Im. First, because there was so much debate over her character among fans and second, because of her uniqueness in the whole trope of Korean drama heroines.
I think a lot of people’s problems with Ra Im started with her physicality. Ra Im is a stuntwoman, which is a career we don’t see very often in kdramas. Because Ra Im is a stuntwoman, we expect her to be strong physically and emotionally, and to be a little like a man. We understand pretty easily that Ra Im isn’t that strong emotionally. She’s bright, self-praising, and tough but she also apologizes a lot and won’t even let Director Im drive her home after a visit to the hospital. She will fight for her friends and strangers but she won’t fight for herself. Ra Im is a little closed-off and disenchanted by the world that took her father away at the young age of 17 and left her entirely by herself.
Now Ra Im should at least be physically strong, which she is. Hey, she beats up a bunch of dudes after chasing them through the streets on a bike. But other than kicking Joo Won in the shins, she is she unable to throw JW off in the rest of the drama.
I find this problem to be related to the whole genre of Korean drama in general. Female characters in Korean dramas are not physically stronger than males. They are grabbed and pushed around by the male characters. No matter how strong the characters are personality-wise, they are not physically strong. But in Secret Garden, the writer is telling us a story of a stuntwoman, who is physically strong. So Ra Im can kick the butts of males in the drama. But to follow the whole trope of the Korean drama, she can’t really be that physically strong in the face of someone she loves. So Ra Im’s physical weakness as a female stands out more in this drama than in other Korean dramas because she is a “stuntwoman.” The writer was treading on dangerous ground to pick the career of stuntwoman for her female character. If Ra Im was just poor and a hard-worker at some odd job or so, I think there would have been fewer problems.
Ra Im is essentially a character full of contradictions. We can see it in the way she can hang on wires, fall from the second story, and then tap her toe shyly at a compliment.
I concede that for many people, Ra Im can be the weakest part of the drama. I honestly couldn’t see it as so because I couldn’t separate her from Joo Won and I understood what Ra Im needed to be as a heroine in a Cinderella-esque Korean drama.
It should also be understood that many of Kim Eun Sook’s (the writer of this drama) dramas are really about men, and not about the women. I don’t write this to defend but to describe how that her male characters are usually the focus and the most well-written parts of her dramas and how female characters don’t get the same amount of attention. So this is her strongest and weakest point. Also, in this drama I see how Kim Eun Sook sacrifices a bit of narrative consistency for those romantic and funny moments. I will elaborate more on this in the next section.
While all the other characters are just as interesting and entertaining, they are less complicated. I think we get what we see in Osaka, Seul, Director Im, etc. So I’m not going to do a character analysis on them.
Secret Garden’s Strongest Points: Small Surprises, Dialogue and the Acting
Secret Garden sounds like a typical kdrama Cinderella fairytale. Rich boy falls in love with a poor girl. They overcome class barriers, second parties, and parental disapproval to end up happily-ever-after. Secret Garden does follow this formula but it does so in surprising and entertaining ways. When you think the drama is following a cliché, we are given just enough of a little twist to feel new and exciting. The secondary girl, Yoon Seul, does not turn out to be the crazy, interfering witch we expected her to be. Joo Won’s amnesia does not add to the angst of the story; instead it is fun and quite lovely watching a 21-year old Joo Won fall in love again with Ra Im. Joo Won’s mother does not relent her opposition when she finds out Ra Im’s father saved her son’s life. Nor does she show any signs of consenting to the marriage even when she is presented with grandchildren. These small surprises kept the drama from falling headlong into angsty or saccharine sweet. They kept me interested and the drama hopping along.
Secret Garden has been called a cultural phenomenon or cultural package by the South Korean press. This is due to its memorable characters, its OST, it commodifiable symbols (tracksuit, books, and cat accessory), and its mobile and distinct dialogue. The dialogue is witty, trendy, comedic, and heartfelt. As a native Korean speaker, I was completely enamored by the dialogue, the rhythm of the speech, and the writer’s choice of expression. The dialogue (and the Korean poems used in the drama) really displayed an art of the Korean language and I felt that any translation of it could not fully show its beauty. I had never felt so privileged to know and understand the Korean language.
Each character had his or her own speech style and lexicon. Joo Won’s lines ranging from, “I’m that kind of person” to “Is this your best? Are you sure?” builds upon his self-assured character. Oska’s lines go from self-deprecating to outrageous self-confidence. Even Director Park speaks with “Styyyyle.” Each character’s dialogue is iconic to the character.
The dialogue is also portable, making it trendy. We can move “Is this your best? Are you sure?” for situation-to-situation and even use it outside of the drama. The best model would be the “thread by thread” line whose word pattern is used repeatedly throughout the drama- “tree by tree,” “brick by brick” for example.
The dialogue is also very genuine and it works to move you or anger you. Lines such as Joo Won’s “Rich people desire discrimination and inequality, ” and Seul’s “The person who is thrown away is breaking up everyday for 365 days” were poignant and had the effect of connecting to the viewers and not just between the characters.
The dialogue would not have the same effect it had if it hadn’t been for the actors and actresses delivering them. Everyone brought in their game and played their character. The actors and actresses had to deliver fast and long banter, had to have poison, truth, and anger in their words, and they had to have comedic timing. And all the actors did so. From Secretary Kim to Kim Joo Won, the acting was outstanding.
The sometimes ridiculous, sometimes heavy, sometimes superficial, and sometimes saccharine dialogue and plot would not have made such an impact on me if it wasn’t for the sincerity that was displayed by the actors and actresses. I cried when Ra Im cried, I hated Joo Won when he was awful to Ra Im, I shivered in my bones when Joo Won’s mom spat out her biting words. Also in this drama, we have brain death, amnesia, body-swaps, rain chasing and bodily sacrifice, and Hallyu stars that repeat “Aishiteru” (I love you in Japanese) over the phone. Yeah, I knew that it was going to rain again and this makes Joo Won’s sacrifice seem less important. But Hyun Bin’s acting made that sacrifice heart breaking and sincere. I fell into the story because of the way the actors and actresses made these characters and story alive.
And I must take space to compliment Hyun Bin. He has played a chaebol before but this version is probably the most unique version of chaebol out there in kdrama land. Joo Won was hilarious, hateful, charming, magnetic, charismatic, and utterly silly. Hyun Bin had to play a 34-year old, a man inside a girl’s body, and a 21-year old. And he pulled it off excellently. I was especially enamored by his 21-year old version of Joo Won. Hyun Bin was able to convey both the innocence and youth of a 21-year old and the same haughtiness that is the foundation of Joo Won. I fell in love with Ra Im as the 34-year old Joo Won fell in love with her. And I fell more in love with Hyun Bin as I watched 21-year old Joo Won fall in love with Ra Im all over again.
I have a lot of favorite moments and dialogue from this drama. And it might be because the writer sacrificed narrative consistency for more funny or memorable moments. But I enjoyed it and feel like that is what contributed to Secret Garden becoming a cultural and media phenomenon.
It is honestly mostly the acting and dialogue that won me heart and soul. It was in the sincerity of the characters in the moments where they came up against each other. Secret Garden is not a perfect drama and there are a lot of flaws and plot holes. The live shooting towards the end left a lot to be desired in terms of editing. I was fascinated about the way the writer initially presented Joo Won’s and Ra Im’s world as very different and how their different social and class levels kept them apart. I wanted to see more explicity how Joo Won and Ra Im came to inhabit each other’s world and understand each other, and overcome the real obstacles that they face as two very different people. I thought that the body-swap would be used to do explore that. It turns out that perhaps that wasn’t the point of the body-swap. Or maybe it was but the writer didn’t do a good job in showing that. As I argued above, that prospect wasn’t fully explored during the body-swap. Is Kim Eun Sook’s answer, then, that love trumps all and that we don’t need reason or words? I use to believe this when I was younger but not anymore. So why didn’t this drama bug me in the answer it seems to give? I loved Coffee Prince because it shows characters realistically learning how to love and overcoming obstacles. There is no life and death situation, no amnesia, and no magical shortcut. It was warm, it was real, and it was a gentle ride. There are lessons learned for the characters and for the viewers. It is not a moral drama but it is a drama that speaks to love in general because it explores different types of love and its stages through its various characters.
But as I argued above, Secret Garden, isn’t about love in general. It is about Joo Won and Ra Im’s love. Ultimately, this drama is very paradoxical. I can imagine that Joo Won and Ra Im exist out there in the real world because I love them and the actors made me feel that way. But I also say that Secret Garden is just a superficial, fantasy romantic comedy-melodrama and shouldn’t and can’t be more than that. It is the space between those two points where I feel the unexplainable magic of Secret Garden lies. I was able to write this review and focus on the good points because despite this long post trying to give explanations, there is something indescribable in the way this drama left me feeling. It is going into my top three kdramas along with Damo and Coffee Prince. Damo left me utterly devastated; Coffee Prince is like a warm summer night; Secret Garden is like a magical rain that fell one day.
Perhaps this poem from Secret Garden can explain it a little better:
Alice in Wonderland
Like a fairytale
On the night when the galaxies collided
A bad boy stood
This trivial melancholy
He walked at the pace of memories
Secret Garden is walking at the speed of memories in my head and heart. Leisurely, steadily, leaving a trace.
P.S. This review has a serious, scholarly tone but honestly, when all is said and done, this drama was simply entertaining. I was squealing, crying, loving, ranting. I had so much fun watching, waiting, and thinking about this drama. Thank you Gardeners for keeping with me through this long review and also for making the ride even more enjoyable.