Exploring Korean Drama: Secret Garden

secret garden poster

Secret Garden is a body swap kdrama.  No sense in beating around the bush, because that’s the central premise, the reason why I watched the show, and its main redeeming factor.  It might seem counterintuitive that the show’s strangest element, the one that requires the most suspension of disbelief, is the main reason to watch it, but that’s the case.

Because no matter how sizzling their chemistry, I had a hard time buying into the main couple’s relationship.  Kim Joo Won is just so nasty to Gil Ra Im; he has such a terrible case of Darcy Syndrome, that I don’t think I even rooted for the couple until their relationship was long established and had hit the serious passionate, they’re ready-and-even-attempt-to-die-for-each-other stage.

Being in each other's bodies can make for awkward moments, especially in public.

Being in each other’s bodies can make for awkward moments, especially in public.

It’s all worth it, though, because that’s just how good the body swap stuff is.  That’s entirely down to lead actors Ha Ji Won and Hyun Bin.  Hyun Bin is the real standout; he’s given the funniest material, and he commits to and pulls it off 100%.  He’s fantastic when acting as Ra Im in Joo Won’s body, whether it be waking up in bed next to Ra Im’s favorite idol star (and coincidentally Joo Won’s cousin), giggling around said idol star and dressing Joo Won in socks with his cousin’s face on them, or being horrifically embarrassed in the men’s steam room at a spa.

Hyun Bin might stand out with the flashiest body swap material, but that doesn’t reduce the strength of Ji Won’s acting as Joo Won (and if you’re having a hard time keeping all this name- and body-switching straight: so am I).  She completely transforms into Hyun Bin (or Hyun Bin playing Joo Won); the angles of her body straighten, as if she’s straining to be taller than she is, the lines of her face stiffen, and she broadcasts the haughty like few kdrama leading ladies are ever allowed to do.

Before we get into more specifics about Secret Garden, we ought to go over what the show is actually about.  It won’t take long, because aside from the body swap stuff it’s rather typical.  Kim Joo Won is a chaebol heir running a giant department store.  He lives on a gigantic country estate, owning several buildings that could each easily house a large family.  Given that he only ever seems to actually live or spend time in one (his cousin Choi Woo Young, Oska to his fans, lives in another), it’s especially ridiculous.

ra im stuntwoman

That’s because stunt woman Ra Im really is that cool. If only she carried that confidence over into her personal life.

He encounters Gil Ra Im, a poor stunt woman.  He mistakes her for the leading actress for whom she’s standing in and shenanigans ensue.  He’s attracted to her almost immediately; it takes him a while to admit it out loud, but he thinks that she’s really cool, especially when she’s on the job.

You wouldn’t be able to tell it from the way he acts, however.  I went back and watched some episodes in preparation for this article, and while the body swap ones were fantastic, the early episodes were hard to watch.  Joo Won is terrible to Ra Im.  He’s incessant in shaming her for her social standing.

He berates her for making him look bad by daring to appear beside him.  He says she’s not even good enough for him to claim he’s playing around with her; he doesn’t judge by race, color, sex, or religion, he says, but he refuses to be seen with anyone who looks “shabby.”

Which, just, ugh, Joo Won, I want to kick you in the gonads.  First, I bet whatever clothes Ra Im’s outfitted with actually cost a lot; this is a television show, so I’ll be they’re designer “shabby chic,” even if they’re not supposed to be within the world of the show.  Second, your cousin Oska was raised in the same environment as you, and he’s nice to and respectful of Ra Im, so you have no excuse.  Third, and most importantly, classism isn’t any better than any of the other forms of bigotry you listed, so you need to shut up and go away.

The worst part of it all is that Ra Im sits there and takes everything.  She even apologizes to Joo Won for making him look bad.  She doesn’t even try to stand up to Joo Won until he keeps coming by her house and harassing her to date him.  With him spouting off such romantic ideas as, “let’s just date for a while until I get you out of my system; you can be like the little mermaid and turn into bubbles once I’m done with you,” who wouldn’t want to date such a prize?

It’s terrible because the show initially set up Ra Im to be a much more dynamic and decisive woman.  In her opening scene, Ra Im chases down a woman who tries to treat her like dirt, and reads her the riot act.  Why does she suddenly turn all meek when faced with the kdrama leading man?  It makes no sense.

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