Exploring Korean Drama: Secret Garden

secret garden poster
body language

In each other’s bodies.

In many ways, Hyun Bin channels his breakout role from My Lovely Sam Soon, except that Joo Won is even worse than Jin Heon, and Sam Soon wouldn’t stand for one ounce of the crap Ra Im has shoveled at her.  I think I could have loved Secret Garden if only Sam Soon was the leading lady, because all of its classist garbage would be bearable if it were just treated as such, and the body swap stuff really is just that good.

Yet here I am, recommending Secret Garden.  A lot of my anger came upon reflection and repeat viewings.  Watching the first time through it didn’t bother me that much, because the Darcy Syndrome is that common in kdramas, and because the anticipation/payoff of the body swap made it all worth it.

Also a standout is Yoon Sang Hyun as Oska/Choi Woo Young.  He’s sweet and funny, though often in a ridiculous way (at least around Ra Im).  Sang Hyun plays Oska so self-deprecatingly, that his interactions with Ra Im reinvigorate the drama until Joo Won stops being quite so much of a jerk.  Most of the bad stuff about Secret Garden is kdrama routine, just turned up to 11.  It’s got the whole Cinderella story thing going for it, and I still enjoyed it more than Boys Over Flowers; I don’t quite understand how the latter show is so popular, but I do understand it for Secret Garden.


It takes way too long to get here.

A lot of Joo Won’s bluster is to cover up how he feels about her.  Still, it’s rich to hear him talk about upbringing and decorum, when he can’t even manage to be polite to her.  I have no respect for those who can’t treat others with respect, and so it takes me a long time to warm up to Joo Won.  It’s really Hyun Bin who does it, seeing him act as Ra Im.

Secret Garden takes the whole bickering-as-flirting thing to new heights.  I’ve never seen a couple be quite this mean to each other (at least when they’re not trying to kill each other), even if it’s more one-sided, but holy crap, the sexual tension.  Hyun Bin and Ji Won’s chemistry is explosive, and I think that’s really why on my first pass through the kdrama, I didn’t quite realize or feel just how mean Joo Won was being, because I was too distracted by how much they sizzled together.  Given that some kdramas are notorious for limp kisses, Secret Garden’s definitely at the head of the pack in that regard.

The show is also an important watch for any kdrama fan, because it will be referenced again and again in many kdramas made after it.  It may have only come out in late 2010/early 2011, but it’s already had a huge cultural impact on the kdrama world.  Flower Boy Ramyun Shop has a running gag parodying Secret Garden, one that won’t make sense and would honestly seem weird and out of place if you’re not familiar with the latter show.  Many other kdramas have referenced it, from Greatest Love to  The King of Dramas (and even King 2 Hearts in meta ways, through sharing lead Ha Ji Won).  And if there’s a Korean equivalent of the Smithsonian American History Museum, I’ve no doubt that Joo Won’s sparkly tracksuit will end up in it.

the tracksuit

More of the tracksuit in all its glory.

All in all, Secret Garden has a lot of problems, though those are greater or lesser depending on how annoyed (or not) you are by the Darcy Syndrome.  By the end of the series, Ra Im’s and Joo Won’s devotion to each other is really moving, as even the ever-annoyed Oska has to admit.  The bodyswap is fantastic, the acting is great, and it’s a well-produced series.  Despite everything, it’s a must watch for any kdrama fan.

Kdrama tropes to watch out for: The aforementioned terrible case of the Darcy Syndrome.  Secret Garden also has one of the worst mother-in-laws in any kdrama.  What Joo Won’s mother does and says to Ra Im are some of the most despicable things I’ve seen one character do to another, short of committing actual crimes.  It’s no wonder Joo Won turned out the way he did.  More importantly, Secret Garden is the worst offender I’ve seen when it comes to consent issues in romantic pursuits.  Most kdramas contain the wrist grab — where the male lead hauls the female lead around by her wrist — but for more or less the first half of the series, all of Joo Won’s romantic advances are forced.  We’re supposed to believe that Ra Im just doesn’t want to admit how she feels, but it’s just wrong and upsetting.  Secret Garden may be an extreme example, but it’s common in kdramas: the idea that the man is supposed to make the physical/romantic advances, but it’s more improper for the woman to do so.  I don’t have the space here to give the issue the level of examination it deserves, but if you want to learn more, these are some good jumping off points (warning: the last link is a more specific discussion of a scene in Secret Garden, and contains spoilers for episode 13.  Skip to the analysis at the bottom for the discussion).  If you have any insights or know of any other discussions on the topic, please share them.

Watch Secret Garden on Netflix Instant or Hulu, or find the DVD or streaming series on Amazon.

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