A Garden of Earthly Delights

This review was written for and was published in the Korean Quarterly

One of the most popular dramas of 2010 was the inventive and fanciful “Secret Garden” and it justly deserves the many accolades. Not only does it boast two of the most handsome and star-powered acting in Korean movies and television in its lead actor and actress, Hyun Bin and Ji-won Ha, but its riches include an impressive book, direction, camera work, and OST (official soundtrack). It also serves as one piece of Hyun Bin’s temporary farewell tour, completed just prior to his entering the Marines to fulfill his mandatory military service. And what a sendoff! Not only does he create a memorable character in his “dual” role, but he scored a major hit on most music charts with, “Keu Namja” (“That Man”) for the drama’s OST. Equally, his costar Ji-won Ha gets the perfect showcase in her “roles” to illustrate why she is so sought after for film and television work. Why the reference to “roles” for both actors? This is a fantasy drama that has a lot of fun with the body – or perhaps it is more accurate to say “soul” – swapping concept!

For some, the idea of a drama that deals so heavily in a fantasy make-believe world may be a turn-off, getting in the way of the delicious meat-and-potatoes of dramas: romance. In “Secret Garden,” viewers will have the chance to feast on both the desired romantic staples and have as dessert the extra fillip of fantasy as tempting as the sweets table at an Italian wedding!

The story introduces us to the respective worlds and personalities of our protagonists and the people close to the in the first two episodes.

Joo-won Kim (Hyun Bin) is the head of the exclusive Loel Department Store, and a man of seemingly infinite neuroses. He works only two days a week (much to the chagrin of his family and top management), yet is very successful in his work. He is all competence and perfectionism and an emotionally distant figure. One of his tendencies – much to their annoyance or fear – is to question those who report to him with, “Are you sure? Is this the best that you can do?” But this is a mask. He is a man who suffers from extreme claustrophobia and related panic disorder. His shrink is number one on his speed dial. He’s lived his life in the insulated bubble of the very rich upper class, so his meeting and subsequent dealings with Ra-im Gil bring him into a world that is foreign and confusing to him. She seems as poor to him as someone you might encounter in the pages of National Geographic!

Ra-im Gil (Ji-won Ha) is making her way in the world as a passionate and dedicated young stuntwoman. She works on a team headed by Jong-soo Im (Phillip Lee), and at the beginning of the story is working as a stunt double for a spoiled starlet. Because the work status of a stunt double, especially, it seems, for a woman, is so low, she is treated with relative disdain by the star and the director, yet she redoubles her efforts and apologizes when things go wrong because that is how things are and what she must do. She behaves like one of the guys on her work team in order to blend in, but there is a part of her that wistfully wishes that she could revel (and reveal) her feminine side too.

Situpsjoowon

This story includes a number of interesting characters, most notably Sang-hyun Yoon, who plays a “Hallyu Star” known popularly as Oska. His character’s real name is Woo-young Choi and he is Joo-won’s older cousin, rival, nemesis, sounding board, and friend. Oska is equal parts brash, sensitive, self-aware, sincere, blunt, and a tiny bit full of himself, but in such an amusing way that viewers will fall completely head over heels for him. Oska is a singer, performing songs that skew just a little (read: a lot) too young for him and he knows it, but he has a huge fan base, especially in Japan, and is putting out a new album. Bored with this, or perhaps realizing that he’s trapped in a place he doesn’t want to be, he decides he’ll mentor a new talent when he spots Tae-ssun Han (Jong-suk Lee). Too bad that the kid wants little to do with him, at least until they come to terms!

Oska not only has the adoration of thousands of fans, he is Ra-im’s idol too. She turns to his music as solace in times of stress and warms herself with a memory of once having met him and worked on a film with him when doubling for Seon-ah Kim. (The drama’s writer has a field day with a number of meta-type references to previous dramas, real life actors, singers, and situations.) Two of the lovely songs from the drama’s OST are performed in the drama by Yoon; they are “Here I Am” and “Bara Bonda” (“Looking at You”). Spending a lot of his time as a careless playboy, he has “a past” with Seul Yoon (Sa-rang Kim), who has decided that she’s going to make him pay by setting her cap for his cousin, Joo-won.

Oska’s playboy ways are the catalyst for introducing Joo-won and Ra-im; Oska needs Joo-won to prevent the spoiled actress for whom Ra-im’s doubling from holding a press conference after he dumped her. As Oska is the image of Loel, it’s important to Joo-won to protect his louse of a cousin, but it’s also great leverage to get him to resign his contract with the store. Fortunately for us viewers, on the movie set he’s directed to Ra-im who, because she’s dressed like the actress and mistakenly identified, and away we go! He manages to insult her but when put into his rightful place by the fiercely proud Ra-im is struck by the force of her personality. She is like no one he’s ever met before and he finds any number of ways to meet up with her, including going to the Stunt Actors Academy to find her and going through a hilarious audition process to have the chance to talk to her! Yes, you’re going to score with the ladies when you wear a tracksuit that is made of dark blue sequined fabric – and it’s not going to matter if it was hand-stitched in Italy! He gets her attention during a workout session that will have many viewers wishing that all sit-ups could be so… “Stimulating!”

More of his neuroses are revealed as he finds himself imagining Ra-im accompanying him in his solitude; he talks to her, chides her for not being the type of woman he should know or care about, and pictures her in many different ways. In short, he’s captivated by her and has no clue how to deal appropriately with his feelings. Maybe she could be like “the little mermaid” in the children’s tale; he can enjoy her company and then she could disappear? He is often a world-class jerk, until the fateful events that lead to the soul swapping (and sometimes even after that, because hey, soul-swapping is a stressful business!)

Pensiveoska

Ra-im is understandably confused and irritated by Joo-won’s high-handed ways and makes no effort to hide these feelings. Why is he so persistent? Why should he care about how people perceive her? Doesn’t he know that he just makes her life that much harder? But his attention reminds her that she would like to be seen as a woman too. She’s fortunate in having as a friend and roommate Ah-young Im (played very appealingly by In-ah Yoo), who works at Loel. She’s called upon to be both confidante to Ra-im and to occasionally help as a go-between for Joo-won, ably assisted by the scene-stealing Kim-sung Oh, who plays Joo-won’s hapless assistant, Sung-woo Kim.

The benefit to the soul-swapping storyline not occurring until very late in the fifth episode is that the viewer has time to understand the characters, and to sympathize with them (or hope, in the case of Joo-won, that he gets a big karmic comeuppance and learns some valuable lessons). Once the switch happens, the story takes off in a whole new direction – or perhaps it should be compared to a parallel track. The main romance and discovery storyline is still ticking away very nicely, but then you get the added bonus of the simultaneous “OMG I’m her/him!” storyline in which the two lovers learn important things about each other and life. The moment in which the two discover that they have become “Joo-wonda” (Ra-im inhabiting Joo-won’s body) and “Ra-him” (when Joo-won discovers he has breasts) may require you to replay the scene several times because you will have been laughing too hard on the first viewings to have caught all of the dialogue!

Major praise goes to both Hyun Bin and Ji-won Ha for throwing themselves completely into the characterizations of their “other” roles. As Joo-wonda, Ra-im could be said to have a leg up because she’s been working in a man’s world in a physical profession, but she’s got zero experience with the intimate side of the man’s world, let alone the elite world of the rich Joo-won. Plus, she finds herself in close proximity to her fangirl idol Oska and can barely hide her urge to “squee” whenever near him! On the other hand, as Ra-him, Joo-won must deal (in a side-splitting moment that will be relished by most women) with female undergarments, the unrequited love of Ra-im’s boss (and therefore his rival) Jong-soo, but a thousand times worse for him is that he must be the physical and unafraid Ra-im, Stuntwoman.

A fellow viewer with whom this reviewer shared the “Secret Garden” experience complained that she felt the drama could have stood on its own without the soul-swapping storyline, but I could not agree. Joo-won needs to understand Ra-im’s world and her pride and to gain a bit of her courage and Ra-im needs to learn how to face the world with a greater sense of self-worth and yes, entitlement. By learning more of each other by being each other, the two grow into a couple that breathes for each other. And this is a beautiful thing!

There are myriad reasons for watching this drama: the most significant one being the incredible chemistry between Hyun Bin and Ji-won Ha. Yes, chemistry, chemistry, chemistry! What a beautiful thing that is! I love the way he falls for her so completely and he knows what this is because he feels it, and yet he doesn’t because he’s never felt this way before. I shouldn’t enjoy his dominating her by sitting on her the way he does in one scene in the Stunt Academy (he’s so tall and she’s so tiny) but, well, she had it coming because she was the one kicking him and tossing him around at the time. If you play with fire, you get scorched by Hyun Bin’s eyes! There are times where they are so angry at each other that you don’t know if they’re going to self-combust or fall on each other and kiss each other madly. You will hope for the latter, though be prepared for Joo-won’s incredible pill of a mother (played by the incomparably icy Joon-geum Park) to step in just at the worst possible moment.

Much too can be said about the world these characters inhabit, especially the brilliant choice of the home used for Joo-won. An architectural stunner, his house (it cannot in truth be called a home unless Ra-im is there with him) is a crisp, white, ultra-modern showpiece set in acres of open space, with a deck overlooking a beautiful ornamental and natural-looking pond. It is open plan and minimalist and a sterile cocoon for the neurotic Joo-won. It’s almost as if it is a geometric eggshell of a womb in which he can hide from the world, yet it is so open and airy that he is free from his fear of enclosed spaces. In spite of this, there are spaces in this house that are inviting, such as the library and his loft-type bedroom. Even if you do not care for modern architecture, you may find yourself wanting to move in. And, it contrasts beautifully with the small apartment that Ra-im shares with Ah-young, filled with the objects one collects during one’s life, cozy and warm.

Sleepingjoowon

You may notice that this reviewer has not provided many details to the drama and there is a reason for that; there are so many delightful moments to the way the story unfolds that to describe them here would rob the story of its impact. They should be experienced first-hand, without spoiling one’s personal discovery. When you can, as soon as you are able, make time to go play in this garden!

Watch “Secret Garden” at Dramafever.com – http://www.dramafever.com/

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