Oh, Secret Garden. We could have had it all. Bickering! Body swap! Two of my favorite things! Alas, it just never came together for me in quite the way that I’d hoped.
For those not up on their K-Dramas, Secret Garden is 20 episode romantic comedy that, sadly, has nothing to do with hunchbacks or creepy English manors. But it makes up for that in cracktastic magical shenanigans and amazing fashion choices. It was not a terrible way to spend twenty hours reading sub-titles, but, well…
What’s it about? This is a classic rich boy/poor girl story, with a side of supernatural added in. Our hero, Joo-won, is the wealthy CEO of a department store. He has a host of neuroses and some very particular opinions about sequins. Gil Ra-im is a poor orphan stunt woman from the wrong side of the tracks, who enters his orbit through a series of misunderstandings and coincidences. Blah blah, sexual tension ensues.
The main conflict revolves around class: he can’t be with her openly because his family disapproves; she has too much pride to accept anything less. We’ve all seen variations on this a million times before, but it feels more than a little dated in a modern context, especially Joo-won’s ridiculously over-the-top mother, who would literally prefer to ruin her son’s life than let him be with a social inferior.
ALSO: SO MANY SEQUINS, FOR REAL
(Some of this I could chalk up to cultural differences — but I’m wary of assuming too much about real world Korean culture from the plot of a soap opera where mystical rain makes people’s souls change bodies. On the other hand, there were clearly a lot of cultural things happening here that didn’t make a lot of sense to me — the elevation of department store president to the level of royalty, for example, was sort of baffling? OH KDRAMAS.)
I’m sorry, can we back up to the body swap thing? Right. So there’s this magic rain, and this magic wine, and this weird old lady in the woods, and also some heavenly intervention–um, yeah. Look, it doesn’t make a ton of sense? Basically, they swap bodies a few times. Go with it.
Body swap is one of my favorite tropes. I love the way it literally lets people walk in each other’s shoes and spurs character growth and all that good stuff. (Also: boob jokes. But preferably boob jokes and character growth, you know?)
I wish there had been a little more of that here. Instead, the swapping was mostly played for either comedy or angst. I did appreciate the genre savviness of the characters as they tried to figure what was happening, though. And the baffled reactions of the other people they eventually let in on the secret were totally gold.
That’s nice. But what about the romance? Real talk: the romance was super frustrating. The problem is Joo-won is an asshole. I know “arrogant snob” is a romance archetype for a reason. But he’s an arrogant snob who goes out of his way to force Ra-im to spend time with him while constantly belittling and degrading her. She intrigues him; he’s obsessed with her. But for more than half the show, he demonstrates zero respect for her choices or desires. And that’s on top of the general disrespect he shows her class status and poverty. It was just too much for me.
All of this does eventually change, and the leads do have chemistry. But I just can’t get over the way the story romanticizes stalking and some other seriously Not Okay behavior. (He’s physically forceful with her on more than one occasion, which is played off like it’s supposed to be harmless and sweet, I guess since she’s capable of beating him up if she wants to. Spoiler: it isn’t.)
I realize the shelves of the Romance section are littered with similar dynamics, so if this is your thing, have at it. No shame. But it really made me want to hurl my remote at the screen. Like, a lot.
Damn. Is there anything you did like? For sure. I love that Ra-im is a stunt woman, because it’s unusual and fun and gives her a lot of opportunities to be physically awesome.
(Hilariously, all of the high class characters treat her like that’s a job at McDonald’s or something. Not that I run into a lot of stunt people in my real life, but it’s a profession that requires a great deal of specialized experience and skill? And it involves making movies? I’d think most people would find that really exciting and fascinating.)
(Maybe I’d just make a bad rich snob.)
I also enjoyed the fact that Joo-won’s character played with and defied a lot of the tropes we typically see in Western media representations of masculinity. He’s a powerful business man! His word is law! But… he’s also fastidious about his appearance and his comforts and wears flamboyant clothing. He’s closed off emotionally! But… he also whines and complains at the drop of a hat. And he’s surprisingly open and vulnerable with his feelings for Ra-im once he realizes them.
The last quarter of the show is where things really got interesting for me — not coincidentally, this is the part where we actually started to see some forward movement and character growth, and a healthy dose of angst. So perhaps the problem is just that 20 episodes was too long for the amount of story being told? Condensing things to 12-15 might have cut a lot of the more repetitive plot beats and emphasized the stuff that actually worked.
Anything else? There’s a large sub-plot involving with Joo-won’s pop star cousin, Oska, his struggling career, and rocky relationship with his ex, Seul. Unfortunately, Seul is also a asshole, which makes it hard to root for them.
(Granted, she has some decent reasons for her anger at Oska, but that doesn’t really excuse her behavior with anyone else. And there really ought to be a statute of limitations on how long you can plot to ruin someone’s life for being a thoughtless idiot five years ago, you know?)
Oska often comes across as silly and vain, but ends up demonstrating a compassionate heart and a better understanding of basic human emotion than his cousin on more than one occasion. I really could not have cared less about his professional woes or his whole messed up thing with Seul. But his sweet friendship with Ra-im was one of the best parts of the show for me. I kind of just want to watch an entire series of them running around being each other’s biggest fans.
Special shout outs to: Joo-won’s amazing house/oval egg bedroom. I don’t really know how to describe how weird this thing is without you just seeing it. Trust me. It’s amazing. And weird.
Also, Jong-soo, Ra-im’s stunt mentor who’s tragically (and silently) in love with her. I feel like he and I were on the same page with eye-rolling at the various immature antics of every other character. It’s okay, Phillip Lee. Someday I’ll watch something where you’re not languishing in a side role.
NEXT TIME, BUDDY
So should I watch this or what? Do you like Pride and Prejudice but wish it had more sparkly tracksuits? Do you have a high tolerance for broad comedy, hijinks, and misunderstandings? Do you prefer your heroes with a large side of douche? This is for you.