Review: Secret Garden

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Co-posted at Still Just Alison

TV drama – 20 episodes

Japan may have Godzilla, but Korea has an equally fearsome monster. The chaebol mama may not trample buildings, but she has a shriek that can shatter glass, and is equally destructive of anyone who stops her doing whatever she wants.

Anyone who watches this expecting to see another Captain Ri Jeong Hyeok from Crash Landing on You will be sadly disappointed – as this was before Hyun Bin’s military service, HB was considerably slimmer, and his character is not at all the alpha male of CLOY. But this is still an excellent series, written by Kim Eun-sook, who was responsible for the enormously popular Goblin, the Lonely and Great God.

For starters, HB is hugely talented, so his portrayal of the emotionally stunted CEO Kim Joo Won bemused by his attraction to stuntwoman Gil Ra Im (played by Ha Ji Won) is very convincing, although occasionally painful to watch: Joo Won doesn’t seem to understand just how hurtful he can be. He’s rich, and moves in the best circles, but Ra Im is the more emotionally mature of the two, and Ha Ji Won brings an energy and effervescent joy to her role, as well as a fire that makes her look as though she’s occasionally on the brink of going full Begbie from Trainspotting. In contrast, Hyun Bin is remarkably good at portraying a petulant spoilt twatwaffle – not something you might have expected.

There’s a lovely scene early on where Joo Won is trying to work out why he’s so obsessed with her, and he’s arguing with his imaginary Ra Im, telling her that his ideal woman is intelligent, rich, and young – all the things Ra Im isn’t. As he speaks, the imaginary Ra Im manifests glasses and a book, then a fur and a supercilious expression, then finally pigtails and a girlish squeal of “Oppa!”

The series treats obsession honestly, instead of pretending that it’s just an excess of harmless romance: we see the hurtful effect on Ra Im & those around her, & his absolute indifference to her feelings. He’s quite cruel at times, & I for one never thought it possible to hate Hyun Bin, but I came close. Thankfully Ra Im & her colleagues school him properly, especially Phillip Lee, as the taciturn action school leader harbouring a secret love for Ra Im.

Of course, if it was just ‘stuntwoman teaches chaebol heir how to love’, then the 20 episodes might drag just a tad, but of course there’s more than that. For starters, there’s a mystery that unfolds as the two leads inch closer to each other, revealing a shared tragedy in their past.

Then there’s the second leads. Joo Won’s cousin Oska, a famous singer who’s past his peak, is haunted by a past love who rejected him, while said past love, Yoon Seul, is bent on taking revenge for an overheard comment by making Oska’s life, and the lives of everyone around him, miserable.

As the secondary romantic pair, these two don’t quite work. Oska is charming and roguish, flirting with Ra Im, who has a fangirl crush, but Yoon Seul is just plain nasty to everyone except those she can use. And while we can eventually sympathise with Joo Won, once we learn of the accident that traumatised him, Yoon Seul’s grievance seems incredibly petty by comparison, and her response way out of proportion. Perhaps that’s an inevitable result of her upbringing as one of the privileged few – and we can see her future, in the shrieking harpy that is Joo Won’s chaebol mama. A more frightening and repulsive creature you couldn’t imagine, and it’s no wonder poor Joo Won is emotionally stunted, if that’s what reared him – the only surprise is that he didn’t turn into a serial killer.

Anyway, back to our story: the big plot twist is that our lovely leads drink some magic wine that has them swapping bodies when it rains. All this leads to some comical hijinks, and it looks as though the two leads had a lot of fun, with Ha Ji Won essaying the arrogant Joo Won striding around in Ra Im’s body arranging her life, and Hyun Bin giving a girlish squeal and covering body parts he hasn’t got.

It becomes poignant when you watch their love enduring through the body swap – that’s when you realise that they care about the person within, not the external trappings. I confess that the thought of holding my own hand makes me feel a tad queasy, but then I might feel different if I was Ha Ji Won in love with Hyun Bin.

But it’s not just a romcom – the series takes a darker turn, and it’s here that the magic wine provides an opportunity for what you might call the ultimate sacrifice. The scene with Joo Won writing a letter had me sobbing like a babe, big softie that I am. The scriptwriter composes this scene flawlessly – plenty of heart-rending emotion, but couched in the most touching terms instead of wallowing in saccharine.

Overall, despite a few minor flaws, the well-written story with engaging and credible characters brought to life by talented actors makes this series well worth watching.

Alison blogs at Still Just Alison, where she writes about Korean drama, movies, music, and, very occasionally, things that aren’t Korean. But only occasionally.

9 magic flower wines out of 10.
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