I’d been wary of getting excited about Secret Garden, because it’s so easy for hyped dramas to let you down, even when you love the cast. So it was with relief that I found the first episode light and funny, with a bustling pace and solid comic acting from the cast.
In addition to A-list leads Hyun Bin and Ha Ji-won, who are great, the drama is produced by a “hitmaker” team, the duo behind City Hall, On Air, Lovers in Paris, and Lovers in Prague. Despite the creds, I was cautious of writer Kim Eun-sook, because I have found her writing a little too glib and soulless for my liking in the past. Secret Garden is full of her trademark super-speed banter, but this time I was swept up in the zippiness because the characters are so engaging. She also drops in a number of pop-culture references, some of which involve the stars of her own previous dramas, which are fun to spot.
Secret Garden is off to a promising start with a strong 17.2% premiere. Granted, its competition wasn’t the strongest (MBC aired the news and KBS’s King Geunchogo is just getting started on its 70-episode run. They recorded 12.2% and 10.3%.). But perhaps it’s tapping in to an overlooked audience; it’s been a while since a romantic-comedy miniseries aired on the weekend, which I’ve always found curious — the viewership is there! Not everyone wants to see a million episodes of sageuk or family dramas, just sayin’…
SONG OF THE DAY
Secret Garden OST – “바라본다” (Looking at you) by Yoon Sang-hyun. This song is sung by Yoon Sang-hyun’s character and gets a fair bit of play in this episode.
[ Download ]
For the first half of the episode, KIM JOO-WON (Hyun Bin) pretty much ticks off all the boxes on the checklist of the Cold K-drama Hero: rich, arrogant, brusque, little tolerance for incompetence, fashionable, etc. He runs the LOEL department store, where employees grumble behind his back at his schedule; he only comes to the office two days a week. But they can’t really complain because he’s successful, and an exacting employer; he demands perfection from his executive team.
The stereotypical hero is enough to make you sigh, “Another one? Oh well, I’ll watch ’cause it’s Hyun Bin…” But halfway through the episode we get to see the other side of Joo-won, and it makes him suddenly a LOT more interesting. But we’ll address that when we get there.
GIL RA-IM (Ha Ji-won) — name pronounced like a cross between “lime” and “rhyme” — likewise has a very interesting dichotomy to her personality, which I’ll talk about more later. Ra-im is a hard-working stuntwoman for action movies, and since most of her colleagues at the action school are men, most of the time she acts like one of the guys.
She’s assertive and strong-willed in her personal life, but at work she is curiously quiet; she often holds her head down and accepts abuse (from the spoiled actress she stunts for) or harsh rebuke (from the director) even when such treatment is undeserved. I suspect that she’s worked so hard to get where she is that she fears that she’d lose it by pushing back, and also feels that as a woman in her field, she has to work extra-hard to prove herself.
Thankfully, she’s got her hot boss on her side, IM JONG-SOO (Philip Lee), the director of the action school who sees her for her worth. The fact that he’s in lurve with her is no doubt a big factor.
Then there’s Joo-won’s cousin and hyung, whose name is apparently OSKA and not Oscar — although what the heck kind of name is Oska? — played by Yoon Sang-hyun. He’s a famous singer with a particularly strong fanbase in Japan.
The two cousins have a competitive relationship, though I think it’s more on the side of Joo-won, who always has to one-up his hyung. Oska’s real name is CHOI WOO-YOUNG, and as part of his petty rivalry, Joo-won chooses to call him by that name rather than Oska.
YOON SEUL (Kim Sa-rang) takes her place as second lead with gusto; already I can feel that it’s gonna be a lot of fun to hate her. She’s a well-educated CF director, armed with a prestigious family background and the snobby, entitled attitude to match. I can’t wait to watch her downfall. Seul will have relationships with both Oska and Joo-won, but for the details I’ll turn to the recap:
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We start out with a lush, extravagant landscape straight out of an Austen novel, zooming across the well-kept grounds to the enormous mansion where our hero, Kim Joo-won, resides.
His rich, successful celebrity cousin Oska lives in the same environs, and as he heads into the city that morning, Joo-won can’t escape witnessing Oska making out with his actress girlfriend at the side of the road. Sigh. Typical Oska behavior.
Also typical is how Oska sends off his dim girlfriend, breaking up with her in his cavalier fashion, saying basically, “It’s been nice, see ya!” She does not take this well.
Joo-won meets his mat-seon date at a museum, and Seul does her best to impress him with her looks, smarts, background. Only, he’s not very impressionable and shows little interest. You’d think she’d be offended at his rudeness, but his words are just veiled enough that she’s not sure if he’s being insulting or saying something she doesn’t understand.
As they walk through the museum and have coffee, Seul notes his detachment and remarks that he’s free to leave. She’s not interested in an arranged marriage with a reluctant partner, either.
I’m sure she means to sound liberated and free-thinking, but to her surprise Joo-won takes the opposite tack, scoffing at the idea that love is worth throwing away everything else for, especially if you ultimately end up with someone “beneath” your level whom you can’t even talk to. What, does he think marrying below social class is like cross-species mating? I begin to see why he’s single.
Seul is used to being fawned over, so she finds Joo-won’s cold rejection intriguing. Chatting in the fancy VIP lounge of his department store with one of her spineless toadies, she’s hardly set down by his dismissal at all. Seul is a snob of the worst order, already fancying herself his wife, and casts a derisive eye around her at all the other social-climbing wannabes in the lounge. She has already mentally taken her place as the First Lady of LOEN department store. They say something about counting eggs and chickens and spilled milk, don’t they?
She also had a past relationship with Oska, which she intends to keep a secret from Joo-won.
The ritzy ladies of the VIP lounge burst into a chorus of murmurs and dirty looks when a woman enters, and you can practically see the signs lighting up above the well-coifed heads that are smoking with indignation: SHE IS NOT ONE OF US.
Seul stands up for all the oppressed rich ladies forced to endure this affront to their delicate sensibilities and confronts Ra-im, who dares to inflict her off-the-rack clothing and tough-girl looks upon them. Seul berates the waitress for being lax with their strict VIP policy and snatches her nametag to have her reported.
Contrary to my expectation, Ra-im doesn’t fight or talk back, but quickly offers to leave. She’s a friend of the waitress and, as a former employee, was let through to the lounge. Ra-im even tries to approach Seul afterward to plead for her friend’s nametag back, but before she has a chance, Seul’s friend is mugged.
Ra-im isn’t particularly inclined to go after the thief, but the girl launches into a bout of hysterics, and Ra-im sees that this might help her case. She takes off on bike after the mugger (who jumped into a car), going through a series of BMX-style stunts like jumping stairs and rails.
She fights off the gang of thieves, retrieves the stolen handbag, and returns it. She doesn’t even get a grudging thanks in response; rather, Seul snatches it and tells her friend to make sure nothing was taken. How nice of the drama to make it extra-stunningly clear that we are meant to hate her, just in case the previous scenes were keeping you on the fence.
Ra-im asks for her friend’s nametag back, which Seul says she threw into the trash. Fed up with Seul’s attitude, Ra-im orders HER to go through the trash to get it, since she’s the one who put it there.
Seul was lying, and rather than rifling through the garbage, she gives up the pin from her purse and declares that they’re square. Ra-im has a pretty fantastic response: She grabs a used tissue from the friend and throws it into Seul’s handbag, saying that she’s putting the garbage into the real trash can.
Given her assertiveness above, it’s interesting to see how reserved Ra-im is at work, accepting the insults of the movie’s star, CHAE-RIN, whom she stunt-doubles for. Who happens to be the girl Oska just dumped.
Ra-im listens to Oska’s music to console herself, and the attentive action director Jong-soo knows both that Chae-rin was being bitchy and that it upsets Ra-im, even though Ra-im insists that she’s fine. The stuntmen assure her that it’s just because Chae-rin’s jealous that she’s prettier, which is, I’ll admit, pretty sweet of them (even though part of me balks at the belittling nature of that statement — as though the only reason women are mean is because someone else is prettier. We’re such bitches that way).
Ra-im doesn’t like being pitied, and cutely responds in a way designed to ward off sympathy: by joking that this is the burden of being born so pretty, sigh, but what can she do about it?
Interestingly, it seems that Ra-im does have an inner girly side, but she keeps it covered up with her tomboyish attitude. For instance, someone compliments her on a job well done, and she accepts it with pleasure, one foot tucked behind the other in a little-girl pose of aw-shucks bashfulness. Also interesting is how Jong-soo clearly sees her very much as a woman and treats her as such, although she’s oblivious. (Also: Philip Lee is so hot.)
Oh no, I can feel it already — Second Lead Syndrome — because Jong-soo is already showing himself to be the kind of guy who’ll never get the girl although he deserves her more than anyone else. Example: He thinks of Ra-im’s feelings first, even when that makes his own invisible. Swoon.
He gives her tickets to an Oska concert, knowing she’s a huge fan, and puts the tickets into her locker. So I totally awwed when Ra-im ends up bringing Jong-soo with the extra ticket, even though he told her to bring a friend. While she looks up admiringly up at the stage, Jong-soo looks admiringly at her.
Joo-won’s here too, though bored out of his mind. He goes on about how Oska is a sucky singer, but his sister (who dragged him here) warns that if he doesn’t behave, she’s going to tell Oska oppa not to renew his contract with their department store.
Seul is also here, looking wistful, which I suppose supports the idea that she does, technically, have a heart. I remain skeptical, however.
In addition to his lax work schedule, another reason Joo-won’s employees complain is his pretentious insistence on taking the escalators. (Employees are supposed to bow respectfully to the CEO whenever they come across his path. If he took the elevator, they could cut out the obsequious fanfare that welcomes his arrivals, but he opts for the grand entrances.)
One matter of business: renewal of Oska’s contract as their main model. Joo-won doesn’t like doing it, but he knows that for the company’s sake, he’s gotta suck it up and appeal to his cousin.
Part of the problem, aside from the rivalry issue, is that Oska has gotten conceited ever since ascending to the “Hallyu star” ranks. Currently, he’s trying to find a director for his new music video, but nobody will work with him because of his diva reputation.
The other part of the problem is the contract fee, which the men discuss over drinks. Joo-won points out that it’s not a matter of money, but pride. He won’t give Oska a pay increase, while Oska refuses to lower his rate. Ego, meet impasse.
Oska’s attention is seized by a singer taking the stage, whose performance of Clazziquai’s “Dance” has him mesmerized. (The profile gives the singer’s name as Sun, a 23-year-old genius musician — gah, what’s with all the geniuses in Korean dramas? Can’t a guy simply be skilled without being a prodigy all the frickin’ time?)
Chae-rin’s still peeved about being dumped so shabbily — how dare Oska refuse her calls when he answers those by After Cool Cool’s Unee? LOL. Pop-culture jokes, you always make me laugh. Chae-rin threatens to reveal their relationship to the reporters who are here to cover the film.
This puts Chae-rin in a foul mood, so when she reluctantly practices for the upcoming action scene, she makes an angry swipe in the air with her sword — straight at Ra-im. They’re thrown off-balance, and Ra-im lurches forward to grab her, but they both crash into a pile of props.
Chae-rin shrieks over a teeny scratch on her thumb while Ra-im has suffered the brunt of impact, landing on glass and cutting her arm. But rather than cause trouble, she covers up with a jacket and apologizes for the accident.
The director yells at Ra-im for injuring the actress, while Jong-soo gets indignant on her behalf. When the director threatens to fire them, Jong-soo declares that he’ll withdraw his team from the movie — he can’t keep his crew safe on a set like this.
Spurred by Chae-rin’s threat to release photos as proof of their relationship, Oska calls Joo-won to beg a favor — find Chae-rin on set and stall her for a few hours. He can’t go because he’s about to record an appearance on Chocolate (SBS call-out! The talk show is hosted by a two-time star in writer Kim’s dramas, Kim Jung-eun).
Joo-won doesn’t want to do it, but Oska’s so desperate that he agrees to sign the contract renewal — and is coerced into signing for free, ha!
This cuts Joo-won’s session short with his psychiatrist, and we learn that he’s currently taking pills to deal with a debilitating fear. Sounds like an acute case of claustrophobia, as merely riding an elevator renders him unable to breathe — which is when we start to see that Joo-won’s outer shell is just that, a mask put on to cover up his soft emotional underbelly. He insists on taking the escalator because he’d rather be called haughty than the truth of his fear being known.
Can you see where this plan is going to go awry? Joo-won gets to the set and asks for the actress Chae-rin, and is directed toward Ra-im instead, since they’re dressed the same.
Joo-won opens with, “You know Oska, right?” He drives them to the hotel where they first met, and Joo-won assumes it’s clear that they’re going to a hotel used for the lovers’ rendezvous. On the other hand, Ra-im thinks to the first time she actually DID meet Oska, in a hotel for a press junket.
Upon hearing the suite number, Joo-won curses up a storm. We don’t understand why until they get there and he eyes the elevator warily, and makes up the excuse that he’s not the “kind of guy” who wants to be seen riding the elevator with a woman going up to the hotel room. Basically it’s hooey and he sounds like a square, but it’s all to avoid riding up in that box o’ death, and instead he takes to the stairs.
While waiting in the suite, Ra-im thinks back to that first meeting, when she was playing the double for Kim Sun-ah (another call-out! Kim, you will recall, was in writer Kim’s City Hall). Alas, no cameo.
The following conversation is a silly mix of double entendres and miscontrued meanings as Joo-won and Ra-im have two entirely different conversations with each other.
For instance, Joo-won asks how long she has been “meeting” (dating) Oska. Ra-im takes it at face value and says it’s been a while. Joo-won asks how much money she usually takes, meaning as payoff, because Chae-rin is demanding money as settlement.
When Joo-won asks about the photos she shot (he means Chae-rin’s sexy photos), Ra-im thinks he’s asking for her “appearance fee” as a stunt double. He smirks because it sounds like a flowery euphemism, and his eyes widen at her answer: She gets paid extra for outdoor and rural appearances, since rooftops and forests are all the rage right now. My inner twelve-year-old is howling with laughter, I’ll have you know.
It gets even better: Ra-im offers that car scenes pay the most, because they’re the most difficult. He nods, “Sure, those are hard. It’s uncomfortable and cramped. But the men like it.” (SNERK.) He’s amazed at her boldness and lack of shame as she agrees readily, “Yes, men like things that are speedy and stimulating.”
Ra-im finally catches on that he thinks she’s Chae-rin, then calls him a country bumpkin for making such a silly mistake.
She gets a call from the AD about their afternoon shoot, so she offers to bring Joo-won to Chae-rin. But if they wanna make it in time, he’d better let her drive.
Really, this scene is worth it just for Hyun Bin’s girlish screams.
They make it back in time for Joo-won to get to the press conference before Chae-rin confirms anything. He’s able to urge her into silence by threatening further scandal, and that takes care of that.
On his way out, Joo-won catches a glimpse of Ra-im in the thick of a fighting scene, and the sight of her awesome skills has him impressed, and even a bit smitten.
He waits around to catch her after she’s done filming, and talks to her in his blunt, inquisitive way. He isn’t being purposely rude when he asks why she’s doing physical work, but his lack of tact comes out rudely as he wonders if that’s because she’s not smart. (She kicks him in response.)
He’s like a little boy, saying random stuff to keep the conversation going, and he thinks she’s faking her arm injury — until he sees that she’s trailing blood.
She’s trying to hide it from the crew and hushes him, but he’s appalled that she’s taking such poor care of herself. She’s feverish and weak, and he insists on checking her in to the hospital.
On their way in, Joo-won makes it clear it’s not that he’s interested in her, and that he’s just acting out of basic ethics and blah blah blah, which just sounds like a bunch of excuses to me. He even calls his own doctor to tend to her, which amazes Dr. Lee because it’s so unlike him. Plus, she’s a psychiatrist.
When Ra-im’s phone rings (it’s from “My boss”), Joo-won answers, and Jong-soo rushes over after hearing what happened to her. Meanwhile, Joo-won notices that Ra-im is wearing, of all things, Oska socks. Affronted, he pulls them off her feet and tosses them in the trash.
Jong-soo arrives just as Ra-im wakes up, furious at her for ignoring her injury — he’s seen too many people hurt themselves this way — but also peeved that another guy is here. And when she sways in dizziness, he’s too slow to catch her because Joo-won gets to her first. Jong-soo rectifies this by shoving Joo-won aside to carry Ra-im out.
Joo-won follows them outside and watches as Ra-im maintains strict formality with her boss, saying she’s fine and doesn’t need him to take her home. Jong-soo relents and tells her to take a taxi home, but she walks instead.
Joo-won drives slowly, keeping his gaze fixed on Ra-im trudging along, and finally pulls over.
In his blunt way, he asks if she was hoping the director would come back for her. Or maybe she has no money. If that’s the case, he’ll take her home. He even offers to put up the convertible top, which he’d refused to do earlier.
Just then, a van screeches up and out pops Oska, who’s dying to know what happened with Chae-rin. He starts in on his usual bickering with Joo-won, until he takes notice of the pretty woman standing with him and reverts to glib words, saying that he recognizes her eyes.
Joo-won sighs that he’s in playboy mode again, but it seems Oska really does remember her. It was on the film Welcome to Dongjakgoo (LOL) where she was the double for Kim Sun-ah’s level 10 civil servant (which was the rank of Kim’s City Hall character). He even remembers her name, and declares, “Gil Ra-im!”
Ra-im all but melts into a fan-worshippy puddle at his feet, touched to be remembered by her star crush. Oska smiles at her in full charm mode, while Joo-won gapes as though to grumble, You have gotta be kidding me.
The goofy fantasy premise — of body-swapping — was enough to get me interested in this drama, but it’s the characters who are keeping me invested. They’re even more winning than I’d been expecting — although, to be fair, I was telling myself to keep my expectations down for fear of being disappointed.
What I dig the most is the abundant sense of humor, and how the actors are really going for it. Not that I doubted Hyun Bin and Ha Ji-won were up to the task, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen them both being so full-on comedic; they’ve both done a lot of dramatic, serious stuff in recent years.
One great recurring bit: Joo-won’s sparkly tracksuit, which I’d snarked on previously without expecting the drama to do so as well. It’s a running gag that it makes him look like a tacky ajusshi, and each time he defends himself, saying, “This jacket isn’t what you think it is!” (It’s basically a sparkly Members Only jacket, aka cool only in the ’80s, and even then that’s a matter of debate.) He even pulls out the label and goes on about how it was hand-stitched in Italy, but nobody cares, which makes it all the funnier because of how very much HE cares.
But what I love most about these characters is how both leads have these contradictory sides. Joo-won initially seems cold and uppity and stereotypical, but when we look closer it becomes clear that it’s all an act — a big attempt to overcompensate for his insecurities. He doesn’t want rumors to spread about his deathly fear of the elevator, because that would be the worst thing ever — even though I bet everyone would like him a lot more if they knew. In fact, his whole persona has been crafted to cover up his weaknesses, like his refusal to come to the office more.
I also like that he’s not the beat-around-the-bush type. He doesn’t try to be slick or cool when he tells Ra-im he wants to drive her home. It’s tantamount to a frank admission of interest. And when she balks, he responds that he doesn’t need a reason to take her home other than wanting to do it. And he wants to do it.
Then there’s Ra-im, who becomes shy and bashful when she’s complimented. At first I thought Ha Ji-won was purposely deepening her voice for the role, but now I think it’s Ra-im who’s purposely deepening it to act like one of the boys. She dresses casually and doesn’t put an effort into looking feminine, but she does seem wistful when she overhears the director telling Chae-rin that all she has to do is look pretty. It’s not much of a compliment, but it’s like she’d like a chance to be pretty herself, too.
So: He’s unexpectedly boyish, she’s unexpectedly girlish. It’s very cute.
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