Secret Boutique: Episodes 1-2 (Series review)
SBS’s latest Wednesday-Thursday drama, Secret Boutique, made its premiere this week, and it’s bursting with noir-y goodness. It’s a little less melo than I expected, and a bit more action, intrigue, and female-strong badassery. The opening episodes feel a bit like Heartless City plus Mask — we’ve got the tightly woven layers of power, corruption, alliances, and loyalty, but set in a ruthless chaebol world where our heroine doesn’t exactly belong. Or does she?
Our heroine is JENNY JANG (Kim Sun-ah), and from the minute she appears on the screen, we know she’s a force to be reckoned with. Kim Sun-ah is on fire here — I love her in this role so far. She’s got the sass and swagger, but also a depth behind her performance; we quickly sense there’s a lot going on underneath the glamorous sheen of her demeanor. When she enters the room, everyone is buzzing with the question, “Who is Jenny Jang?” — and that might just be the thesis statement of the drama.
We learn that Jenny’s been involved with the Dae-oh chaebol group since her childhood, when KIM YEO-OK (Jang Mi-hee) saw something in her, and took her in. Jenny went from scrubbing tubs in an exclusive bathhouse, to being thrust into the chaebol fire pit in which she now thrives. Twenty years later she’s arguably more powerful than the two daughters of the family, though all three run a separate piece of the conglomerate.
Jenny runs J-Boutique, which does a whole lot more than sell high-end merchandise. J-Boutique is also Jenny’s law firm, so to speak, not that what she does has anything to do with upholding the law or justice. We’re told that it’s a boutique law firm that handles cases other firms can’t because they’re strictly confidential. What’s really happening, though, is that Jenny solves powerful people’s problems — and that means “dealing with” everything from scandals to murders. What her “clients” don’t realize is that once she’s helped them, they’re essentially in her power. Because in Secret Boutique, information is power, and Jenny seems to hold the most of it.
At the crux of the drama is Jenny versus the chaebol family that took her in. At the start, this plays out as the power struggle between the oldest daughter of Dae-oh Group, WIE YE-NAM (Park Hee-bon), and Jenny. When we meet them, they’re playing a high-stakes game over who gets to control the mayor, and thus have a presidential candidate – and the international city development project — in her pocket.
Ye-nam tries to woo the mayor away from Jenny with plates full of money (literally) and a party yacht with girls and drugs, but when one of the hired girls dies of an overdose, things spiral out of control. Is Ye-nam powerful enough to handle it? It doesn’t seem like it, and pretty soon the mayor is back at Jenny’s feet.
The storyline is important in and of itself, but it also showcases the rivalry between Ye-nam and Jenny. They make their moves and wait from above, while their people carry them out. It’s very strategic and chess-like, and while their moves matter a lot, their success is also impacted by who’s on their side.
Ye-nam has a high-level prosecutor as a husband, and a police bureau chief that doubles as her “cleaner” (dude, he’s scary) — but even with these puppets, Jenny seems to be on top. She’s either one step ahead in the game, or she’s just that good at playing it. She knows when to bluff, when to play her hand, when to watch, and when to wait.
Jenny also has people on her side, the most important of which is YOON SUN-WOO (Kim Jae-young). He’s clearly her right-hand man, and the only one that seems to be close to her. I don’t quite trust anything this drama is telling me yet, but from what we’re shown, his devotion to her looks pretty real, and almost at puppy dog devotion level. You know, if your puppy dog was also able to fight off a group of gangsters single-handedly, manage your entire network of resources, be at your beck and call 24/7, drive you around like a professional chauffeur, and also have a deep understanding of who you really are.
I’ve really liked Kim Jae-young in other dramas, where I’ve seen him do lighter supporting roles. He’s even better here, so far, and there’s an intensity he’s able to capture with his performance that’s really grabbing me. I expect a lot from his character. I also expect a lot from their relationship, wherever that may go.
Secret Boutique has definitely set the stage for a lot of character-driven storylines, and I think that’s why it won me over so fast. Stories about loyalties, alliances, revenge, and rivalry are all well and good, but they’re made so much more compelling when we have rich, developed characters — and relationships between those characters. I’m hoping Secret Boutique stays strong with this, and doesn’t dump their interesting relationship-driven nuances in favor of predictable plot lines (much like happened in The K2, for which I will never be able to forgive it).
Another thing Secret Boutique is doing well is using its flashbacks. In a story where you don’t know who to trust, who is on which side, and who’s about to double-cross, these scenes from the past give us some level of assurance about the genuineness of our characters. For instance, we see Sun-woo’s heartbreaking devotion to Jenny when they were children, so we infer that his current devotion to her is real. We see the son of Dae-oh Group, WIE JUNG-HYUK (Kim Tae-hoon), crushing on Jenny as a teenager back when she was brought to their house, so we infer that his impending marriage to her in present-day is out of love (or at least partially). I’m not usually a big fan of frequent flashbacks, but they color the story and the characters quite well here, and give us a much-needed measuring rod as we meet this household.
We also meet two other important characters, who are at first unconnected to Dae-oh Group: the amateur baduk player LEE HYUN-JI (Go Min-shi) and her mother, who’s a cop. It’s impossible not to like both of them immediately (even if Go Min-shi last played the world’s worst cousin in Love Alarm). We dig a bit deeper into their story than I expected, and these two get a good bit of screen time until eventually the plot lines cross. Hyun-ji’s mother winds up investigating the mayor, and at the end of that mayhem, Hyun-ji becomes a bargaining tool and winds up with Jenny and Sun-woo.
Hyun-ji is more than a bargaining chip, though. She helps Jenny during a negotiation with her well-honed people reading skills from years of studying tells and body language to play a stronger baduk game. It works, and Jenny is intrigued by her. I like where Secret Boutique is going with this, since stories of wronged, weak heroines (so to speak) transformed into powerful doers is always a fun story. I’m not sure if they’ll head there, but it sure feels like it.
While Hyun-ji’s innocence and good heart are a nice balance to the seamy underbelly that is Jenny’s world, there was a little more Hyun-ji than I wanted, and a little less Jenny. Dramas are saturated with young heroines like this; what I’m really interested in is this more mature heroine who’s already been battling it out for twenty years. What’s going to happen to her during the course of the drama? It’s her story that I really want to hear.
As to be expected in a drama like Secret Boutique, things are not as they appear. At the end of Episode 2 we get a huge reveal — a trick I expect a fast-paced and sleek drama like Secret Boutique to pull quite often. It turns out that Jenny and Kim Yeo-ok go farther back than their bathhouse days. In the aftermath of a terrible bus accident, Yeo-ok took the signet ring that belonged Jenny’s mother and was thus mistaken as the daughter-in-law of Dae-oh Group.
Yep, this means everything you think it does. Not only is Yeo-ok an evil wench, but she’s an imposter: the position she is in now belonged to Jenny’s mother, who was meeting the chaebol chairman for the first time after a long estrangement. And to make it a little more dramatic, Yeo-ok was also responsible for her death as well.
Jenny, we learn, has known all along. And just like that, her rise to power has so much more meaning than just being about competitiveness or greed. Well-played, show. I thought there was more going on — and this is just the kind of opening week cliffhanger that sets the stage perfectly. Now that we know that Jenny is the true heiress, we can fully get behind her — and her deep-seated plan to set everything to rights.