[Friday Flashback] Secret Garden
Genre: Romance, Comedy, Supernatural
Synopsis: Kim Joo-won is your typical rich and arrogant CEO. Gil Ra-im is a poor stuntwoman, who kicks butt on and off screen. They live in opposite worlds, but their paths cross after Joo-won mistakes Ra-im for the actress who was secretly dating his celebrity cousin. Drawn to Ra-im for reasons he can’t understand — or admit — he finds ways to insert himself into her life as his curiosity grows, but Ra-im would prefer it if he left her alone. After a magical twist forces them to work together, will their unwilling partnership grow into something more?
Why You Should (Or Shouldn’t) Watch Secret Garden:
I’ve got stoic CEOs on my mind, thanks to a certain currently airing drama, so for this Friday Flashback, I thought I’d (re)introduce you to Kim Joo-won (Hyun Bin), who pioneered the sparkling tracksuit as a casual wear alternative for the classic suit and tie. Joo-won hits all the stereotypes for the perfect K-drama man: handsome, rich, competitive, and completely uninterested in romance until one specific woman enters his life and obliterates his ability to function as a proper human being.
Ra-im (Ha Ji-won), however, wasn’t — at the time — the typical K-drama heroine, and part of what drew me to this drama back in 2010 was her stuntwoman profession. Most leading ladies of the era weren’t known for kicking ass and taking names, so having a female lead whose strength was derived from hard-earned muscles and years of training — not magical abilities — was refreshing and empowering. But underneath all that brawn, she also has an inner fangirl who squees over pop star Oska (Yoon Sang-hyun), Joo-won’s cousin.
So naturally, when these two opposites meet, it’s not instantaneous mutual attraction, but Joo-won is undeniably intrigued. The first part of this drama is largely focused on him worming his way into Ra-im’s life as he tries to figure out why he can’t stop thinking about her, but I can’t say that I fully support his pursuit of Ra-im.
It’s one of those situations where 90% of his actions are brutish and stalkerish, and they’re only palatable because, well, he’s Hyun Bin. What woman wouldn’t want him pursuing her, right? Well, apparently, Ra-im doesn’t, and Joo-won acts like the classic rich boy who’s used to hearing yes and getting his way.
Ra-im can’t avoid him forever, though. Around Episode 5-ish, the drama decides to add a supernatural element to the mix, and our leading couple drinks some magic homebrew that they received from a sketchy woman in a forest — because forest witches always have the good stuff. The next day they wake up with a lot more than a hangover. Somehow — Ghost magic! — they have swapped bodies, and hijinks and misunderstandings abound… for a few episodes. They quickly swap back, and while they do swap a time or two again, they spend the majority of the story in their own bodies.
Between the body swapping shenanigans, there are a couple of baddies who try to stir up conflict and drama. Not only is Joo-won’s grandfather’s fourth wife’s brother — yeah, take your time reading that — trying to undermine Joo-won’s position in the company, but Joo-won’s mom is an absolute pill. She’s dead set on having him marry a woman with a pedigree as fancy as his, so she pulls the ol’ envelope full of money trope when Joo-won starts hanging out with poor orphan Ra-im. Both the step-great-uncle and mom are the tropey kind of villains that you love to hate: meddlesome and comically unlikeable, but overall they don’t cause enough conflict to wish them a death by white Truck of Doom.
Unfortunately, the antagonists don’t do well to keep the plot from dragging and from becoming bogged down by Joo-won’s one-sided pursuit of Ra-im. She continuously rejects him until… finally she doesn’t. While this fated OTP does — to some extent — have that love-hate chemistry going on, their love story doesn’t progress all that romantically. Instead of falling for him, it kind of feels like he wore her down, and she just grew tired of rejecting him. So in terms of romance, I have to say that this Friday Flashback does not hold up well to the test of time, at least not for our main couple.
But there are some pretty interesting romances and love triangles between the secondary characters. I particularly like the match between Ra-im’s roommate and Joo-won’s chief secretary, who is absolutely hilarious. Oska also has a nice little love triangle going on with his ex-girlfriend and a young man (played by a baby-faced Lee Jong-seok). This is one of the earliest representations of homosexuality that I can recall seeing in a Korean drama, so I must commend Secret Garden for its inclusion and for not using it as comedic relief.
I also think this drama does a somewhat decent job of breaking gender stereotypes, having Ra-im be the strong one and Joo-won be that guy who never gets sweat on his athleisure wear. However, some of this is undercut whenever they swap bodies and the story leans into Ra-im’s few “girly” habits to help distinguish when she’s in Joo-won’s body. But overall, I say it does more good than bad in this case.
So do I recommend Secret Garden? If you’re fairly new to K-dramas and/or haven’t watched it, I’d say it’s worth giving it a chance. Ra-im is a leading lady who stands the test of time, even if her man doesn’t. The secondary characters are also pretty solid, and I find the stunt-double element of the plot fascinating. However, if you’re a veteran considering a rewatch, I can’t promise that a second viewing won’t burst your nostalgia bubble.