Secret Garden: Likes and Dislikes

I started to watch Secret Garden when it was airing in 2010, saw 2 episodes, and although there were bits and pieces that I liked, overall, I was unimpressed. So, I put off following the show indefinitely. But then, as new episodes came out, the blogosphere was either abuzz with heaps of praises or heaps of criticism for Secret Garden, which certainly piqued my curiosity. Coupled that with news of Hyun Bin’s upcoming military service date and Son Ye Jin’s cameo in Episode 20, I decided to bump it up on my to-watch list.

Anyway, I finished Secret Garden a few weeks ago, and was disappointed with the way the show turned out, to say the least. While there were things that I did like about the show, it isn’t one of my favorite dramas ever. And while there were aspects that annoyed and frustrated me, I don’t hate it with a fiery passion. So, I think I’d fall somewhere in the middle of the SG’s love/hate spectrum. Thus, I’m going to sum up my overall opinion of SG in a like/dislike list.

Disclaimer: I am aware that there are quite a few ardent fans of SG and although I’m not about to go on a full-on tirade of SG, I know how it feels to read unfavorable opinions of shows that you love. So this is just a heads up, in case you happen to stumble upon this post. To give you a brief taste of the general tone of the coming list, SG will be better known to me as Oska’s Garden, Maintained by Secretary Kim.

What I Liked:

1. The lovely cinematography
As a person who likes nature and flowers, it was no surprise that the garden theme, the abundance of colorful flowers decorating Joo Won’s estate and office would appeal to me.

2. The soundtrack
The instrumentals and the ballads on the OST are similar to what you’d typically get in a melodrama of the Korean variety. However, for some reason, I grew to like the song “That Woman” and its counterpart “That Man” a lot. Perhaps it’s the lyrics, which I think would fit perfectly in a drama about unrequited love and/or the melody, that starts out soft and low, and then works its way up to the climatic chorus.


(Special thanks to wahtda10 for uploading the video.)

Hyun Bin also did a cover of “That Man” and for an actor, his singing is decent. Just… don’t quit your day job, Binnie.

3. Oska/Choi Woo Young (Yoon Sang Hyun)
Honestly, in the beginning, Oska had me rolling my eyes with his immature personality and giving me a headache with the shrill delivery of, what it seemed like, all of his lines. However, as the show went on, my hearing somehow became desensitized to the loudness of his voice, and not only was I no longer annoyed but his character was the one that gave me the most amusement. I was also glad to see that Oska got his happy ending with Seul (Kim Sa Rang).

Although Oska was fun to watch, my liking of Oska is relative here because when compared to the other main characters of SG, his was the most watchable for me. So although I like Oska and Yoon Sang Hyun’s portrayal, I’m not going to be shelling out the big bucks for Oska socks or jump on the next vehicle with Yoon Sang Hyun in it.

4. Secretary Kim/Kim Sung Woo (Kim Sung Oh)
When I first saw Secretary Kim in SG, I thought, “This dude looks familiar. Where have I seen him before?” And it later came to me that I watched him in Jejoongwon, where he played the arrogant school senior to Yeon Jung Hoon’s character. Hmm, I just looked up Kim Sung Oh’s wiki and Jejoongwon isn’t listed in the TV shows category. He is the same actor, right? Or am I mixing up names and faces again because I tend to do that.

Anyway, Secretary Kim was a hoot to watch in SG. And his romantic mishaps with the spunky Ah Young (Yoo In Na) were hilarious. Message in a bottle? Awkward double date? Reenactment of the “foam-kiss” and getting duly splashed with a glass of water immediately afterward? ahahhaha. *sprays computer screen with coffee, chokes on foam*

5. The body-swapping trick
I’ll admit it. My funny bone is stuck in the body of a twelve year-old so I’m easily amused. So yeah, the body-swapping shenanigans did provide me with a lot of laughter in the beginning. I mean, Ra Im, in Joo Won’s body, went to the sauna with Oska and came out with a towel covering her/his body from the armpit down and then passed out from shocked when Oska proceeded to flex his muscle while naked. And the accidental kiss. Classic.

6. Son Ye Jin’s cameo
“Oh My God! It’s Son Ye Jin!” Hehe.

What I Did Not Like:

1. The body-swapping trick
I actually looked forward to the body-swapping because of the promise that it held for the OTP to gain a deeper understanding of each other since they are from two different worlds. However, alas, I only got a glimpse of that potential when Joo Won, while in Ra Im’s body, discovered how bruised up her body was and for a brief moment, seemed to begin to gain some insight into her life and work. And then, that was that. So, once the novelty of the trick wore off, I came to realize quickly that there was really no meaningful purpose to this soul-exchanging premise other than it being a convenient plot device that was used to get the main characters out of or put them into tough situations.

2. The rain symbolism
Since Ra Im’s father was a firefighter, and as water is the natural opposing force of fire, it makes sense for rain to be used as the stand-in for the magical wand. And in general, rain also means a cleansing of sort, washing away old traces and welcoming in new growth or changes. The symbolism, I get it. And on paper, it would sound good to me. But on screen, its incorporation into the storyline was done so simplistically and seemingly without much consideration that rather than leaving me impressed, it provided a cause for some headdesking.

3. Gil Ra Im (Ha Ji Won)
First, let me say that I’ve liked Ha Ji Won when she blew me away with her breathtaking performance as Hwang Jin Yi and have been anticipating her return to the small screen since then. So, when news of her casting in SG came out, I was excited because it’s been ages, you know. And then, it was announced that Jang Hyuk was out, and Hyun Bin was casted instead, I was doing the happy dance. Also, when I read that her character was going to be a badass stunt woman and saw her character stills, that excitement quadrupled because if there’s any actress that can kick ass, it would be Ha Ji Won. But in my giddy anticipation, I must have forgotten to read the fine print on her character description, which most likely stated something along the lines of “only kick-ass on the job as stunt woman; outside of action school and filming location, kick-ass ability is not guaranteed or non-existent.” I mean, seriously. Ra Im is a stunt woman who is well trained in martial arts, so why couldn’t she shakes off Joo Won’s wrist-grab? Why couldn’t she channel the strength and courage that she has for her work to stand up for herself in front of Joo Won’s mother?

When I started SG, there were certain aspects of Ra Im’s character that I actually liked. However, as the drama progressed, my feelings for this character began to diminish from like to annoyance, and then finally to indifference, as in “I don’t care anymore.” Let me explain.

In the early stages of SG, I found Ra Im’s idolizing of Oska endearing because hey, I’ve been there and can relate to that feeling. As a tomboy, her girlish reaction of putting one foot behind the other and tapping its toes when flustered was cute. But when Joo Won kept intruding into her life and she let him drag her all around town, I mean the mall, and absorbed his condescending criticism of her house, the way she dressed, that safety-pin bag, how she didn’t think of his high societal status when choosing her outfit before coming to meet him, blah blah blah, without firmly standing up for herself and/or punch him the face, I became annoyed. Yes, she did kick him in the shin a couple of times, but when that method didn’t have its intended effect, perhaps she could have tried a different tactic, but then again, that was contingent upon whether she wanted to in the first place, and in my opinion, I didn’t believe that she really wanted him to stay away for good. And eventually, the leg-kick became a part of their mating dance or something.

In comparison, annoyance isn’t as bad as indifference because I still cared about Ra Im. But the point when I threw up my arms in frustration and grew indifferent to Ra Im’s story, individually, and the Ra Im/Joo Won relationship occurred in Episode 13. It started when Joo Won’s mother came to Ra Im’s house and berated her for continuing to go out with her precious Joo Won despite the fact that she had made her opposition clear and told Ra Im to stop meeting Joo Won. And in her diatribe, Joo Won’s mother criticized Ra Im’s father for not raising his daughter right, at which point Ra Im stood up for herself and demanded an apology from Joo Won’s mother and told her straight up that her father was a good man who saved many lives and even if she liked Joo Won, she would stop meeting him because she didn’t want her father to be spoken of in an insulting manner. And I was cheering for Ra Im, because, why, hello backbone, nice of you to arrive finally.

Then, you know what happened in the same episode? Joo Won was hosting an extravagant holiday function for the VIP guests of his department store and Ra Im came to see him. Wait, what?! Selective amnesia at work here? (No, that’s saved for a later episode.) What happened to the whole “don’t insult my father because he was a great man and Joo Won’s not worth it”? Were those all empty tears and words? And what upped the irritation factor was the fact that she didn’t walk into the house to meet him face to face, but instead chose to watch him from outside, in the cold.

At this turn of events, I was mightily exasperated, but if Ra Im had walked into the party in her normal clothes, even though I wouldn’t like it, I’d still have some respect left for her. Alas, no. When she was on her way out, she bumped into Oska, who then dressed her up prettily and took her to the party. Joo Won and Ra Im talked, and their dialogue was supposed to be “aw, he really understands her and loves her for who she is” and this scene was supposed to induce reactions like “wow, this is so romantic” and I would squee, if I weren’t already emotionally checked-out and no longer care about this OTP.

To be clear, the above rant was directed towards the Ra Im character and not at Ha Ji Won the actress. I felt Ha Ji Won was serviceable in SG, but in my opinion, this is not her best performance. Which I don’t think is due to her ability as an actress, but more on how her character was written. Recently, I read that she’s rumored to be co-starring with Jang Dong Gun in his TV drama comeback, which sounds like it’s going to be epic. If this is true, I hope that it will be awesome.

4. Kim Joo Won (Hyun Bin)
Kim Joo Won is arrogant, condescending, and neurotic. Yikes! Those adjectives do not make him sound like an appealing character, do they? But, wait! He’s extremely wealthy and good-looking. And, to earn him more points from viewers and make us sympathize with him, he’s been through a traumatic experience and suffered from PTSD-induced claustrophobia. The thing is, I did sympathize with his character because I’ve read and heard about how terrible and debilitating panic attacks can be. But in spite of that, I still didn’t really believe that he actually changed that much from his baseline personality, even when he sacrificed himself to save Ra Im. Additionally, the recurring line of how Ra Im should respect and follow his decision because he’s an elite member of society was supposed to come across as a joke, or at least that the impression I got, but for some reason, it was mildly offensive for me.

As for Hyun Bin’s performance in SG, I agree with the majority that he did well and has improved since My Name is Kim Sam Soon.

5. The OTP of Ra Im and Joo Won
“My subconscious recognizes you.” That’s it? That’s the main reason why Joo Won is so enamored of Ra Im?

Also, is it possible for two actors to have an insane amount of onscreen chemistry when they’re together and yet the OTP that they make up isn’t as compelling as it should be? To my surprise, it is.

I mean, even looking solely at pictures, don’t you think these two just ooze chemistry? But because I couldn’t connect with their characters, individually, and didn’t fully understand what they liked about each other and how they complementing each other as a couple, I couldn’t get on board this ship even though I really did want to, believe it or not.

6. The 20-episode length
SG falls into the categories of dramas that I believe would be better if it had been 16 episodes rather than 20 because the writing, hopefully, would be tighter and the plot less draggy. Heck, even if SG followed the Jdorama format of 10 to 11 episodes max, I think that it would be able to tell its story and still have time to spare. But that’s just my opinion because I’m sure fans of SG would request for the opposite and want more scenes of their favorite couple, based on the fact that SBS not only aired the making-of special but also a 2-episode Lunar New Year overview of SG focused primarily on Ra Im and Joo Won.

Do I Want 20 Hours of My Life Back?
Would you be surprised my answer is “no, not entirely”? As I’ve said above, there were aspects of SG that I enjoyed and characters that I liked. Mostly, I disappointed because the show wasn’t as good as I had expected it to be.

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9 thoughts on “Secret Garden: Likes and Dislikes

  1. Phew!!!!!! I’m so glad you clarified by saying it was much less Ha Ji Won’s acting that was the problem than it was the way her role was written *wipes sweat from forehead*

    I’ve caught snippets of the series but am ye to watch it in full. I’ve heard and heard about the chemistry btwn the two leads but I’d always had my reservations because, well, I think I said this already- Ha Ji Won tends to have (at least some sort of) chemistry with everyone, so, as you have kinda validated for me, the “OMG this is such an OTP!” thing isn’t always a given per se. Have not heard about this Ji Won and Jang Dong Gun project but now I am definitely intriiiiiigued. I do like the fact that in South Korea, the A-list stars do quite come back to the small screen every now and then (whereas, say in Hong Kong, the big names are like, NEVER!!!!!!! I’m far too good for the small screen, pfft.)

    As for Hyun Bin, although he’s never been gawdawful, I’ve never really been wowed by his acting either, but if people are saying he has improved then that is definitely a good thing. Haven’t loved him at all since his Sam Shik days ^^;

    Cinematography and soundtrack check is a good thing! I like it when directors take their television work as seriously as they would for a movie on the silver screen ^_^ But dodgy writing? Hmm, I guess I will be treading carefully… (add Secret Garden to the end of my v. long list???)

    • Have not heard about this Ji Won and Jang Dong Gun project but now I am definitely intriiiiiigued
      Apparently, it is rumored to have “Doctah” aka JaeJoong too.
      And yeah, I also like how seamless Korean actors and actresses go from TV to movies and then back. I think probably because K-dramas tend to have better production quality then HK series in general, so when stars go back and forth, it doesn’t seem so “taboo” or that somehow their star status is lowered. Also, the really great K-dramas would definitely give movies a run for their money.

      The writing is definitely the weakest link in SG. But seeing how the majority of opinions on SG is so polarized, you might like it. Although, if you want to watch it mainly for Ha Ji Won, I’d suggest browsing through the recaps for the later episodes at Dramabeans first (if you’re not a spoilerphobe) to get a feeling for whether or not her character and the show are to your liking. It might save you time and some headdesking.

  2. Friend, you are too kind to this drama… I decided not to write a final review on SG because I knew that I’d wind up ripping it to shreds and no one would come back to my blog in protest. I agree with a lot of what you said, and my biggest qualm was definitely how the “love story” (if you could call it that) between the OTP played out. I didn’t understand why Ra Im fell for Joo Won (you can’t develop such strong feelings based on chemistry alone) and I couldn’t for the life of me see the appeal of Joo Won’s character. I’ll stop here because I don’t want to go on a full-fledged rant of how much I hate SG, but I commend you for having finished the drama. And I for one would like a refund of the 20+ hours I spent watching this farce.

    • Lol, I guess SG did more than annoy you, eh? I can feel your fury from the comment. Heheh. I agree completely with you about how elementary and badly written the OTP was, especially when they’re the core of the show, it just makes the development (what development?) that much more apparent. But seeing how I made it to the end without tearing out all my hair, I guess I’m not as angry about SG because it did make me laugh, and I always appreciate shows that do that. Either I’m easy to please or my standards is slipping. Or both.

  3. I wanted to write about SG too but decided not to. Fear of the Gardeners coming after me HAHA.

    No woman could have fallen for JW if he didn’t have Hyun Bin’s face. Superficial much?

    • Have the Gardeners (lulz) been fierce about opposing opinions to SG? Hehe.
      And yeah, Joo Won has two things going for him: his looks and wealth, although I did find his emaciated appearance worrisome instead of attractive.

  4. I did not like it either the drama, and want my 12 hours back!!!!

    The streaming images of the compelling reasons for GRI to fall for KJW and v~v was not executed—at all. It escaped me as a viewer. From around episode 10, I began to realize that these poorly made images of so-called blossoming love were trying to bore a hole in my brain trying to snake its way into my heart, and my survival mode kicked in allowing me to flee this drama not ever wanting to return. :->

    I do not like godawful…and that is what ghe love story was; a poorly written and loosely based version of MNIKSS, which I loved. It felt like a knockoff.

    There was a time that I wanted to like/love this drama, but when the GRI character was compromised, I could not.

    • The streaming images of the compelling reasons for GRI to fall for KJW and v~v was not executed—at all.

      Exactly. My problem was that their relationship and its development didn’t feel organic. It felt like the writer and director were forcing me to believe in OTP rather then letting me naturally feel it myself.

  5. Hello.

    I do not understand why some people like “Secret Garden”.

    I mean, Kim Joo Won (the character played by Hyun Bin) humiliates so many times to Gil Ra Im. In episode 8 he calls her “dark and ugly”. Even when they are already a couple, he keeps saying her woundings words. For example, in episode 14, he makes to tell/notice the social difference between him and Gil Ra Im, when he says: “You don’t have to be that touched. Making the poor neighbor’s life sweet is the sense of societal leaders”. What is the point of saying “poor neighbour” and etc.? The same phrase that used in one episode to treat her really bad (vacuum cleaner scene).
    Someone would expect an evolution of Kim Joo Won. But, no. For example, in episode 17, when he sacrificed himself to save Gil Ra Im, he writes a letter to Gil Ra Im, that says: “I’m letting you know beforehand that You Are the First and Last poor neglected neighbor to ever get a letter from society’s leader, Kim Joo Won. So be proud of yourself.”.
    WHAT?!
    In episode 15, when they are training Kim Joo Won says Gil Ra Im: “Do you need more miracles? There was already a miracle. A woman with no decent family background, no money, no good looks, is someone very special to someone who has everything. Isn’t that a miracle? Be honest. When I was clinging on to you, I know you said “go away, disappear”, but inside you were going KYA!!! Right?”.

    I mean, why does Kim Joo Won keep/remain being arrogant?
    Why does he keep his arrogance and mistreatment to others? Even towards Gil Ra Im.

    In the final episode, when they are already married, and they are talking about fairytales, Kim Joo Woon tells Gil Ra Im: “Moreover, they’re attractive. But how did someone with your looks meet someone like me?”. Then, Gil Ra Im replies: “You said, Gil Ra Im, at what age did you become so pretty?”; and Kim Joo Won answers: “A man trying to win over a girl will obviously say these things”.
    Or even worst. When they (Kim Joo Won and Gil Ra Im) are in their wedding night, and Yeun Seul and Ozka went to Joo Won’s house to decorate it like wedding gift Kim Joo Won flirts with Yeun Seul, when he says Seul “It would’ve been better if we met when I was 21”. !!
    I did not see an evolution or development in Kim Joo Won.
    Why does he feel attracted to Gil Ra Im? Because she does not feel attracted to him. Such a narcissistic. He was used to get all he wanted. But, then, he falls in love with her because she is such a sweet person. But, why does Gil Ra Im fall in love with Kim Joo Won? I mean, he is constantly humiliating her. HE NEVER APOLOGIZES. He never said sorry to Gil Ra Im for all the woundings words he said her through the episodes.

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