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.