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Secret Garden Korean Drama Review

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So I’m rethinking of re-branding my website; I’m recently discovering how amazing Korean Dramas are so I’m going to start reviewing at least one to two new dramas a month.

I’ll be starting with my absolute favorite, Secret Garden. Secret Garden tells the story of stunt woman Gil Ra Im and her unlikely love triangle between a Mr. Darcy like President of the Loel department store, Kim Joo-won and his cousin, pop star Oska or Choi Woo-Young. As we get to know each of our protagonists, we discover that Gil Ra Im and best friend Im Ah-Young share a very small apartment in a poor part of town making the best of each day together. Kim Joo-won, a man with a razor personality as sharp as a knife known for looking down upon others and playing at intense psychological warfare with his underlings (“Is this your best? Are you certain?”) is drawn in an unlikely manner into Gil Ra Im’s life. While attempting to cover up a scandal for cousin Oska with actress Chae Rin, we discover in short order a few very important details about each individual.

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Oska lives life to play, whether it’s with women or his career, though he appears to have some manner of sweetness and juvenile charm about him. Kim Joo-won lives to be the greatest. As Oska says, “If I buy a car, he buys the dealership. If I buy a boat, he buys the entire fleet. He’s that sort of guy.”

Meanwhile, Gil Ra Im is a woman who will be moved to violence for her friend’s pride and well-being, but will ignore her own personal injuries and slights to the point of landing herself in a hospital.

As a bit of happenstance throws these characters and more together, we embark on a tale of supernatural romance, and the many kinds of male and female friendships, all leading towards what one can only hope will be a happy ending. Shall we?

Our Major Players and How They Connect:

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To make certain readers could actually keep the complex relationships apart, the DVD set actually comes with a relationship chart. Absent from the chart are parents, siblings and minor characters, though it’s interesting that Secretary Kim got passed over but Ssun made the list.

So, here’s Gil Ra Im:

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Gil Ra Im is connected to Ah-young as close best friends, Yoon Seul as a rival for Kim Joo-Won, Oska as a love interest, Im Jong Soo as an employee, friend and love interest, and Kim Joo Won as the unlikely woman who steals his heart. Gil Ra Im lost her mother and father when she was young, an experience that left her with very little in the way of self-worth. She’ll fight fiercely for her friends, but is incapable of accepting anything she views as charity.

Here’s Kim Joo-won (a.k.a. Kim Tracksuit Freak):

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Kim Joo-won is connected to Oska as cousins that are more like brothers, Yoon Seul as a means to control Oska, Im Jong Soo who is an obstacle to his budding feelings for Gil Ra Im, Ah-Young as co-conspirators in his play for Gil Ra Im’s heart, and of course Gil Ra Im.

Joo-Won is an arrogant jerk who seems to only care for himself. Even so, he finds himself acting more and more outside of his own self-interest the more time he spends around Ra Im. A tragic accident occurred in his youth, one that he can’t recall, that not only made him deathly claustrophobic, it also drastically changed his personality to the cold man he is today.

Next, Oska!

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My second favorite (Ssun is my favorite), Oska is…actually it’s getting redundant now. The only new connections you need to know are that Ssun is a talented young artist that Oska is scouting. It’s implied that he so vehemently wants to scout someone who initially seems to hate him, because Ssun is very much like Kim Joo-won in his youth. There’s also a lot of Oska’s diva personality to be found in Ssun, but more on that later.

Oska is a pop star whose popularity is on the decline. He’s kind to his fans, but a diva known for getting into quite a number of scandals. Something occurred in his past, leading to his breakup with Yoon Seul. He enters into a love triangle over Gil Ra Im, though at times it’s unclear if he truly cares for her, or if she’s a way to hurt Yoon Seul back for how she often hurts him.

And, Yoon Seul:

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Another favorite of mine, Miss “I’m the crazy b**** around here, got it?“, Yoon Seul begins our story as a calculating antagonist of sorts, transitions to a tragic heroine, and lands on hero, good friend, and the best girl to have watch your back next to Gil Ra Im. Something occurred in her past with Oska, and not unlock Joo-won, it changed her drastically into someone cold, cruel and vicious.

So where do we go from here?

This series is hard to sum up. 20 episodes at an hour each will do that. A misunderstanding makes Joo-won mistake Ra Im for actress Chae-rin (whom Oska has a scandal with) because Ra Im happened to be Chae-rin’s stunt double for the day. What follows is the selfish Joo-won finding himself obsessed with this woman who is so utterly unimpressed with him. A woman that no matter how cruel his words are, not only doesn’t fall for negging, but also never cries, and never falters.

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What follows is the wealthy Joo-won chasing after Ra Im in a variety of increasingly more outrageous tracksuits (I personally liked his purple flower suit) all the whiel trying to get her out of his mind. Never before has Joo-won met such a feisty woman; we’re treated to sweet scenes such as Joo-won walking through a park, a silent imagination of Ra Im walking beside him everywhere he goes.

Even when going on arranged dates with powerful, rich, beautiful women like Yoon Seul, Joo-won realizes that in spite of class and education, he’s falling in love.

Yoon Seul meanwhile sees Joo-won as a means to wound Oska, pursuing him against all rebuffs. Likewise, Oska has some manner feelings for Ra Im, but also recognizes the opportunity to strike back at Yoon Seul through her.

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An unlikely series of events leads to all of our major players on Jeju Island as Oska films his new music video. A competition is struck between Joo-won and Oska for the right to Ra Im, while the unwitting Ra Im joins to try to get a spot doing stunts for Oska’s music video. The group end up separated, with Joo-won and Ra Im finding their way to the Mysterious Garden restaurant in the deep of the woods.

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The pair meet a strange old woman who gifts them with a medicinal alcohol, with the eerie wounds “My daughter is very sick. I’ll do whatever it takes to save her…”

Cut to Kim Joo-Won telling Ra Im to content herself to be his whore on the side (believing the original tale of The Little Mermaid to be the first story of a mistress), and Ra Im giving him the literal slap in the face we’ve all been waiting for.

That night the pair imbibe heavily, and after a torrential downpour find themselves trapped in one another’s bodies!

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From here, we’ve got a few more plots that are running around. Oska is desperately trying to recruit this guy as an apprentice:

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Who won’t go along because 1) he thinks Oska has no talent, 2) he thinks Oska is full of himself, 3) he’s in love with Oska who doesn’t seem to notice, 4) in some small way he’s trying to protect Oska from a scandal.

Then we have this witch right here:

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Who is a domineering magnate who wants to do everything in her power to control her son’s life. Kim Joo-won’s mother, Moon Boon-Hong, exists solely to be that all too cruel villain you love to hate. She too has her reasons for her darkness, but is happy being an unredeemable brute that would make Maleficent seem sweet.

While she continues to try to utterly break Ra Im and scatter her to the winds, Director Park is trying to take over Joo-won’s position and rule the department store:

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While Oska’s mother plots to have Joo-won removed from his place at the table so that her son can take it instead (Oska has no interest):

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All of which leads us into a story of love, friendship and loss.

The kinds of male and female friendships.

One of the things that was so refreshing was that unlike almost every American bit of cinema, it told loving platonic friendships without having to add ambiguity for the sake of marketing dollars. For the female female friendships, we have Gil Ra Im and Ah Young, Gil Ra Im and Yoon Seul, and Yoon Seul with Kim Hee-won (Joo-won’s sister).

Ra Im and Ah Young:

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Presently in American cinema there’s a massive obsession with sexualizing every relationship, and trying to make them fit into boxes. To that end, I greatly enjoyed watching a narrative that was able to show a close and affectionate female relationship where both characters were just friends. They even actually poke fun of this at one point during the body swap: Joo-won in Ra Im’s body is asked why Ra Im in Joo-won’s body told Ah Young to stay away from Ra Im if she started acting weird.

Joo-won in Ra Im’s body says “Maybe he’s afraid you’ll seduce me.” before departing to pick a fight with Ra Im. Secretary Kim, Ah Young’s boyfriend, is shocked and whines “Why would you hit on Ra Im???” to which a confused Ah Young replies “I dunno. She’s cool, but I wouldn’t. Now, President Joo Won on the other hand…”

Throughout the story the best friends are always joking, laughing, touching, hugging, and we strongly see the bond that surviving poverty as well as holding each other up during such times as Ah Young losing her job and Ra Im losing her father has forged. Even when circumstances cause the friends to grow apart, the moment we see Ra Im truly broken, Ah Young is holding her through her tears as though the schism never existed. This was probably my favorite friendship in the series.

Ra Im and Yoon Seul:

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I can’t believe I had to look through over 500 pictures to find one of these two together. Yoon Seul begins the series as a shallow, heartless woman, and as such our first shot of these two interacting is a fight over Ah Young’s honor. From the outset, Yoon Seul is manipulative and scathing, but slowly her heart warms as Ra Im sees her through different eyes.

During the first body swap arc, as Joo-Won, Ra Im is able to see how much pain Yoon Seul is in. She’s able to understand why Yoon Seul is so cruel, telling Joo-won later “She still loves him, and her heart aches so badly. A woman knows these things about another woman.”

This insight leads to a kinder sort of rivalry between the two women. In addition, as Oska slowly becomes a better person, so too does Yoon Seul. This in turn makes things easier for Ra Im and Yoon Seul to establish a friendship based on mutual respect.

This friendship goes on to blossom to the point of Yoon Seul nearly knocking another girl unconscious for trying to ruin the budding relationship between Ra Im and Joo-won after the first body swap arc.

Yoon Seul and Ra Im have a different sort of female friendship. One in which they each know something deep about the other, confiding and even watching out for each other every now and again. They’ll never even at their closest have the physically affectionate friendship that Ah Young and Ra Im have, but theirs is still a very strong bond.

Yoon Seul and Kim Hee-won

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We don’t see as much of this friendship as I would have liked, but what we do see is a different form of the close sisterly relationship that Ra Im and Ah Young have. Between Ra Im and Ah Young, it would be difficult to say which would be the “older sister”, but it’s clear between Yoon Seul and Hee-won that Yoon Seul is the cool older sister that Hee-won want’s to be like to a degree. Hee-won describes herself as the “the most human” or “the most normal” among her relatives.

We see she is a bit haughty, Hee-won that is, but she also lacks her brother’s “greater than thou” affliction. These two get little screen time together (in fact Hee-won has the fewest scenes out of everyone in the 20 hour drama), but what we do get shows a “cooler” side of Yoon Seul. Through Hee-won we see a Yoon Seul that is honestly more occupied with “training” Hee-won to be a “proper lady of society”. This is always more through her actions, but does ring through her words as well. And, what few times we see Hee-won, we see that she takes those lessons to heart, tempering them through the filter of deeper kindness.

For the male friendships, we’ve got Joo-won and Oska, Joo-won and Secretary Kim, Oska and Choi Dong-kyu (his manager), Hwang Jung-Hwan (one of Ra Im’s partners at the action stunt school) and Im Jong-Soo (Director Jong, mentioned earlier in the love triangles) and Jong-Soo and Joo-won.

Joo-won and Oska

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By blood these two are cousins, but by relationship their more like brothers (with Oska being the older brother). The two begin the series with a very antagonistic relationship, but we find out later this is intentional on Oska’s part. Knowing how kind Joo-Won used to be (though he always enjoyed taking the piss), Oska would often pick fights with Joo-won after the accident left the later in an emotionally catatonic state.

Over the course of the story we see these two engaging in the kind of rivalry brothers do, albeit on a far grander scale. Even when it’s in a very antagonizing manner, each is there for the other, and each is capable of recognizing how far their lives have fallen as the narrative goes on (“How is it that you and I are both brand names, yet our lives are such an utter mess?”)

Two drastically important scenes that would be major spoilers reflect how deep their friendship really runs, and as they transition from rivals to friends to true family again, theirs was another favorite friendship to watch grow.

Joo-won and Secretary Kim

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Secretary Kim is another favorite character. I like how his hair makes him look like a dinosaur!

The relationship between these two begins as one of employer and most trusted employee, but along with the many other relationships that the body swap arc alters, Joo-won begins to see how Kim is the only one at work that truly has his back (what employee wouldn’t love for that to happen!) He also sees how much Kim struggles, both in his love life and his working life.

The two enter into a sort of older brother little brother relationship, with Joo-won uncomfortable being so friendly with his employee yet thankful to be close to the one who always fights in his corner. We even see the selfish Joo-won go so far as to be Kim’s wing man to help ensure that Ah Young gives him a proper chance at romance.

As Kim is able to loosen up more and more, he displays an adorably childish side to his friendships, and does his fair share of wing man work for Joo-won with wooing and keeping Ra Im. In the end the two overcome many trials and settle into a easy friendship that is always amusing and at times touching to witness.

Oska and Choi Dong-kyu

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Good gravy it was hard to find a picture of this guy. Likely due to there being some discrepancy in how his name is spelled. This pair shares another facet of a brotherly friendship, though Dong-kyu is stuck in the position of also having to “raise” Oska so to speak. Oska begins the series a total diva with a good heart. Unfortunately, Oska seems incapable of taking responsibility for his actions. As such, it falls on Dong-kyu to always set Oska on the right path, often times suffering for the hallyu star’s tantrums.

As the series goes on and Oska is made to realize how much his actions can hurt others, he relies more and more on Dong-kyu to deliver that oh so needed swift kick to the rump to set him back on the right path.

Jong-Soo and Joo-won

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It really shouldn’t have been this hard to find these two in the same picture. Jong-Soo and Joo-won begin their interaction as one of intense hatred for the most simple of reasons; they both love Ra Im and are incapable of admitting it. Jong-soo finds himself trapped in a cycle of wanting to be a father figure, brother and man to Ra Im who has none of the three, while Joo-won has a simpler path; he wants her.

Director Jong wars with himself, torn between wanting Ra Im to have what will make her happy while also trying to discourage her from her dreams for her own safety. As Oska becomes more and more of a threat to winning Ra Im’s heart, Jong-soo and Joo-won enter into an uneasy partnership trying to keep her from him.

A certain terrible event during the body swap arc leaves Jong very cold towards Ra Im, but once he discovers the truth he aches for the time he’s lost and the pain he causes her. Even so, even with two men who love the same woman, as life begins figuring itself out, the two are able to at least respect one another, and respect what each is able to best provide for Ra Im.

Similar to Ra Im and Yoon Seul, these two are never going to be besties, but they at least respect each other, and are cordial as things shake out near the end.

Of Loss, and Letting Go

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Over the course of the narrative, we also have two major arcs centered around loss and losing. These arcs run side by side, though Ssun’s and Oska’s felt longer to me probably because that arc also tied into the Oska and Yoon Seul arc.

So as previously mentioned, out of ego initially Oska scouts Ssun (although that’s not entirely fair to say, as Oska was moved deeply by Ssun’s singing talent at a lounge first) to be his apprentice. Ssun however is implied to like Oska (at first in a platonic manner), however hates Oska’s lack of talent and effort. For Ssun, music is everything, music is life, and to see someone like Oska whom he views “plays around with music” like a hobby rise to stardom upsets him greatly.

As their story goes on, Oska (who is shown to never let go once he wants something) has to realize that Ssun is right about him. In typical juvenile Oska fashion, he tries a number of different approaches to get Ssun to sign with him, all of them ending in hilarious failure. When a fight breaks out between the two of them, Ssun reveals his homosexuality in a way that seems to strongly imply that he’s trying to put distance between Oska and himself to protect Oska’s image. Oska is initially uncomfortable, especially because Ssun uses a bit of flirting to try to chase him away, but ultimately Oska decides that he won’t be changing his own orientation, but Ssun’s doesn’t change how talented he is either (good job Oska!)

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Ssun slips up a number of times in his interactions with Oska; though he tries to show himself to be cold and despising the “talentless rich boy”, we do also see a number of times how he sticks his neck out to protect Oska and his image. This all comes to a head when Oska is framed for plagiarizing (twice). Here we see Ssun collaborating with Yoon Seul (whom he dislikes and views as a rival for Oska’s heart) in order to clear Oska’s name, willing to go to near any length to do so.

It is perhaps here that we get our first look as Ssun’s path of loss. We hear during the plagiarizer arc that Ssun was once penniless and without a place to stay. He’s turned away everywhere he goes, presumably because of his orientation (this is implied by the statement “I finally found some people to accept me, who gave me a roof over my head for a while”) and pays them back with a song, the best that he can do at the time. His past with them comes full circle when a girl who fell in love with Ssun who is now in the music business takes part in the second plagiarizer arc. She’s shown to be lashing out at Ssun; when asked why she’s doing all of this she states “I was wondering, are you still gay? I was curious if something could make you change your orientation. No? Then watch Oska burn.”

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There’s more to this of course, as she’s also trying to find a means to make money after the first arc cost her face in the music business. As we see the plagiarism arcs wrap up, and we watch Oska and Yoon Seul grow closer, we also see how much pain Ssun is in. However, we also begin to see Ssun have to realize how unfair he’s being as well.

The whole series Oska and Yoon Seul don’t treat Ssun poorly for his orientation. Each begins uncomfortably around him, with Yoon Seul staying so longer (“I’ve had to fight women and the media for your heart for ten years, now I have to fight men too?!”), but each settles into view Ssun as a friend. Ssun however refuses to let go of how he feels, pushing harder and harder against Yoon Seul until the very last moment when he has to accept that nothing he does will ever make Oska view him as anything other than a younger brother or close friend.

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We also learn during the second body swap arc that part of Oska’s draw to Ssun is because of how similar Ssun and the younger Joo-won’s personalities are. Ultimately, this arc of loss concludes with Ssun realizing that he’s being just as unfair as that other girl, making someone else’s life harder by trying to conform them to his standards. He realizes then that he has to let go, even if it’s too painful to stay by Oska’s side as just a friend.

Some may find it odd that Ssun was my favorite character. What I liked most was that his was a story about loss, and about fighting even when you don’t feel like fighting. His was a story about doing what’s right even if it’s not what you want, and ultimately about realizing the world needn’t fit his own needs for it to still be a good place.

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Our second loss arc I can’t really go into, because it truly is the crux of the series. However, we do yet again that it doesn’t matter how good you think your intentions are, if your actions are cruel and cold, there is a reckoning for those behaviors.

 

Secret Garden is chock full of fun moments, silly moments, happy moments, sad moments. Watching the powerful families war over station and stature, watching our heroes battle against their own natures as well as extrinsic forces, and watching a true love story that overcomes the many difficulties in life all serve to make Secret Garden my number one drama of the ones I’ve seen to completion.

If you’re looking for a great love story that in many ways echoes the original fairytales while throwing in a bit of Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations, as well as some amazing character development and heart wrenching acting, then this is the show for you!

Next time we’ll be talking about Faith: The Great Doctor and Sensory Couple.

Xeawn, out!

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