Secret Garden (2010) Korean Drama Review ~ Revisiting the Classics

Revisiting the Classics

Secret Garden (2010) #KDrama Review :The pioneer of fantasy

Hello. This is a Korean in America currently on a classic Korean drama kick. Today, I will review “Secret Garden” which is more or less the pioneer of the urban fantasy subgenre in Korean drama.

#HaJiWon #HyunBin #YoonSangHyun #KimSaRang #YooInNa #LeeJongSuk #SecretGarden #Kdrama

Korean dramas are notorious of having a small range of subject matters that they deals with. The common subjects include  marriage strife, 20 something romances, mysteries of birth, and rich people. However, this subject matter range of Korean dramas has been widening a little since the 2010s as the audience has been little by little train to accept more “out of there” subjects on TV by American and Japanese entertainment.

With Japanese dramas, the “weird” has been a part of the medium since more and more dramas have been based on manga and lite novels. With American dramas, the medium has moved on from the 90s’ and early 2000s’ trend of Sci-Fi related shows to the supernatural based shows whether they be about superheroes or vampire. This is what we call the boom of “urban fantasy” genre.

Urban Fantasy
Korean dramas, on the other hand, had never really embraced the more odd stuff before the 2010s. There were some horror related stuff and stuff based on legends prior to the decade we currently find ourselves in. However, they were few in number and most not set in the present. The earliest Korean drama I remember going for a more “urban horror” feel was “M” (1994) staring actress Shim Eun-Ha. While this was a success at the time, there were no strong follow up show set in the same genre.

So, time went by as Korean drama found its success in trendy miniseries and “Pure” romances. And what a success it was as the 2000s was great decade for Korean dramas within and beyond the boundaries of Korea.

This all started to change as Korean dramas tried to incorporate influences from both American and Japanese shows as a new decade started. This led to shows such as “Queen In-Hyun's Man” (2012), “Operation Proposal” (2012), and  “Rooftop Prince” (2012). It is not surprising that all these show aired in the year 2012. While the turnaround time in the Korean drama industry is fast, it does take about a year for the concept to be assimilated in to the mainstream once a concept is proven to be viable. In this case, the concept was that the Korean audience is hungry for “Urban Fantasy”.

The show that prove this concept was really “Secret Garden”(2010).

The Plot
Secret Garden”(2010) is a combination of two concepts. One is standard Korean drama. You have a rich 20 something heir to a conglomerate straight out of the Jane Austen “Mr. Darcy” Mold. You have a poor girl who struggles to succeed in her chosen profession without much consideration for a man.  It is the modern “Ms. Bennet” used by everyone for the last 3 decades or so.  The twist is that her chosen profession is a stunt woman.

After a standard meeting scene, our obnoxious “Mr. Darcy” falls head over heels for our “Ms. Bennet”. So, he rather “creepily” stalks her and tries to force his presence on her while plunging into self-denial about the whole thing.  

Oh, and there is a fate connection!

In other words, it is standard Korean drama. But this is when things are shaken up from the Korean drama norm. At the end of the first act when the male lead is trying to force his presence on the female lead and thus create some Stockholm syndrome effects, “Secret Garden” becomes a body swap show.

I mean a body swap show!

The Body Swap Show
While every goofy American teen sitcom has done at least one body swap episode, shows with body swap as their main premise is not that common even in American shows. When I google it, I did not actually find a mainstream American show with body swap as a main premise. The closest I got was “Quantum Leap”. While Quantum Leap” is a classic TV show, it is not exactly body swap… This lack of body swap as a main premise in TV shows is rather interesting as there are so many movies and episodes that use the premise as a gimmick.

Back to Secret Garden.

Once the two leads swap bodies, the plot goes as expected doing all the cliché stuff associated with body swapping. This in itself is not that interesting. What is interesting is that “Secret Garden” is still a standard Korean drama with all the family intrigue and discourse we have come to expect from a Korean drama.

The rich guy’s family has problems with the poor girl although it is actually the rich guy in the body of the poor girl. Even the 3rd wheel girl and boy are still there. However, by adding the body swap concept, the show uses it to help facilitate the development of a close personal bond between the lead characters that recent Korean dramas just force on the audience. We believe in the relationship between the characters because we actually see them go through an ordeal together. In a way, it is realism albeit a realism created by a fantastic conceit.

An additional effect of the addition of the body swap concept is that it does somewhat solve the lack of story issues so common in Korean dramas. With standard Korean drama stories whether it be a mystery of birth or just a simple romance, they have a difficulty in supporting more than 10 episodes before there is no more to say about the story. Thus, the rest is just padded with filler. With “Secret Garden”, this is solved by the addition of the body swap concept since it alone can at least support 6 episodes.

The Actors
Secret Garden” represents the peak of “Ha Ji-Won’s” drama career which started really with “Damo” (2003).  The focus of her career was the silver screen rather than the small screen. “Ha Ji-Won” is one of those cases in which her image and presence on screen overwhelmingly surpasses her skill at her craft. In other words, she is not the best of actresses.

This is going to enrage her fandom!

I equate “Ha Ji-Won” with “Katy Perry”. Both are more popular than their actual talents in their craft warrants.

Ok! I’m pissing off to separate fandoms.
Unlike Katy Perry, I actually think Ha Ji-Won is charming.

“Ha Ji-Won” has only really 3 basic modes to her acting. The first is sweet and innocent. The second is nice but rowdy and energetic. The thirds is silent but action woman. While I say 3, it is more like 2 modes since she commonly mixes the first two modes in her performances.  This is in itself is not a problem since many actors only really have a single character that they repeat.

The problem is that she does not have the nuances to utilize all her acting modes at the same time. In the beginning of her career, this was not that much of a problem since the roles given to her just required one mode. However, as her career progressed, she got more complex roles which require all her acting modes to be mixed together. This is where the problem becomes evident.

When “Ha Ji-Won” tries to do complex, it ends up being more like a character without any defining characteristics. And this is what happened in “Secret Garden” but only for half of the time. When she was playing the female character, I was never sure what kind of character she was.

Was she tough?
What kind of personality does she have?

I could not get a sense of her character from her performance since she was mixing her acting modes trying to do complex. As a result, the first few episodes were the “Hyun-Bin” show as he does have a character with definite characteristics. “Ha Ji-Won” was just there. This rather changes when the body switch happened.

Pretending to be the other gender
The depictions of the characters after the body switch is horrendous albeit less horrendous than those in “Ooh la la Couple” (2012). Once the characters swap bodies, the resulting characters in new bodies do not resemble the actual original source characters.

I never thought that the female in the male’s body was the actual female from the start of the show.

Rather, they are just a collection of all stereotypical biases society has about the genders. This is worse for the female character in a male’s body. This actually gives the “Hyun-Bin” the short end of the straw.

Once the body swap happens, the show becomes the “Ha Ji-Won” show. Before, “Ha Ji-Won’s” character was not well defined. Once the swap happens and “Ha Ji-Won” is playing a male albeit a stereotypical one, “Ha Ji-Won” is free from trying to be a complex female and now just pushing hard on with her rowdy and energetic mode of acting. This works!

She now has defining characteristics.
She now has a personality.

It is “Hyun-Bin’s” turn to play a non-character. Leaving aside the little fact that the roles lose any defining characteristics depending on the genders, I actually quite enjoyed the “Ha Ji-Won’s” male character and I really missed the role when eventually the body swap was reversed.  

Is it not funny that Ha Ji-Won is better as a male than female!

Other interesting facts
Previously I mentioned that “Secret Garden” does not have much padding. This is also because the supporting characters and other side characters actually have their separate little stories. The 3rd wheel characters have their own little story that could be a separate show if it was enlarged. They are played by Yoon Sang-Hyun” and “Kim Sa-Rang”. At the same time, they are neatly intertwined with the main plot also. It is not like the 3rd wheel characters in “Master’s Sun” who basically do not need to be there.

I think this fleshing out of the character made me really like “Kim Sa-Rang” in the role although I do not think she is a good actress. She is more of a model. This attention to character detail is also there for the rich man’s family members. While they are in the show primarily as a plot device, they are given little details and small story arcs which flesh out the characters.

At the end
Secret Garden” (2010) is a show that really pioneered the introduction of “Urban Fantasy” elements into the Korean dramas set in the modern day. Without this show, Korean dramas such as “My love from another star” (2014) would not have been made.  

Even without this historical significance, “Secret Garden” (2010) is a Korean drama that had good pacing, enough material to cover its air time, and a focus on character details that are severely lacking in Korean dramas of the present.

All of this makes  “Secret Garden” (2010) a classic!

One other thing... I do not know why the title is a secret garden! I do not remember a garden in the show. I think it is named because of the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. According to Wikipedia, the garden represents " the site of both the near-destruction and the subsequent regeneration of a family". 
Still do not see the reason for the title.  

Score: A+ or 10/10

Other Articles you may enjoy!

Read My Review of  Snow Flower 설국 (2006)
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  1. I actually thought the whole show was catered to Hyun Bin, not the character but Hyun Bin the man. Ha Ji Won was top billed but the show was always centered around Hyun Bin, we spent the most time with him, either as the male lead or the female lead.

    Hyun Bin played the role much better as a male then a female, he was too atypical of a weak female that in no way resembled the actual female lead.

    I do agree with you about HJW playing the Male role better than the female, but then smirking beautiful women tends to be easier on the eyes then overly pushover females.

    I would love to see your take on Hwang Jin Yi, While HJW really does have the 3 modes you spoke of and its very evident in her movies and Secret Garden, Hwang Jin Yi was her best acting with a character that was a class of its own.

  2. "Was she tough? What kind of personality does she have?"

    So true. She wasn't properly defined. She just…was. I would say she's not very ladylike, hanging around men all day and doing crazy stunts. She wasn't into hair, clothes, and make-up. And there was a depressed air about her because of her father's death. It was like she just shuffled through her life, taking major risks for the heck of it. She simply existed. You do meet people like that in life. Whether by their choice or just lack of enthusiasm. I can't remember if they even mentioned WHY she chose to be a stuntwoman? But when Hyun Bin played her, she was suddenly all feminine and dainty. It didn't mesh. And you are so right, she acted her male role better than her female one. lol.

    I love when '3rd wheel' characters get their own little stories and are not left hanging and panting after the leads every episode. Yoon Sang Hyun and Phillip Lee were terrific in their roles. So much that their characters could have dramas centered around them.

    And I still don't get that Secret Garden title either. I guess it was in reference to the magical forest and cottage? The whole fantasy part was confusing. What was the point of all that with her father magically doing this, this and that? Maybe I'd have to watch it again. It's not my favorite drama though. I like that South Korea is adopting the Urban fantasies. But American TV is far too glutted with all this stuff. I don't watch Supernatural/scary. My favorite is the Time Travel genre. As much as it's panned, I really liked 'Faith.' I feel like it could have been so much more. They were like Joseon era X-men! And Still have to watch '9' I really wanted to get into it, but I dropped it.

    I think I watched Secret Garden just to see what all the big fuss was about. I like 'Freaky Friday' switch plots. I think the drama benefited because all the characters had their own stories and were well written for the most part. And like the other comment said, it did have a 'Hyun Bin show' feel. But hey, I don't mind. It made me a fan. :D

  3. A Korean in AmericaMay 13, 2014 at 1:58 AM

    Thanks for the comment that is long enough to be a mini-review. Such effort is very appreciated. I just notice that the magical cottage was called "mysterious garden" but that is a weak reason for a title. But crappy names for Korean dramas is not something new. lol

    Thanks again!

  4. A Korean in AmericaMay 13, 2014 at 1:59 AM

    I remember watching Hwang Jin Yi when it first aired. Think I only watched a few episodes but am not clear. Should give it a second look.

  5. LOL! You're welcome. I do have a lot to say most times. But I'm too lazy to start another blog. I have trouble keeping up the ones I have. It's been over a year from my last posts. I was determined to just do short little posts or links to bigger better ones. But anyway, when it comes to this, I leave it to good blogs like yours to comment on, dissect, and review all the K-dramas and then enjoy reading and putting in my 2 cents. :D

  6. looks interesting!

  7. A Korean in AmericaMay 13, 2014 at 11:52 PM

    its still work in progress.
    Don't know is it will actually be fun

  8. I like to read these views on Secret Garden. I watched it three times till now, the first time was when it was airing. Let's say the magic worked for me.
    And now I just finished Empress Ki, with the views as expressed here on Ha Ji Won in my mind.
    I am in fact a great admirer of Moon Geun Young's acting, that brings great classic Hollywood actresses like Bette Davis into mind.
    Ha Ji Won is completely different, and perhaps more limited.
    But the "few tricks" she uses are coming in pretty strong.

    And that brings an other great British actress into mind: Diana Rigg.
    Diana Rigg played as Miss Emma Peel with Patrick Macnee in the legendary series "The Avengers".
    Diana Rigg is mentioned by critics as one of the very few actresses in Western movie-history that could play a real feminine character, and act as female fighter at the same time, without losing that feminine touch. And stay perfectly equal with her male partner.
    Ha Ji Won acting as a girly girl murmuring "Oppa! Oppa !" can only be done in an ironic way, never for real.

    I have made a bet on a few other forums, that Ha Ji Won is able to get that title too, if she actually does go to Hollywood this year.
    Ofcourse that depends on the drama-writers and producers too.

  9. Hello from a 54 year male in ireland, who got into korean dramas through Korean movies. You ask why is Secret Garden called that, and that there is no garden in the series. But haven't Korean dramas a habit of naming shows after american movies, and i would say the show was named after the movie or movies of the same title. Other korean shows I can think of that have the same title as movies
    "scent of a woman" "Giant" "East of Eden" "Pride and Prejudice" "City hall (one of my favourites)" There are probably others as well.