First Impressions: Secret Garden
If I like Mary Stayed Out All Night very much indeed, I love Secret Garden. Mary is a slight, whimsical, unusually enjoyable drama, but Secret Garden is on an entirely different level. I haven't seen a drama so assured and just good in all its elements in a very very long time. Most dramas struggle to balance comedic and dramatic elements (Runaway and My Girlfriend is a Gumiho are both recent dramas which I thought struggled with this) or else take themselves too seriously/not seriously enough. Secret Garden, on the other hand, has a beautiful air of knowing exactly what it is and what it wants to do, and unfolds with a kind of natural precision that bespeaks a clear driving purpose/linear storyline to come. I was scarcely 15 minutes into the intial episode before I got the sense that I was in safe hands.
(Warning: Spoilers for episodes 1-2)
Which surprised me, to be frank, since I'm not a big fan of either Lovers in Paris or City Hall, the previous efforts by the writer-director duo of Kim Eun-sook and Shin Woo-chul. Lovers in Paris was delicious for its first half but repetitive and melodramatic in its second, and City Hall was just messy and ridiculous (though the romance was always addicting). But this drama, at least thus far, is consistently funny without being over-the-top, creates and develops two interesting, complex leads, and touches on enough emotional depth to make me greatly look forward to future episodes. The fantasy element, which I had been worried would be awkward or drag the drama toward slapstick, has appeared only marginally thus far, and was introduced in a subtle, genuinely magical way - Ji Won's character appears beside Hyun Bin's character like a beautiful ghost whenever he begins thinking about her and paces silently beside him as he walks over the lush greenery of his grounds (presumedly the physical manifestation of the "Secret Garden" of the title).
I had thought Mary was funny, but I realized the difference when Secret Garden made me laugh out loud multiple times during the course of a single episode. I think what I appreciate the most about Secret Garden's humor also is that, unusually for a kdrama, it doesn't go in too much (thus far) for the crude or the slapstick - rather most of the moments that made laugh in sheer delight came from the dialogue, which is whip-smart and delivered with rapid-fire ease by the actors, particularly Hyun Bin, who has a gift for delivering a line with exactly the right intonation to give it its full comedic weight.I was a little disappointed when Jang Hyuk was replaced by Hyun Bin for this one, but now that I've seen the character, I can't imagine anyone but Hyun Bin playing neurotic, wealthy Joo Won. He is marvelous in this. Marvelous to the extent that it f eels almost odd to even praise his acting because it doesn't feel like he's trying, rather that he's integrated so seamlessly with the character that he is the character. After watching him with ever-growing wonder, I finally pinned down what makes his rendition of this quirky, comedic figure so successful: he strikes exactly the right comedic balance, and is just as compelling in scenes where he's alone as he is when he's playing off other people. Most romantic comedy actors struggle to find that comedic balance and so underact or most often overact their parts, relying on hugely exaggerated facial expressions and physical humour to convey their character. Hyun Bin, on the other hand, hits that perfect, perfect line somewhere in between, and with a role crying out to be overacted and exaggerated, portrays the humor of his OCD, socially oblivious character mostly through the ever-changing expressions of his mobile face.
(Of course, that doesn't mean we don't get moments of sheer over-the-top humor now and then).
And the character he plays is interesting, a sort of inversion of the usual cold, perfectionist rich guy that populates most dramas. Joo Won is the CEO of a swanky department store and set to inherit it and the rest of his father's company. He's sufficiently cold and demanding; rides his staff hard and coolly fires a waitress who makes a single mistake. He's accustomed to getting his way and not at all opposed to using his money to do so (in one hilarious scene he essentially bribes a group of stuntment to go away in order to clear the way for his romantic advances). But as the drama goes on, that facade is all too quickly cracked; Joo Won is a complete oddball, neurotic, obsessive, and socially oblivious, convinced that since he's handsome and rich everyone must love him. He's unhealthily attached to a sparkly tracksuit, which sparks negative commentary from almost everyone around him and which he repeatedly tries to justify as one-of-a-kind (here he is trying to show off the brand label and wondering why everyone has run off). He's lazy and makes his staff do all the work of the business. Yet he's funny and charismatic and when a situation of real need arises, takes care of it with cool competency. And when he does become obsessed with something, he's all focused intensity...which makes it all the more compelling when he begins fixating on Ra Im (Ha Ji Won's character).
Ha Ji Won's character is also amazing, and unusually multi-layered; I can see why this top star best known for her dramatic roles was drawn to this role. I can't believe I'm going to say this, but she reminds me of no one so much as Sujini in The Legend- aka one of the most fantastic female drama characters ever created.
See? It's Sujini!
Ra Im has made a successful career out of a field entirely dominated by men. She's a stuntwoman, which means she performs incredibly difficult and often dangerous physical stunts and martial arts in place of the actresses whose faces are later superimposed on hers. Incredibly driven and passionate about what she does, she brings an almost frightening degree of skill and intensity to her job, which requires everything from jumping off high structures to one-on-one knife and sword fights to single-handedly fighting off a group of men attacking her.
Yet, interestingly, while she's very capable and good at her job, she's not at all butch, or even necessarily domineering; in fact, in regards to the authority figures of her profession, those whom she works for or with, she's self-effacing and submissive, perhaps a result of the pressure of being one of the few women in a competitive profession. She also exhibits a few signs of lacking self-confidence about her attractiveness as a woman, which again makes sense given that most of those around her don't treat her as a woman, much less an attractive woman.
Yet in her personal life, especially in her interactions with the rich and snobby, she is completely self-confident and not about to take anything from anyone - in fact, this snappy, no-nonsense woman is awesome.
I nearly died of amazed delight when her character was first introduced and developed in this drama - a female lead who is kickass and awesome and intelligent and at the same time feminine and real and lovable?? Where has this character been in all of Kdrama history?? (Mostly only in sageuks, unfortunately). There's a split in her life between the complete fierceness and power she projects while training or performing (and the fearlessness she exhibits in her personal life) and the insecurity and vulnerability she displays toward authority figures and about herself as a woman. It's a fascinating dichotomy, and makes her very appealing. I can't wait to see how Joo Won deals with her complete lack of respect for his wealth and position, and also how he treats her - perhaps the first one to do so in her experience - as a woman, and an attractive one at that.
These two complex, self-contradictory characters have insane chemistry, making them pretty much a main pairing of my dreams.
One particular moment, or rather two moments that reflect each other, stands out from their interactions in the first two episodes. . The first, when he, a total stranger, is the only one to sense that something is wrong as she leaves from work, and walks after, then spots the blood, runs after her, and forces her sweatshirt down over her protests so that he can see the wound. I love Ra Im's face of simultaneous defiance and vulnerability here - she's been pushing herself forward and hiding it for hours, hoping no-one would notice, and now this stranger has.
And the next day, when when he bulldozes over all of her objections in his oblivious, domineering way, and pulls her sweatshirt down to see if her wound is in fact healing.
Then he looks up and says matter-of-factly: "It scarred. I guess you won't be able to enter the Miss Korea pageant" and somehow this is exactly the right thing to say, it comforts her (and makes her think of him later, ha), because he's not pitying her, but is acknowledging and caring about her situation.
Oh, and then there's the way he looks at her. Did I think we'd get Binnie looking at Ji Won this way only two episodes into the drama? I did not.
The main couple has intense chemistry and an interesting dynamic. I have to admit, a part of me is downright disappointed that this drama is going to make them swap bodies, because the drama is so strong already without the fantasy element that the body-swapping seems almost unnecessary. Yet I do see how we'd need something further; some huge wrench must be thrown into the path of True Love, because as pleasing as it is for the guy to fall for the girl first, this also means there's not enough to drive the drama for 20 episodes.It would take only a few episodes, given the place they're at now, for Ra Im to fall for Joo Won in return. Yet it's ironic that one of the rare dramas to set up two thoroughly engaging, complex characters would by the nature of its plot fail to utilize them as they are.
All the elements of this drama are competent, including the directing; this shot, for instance, gives us, in one crisp visual image, the entire scope of Joo Won's power and influence. The drama also has plenty of moments of quiet reflectiveness to balance out the humor and action, and I love that. In this one, where Ha Ji Won's character rides the bus after a long day, finding peace in the music of her favorite musician, Oska. I've seen plenty of scenes like this before, but it's made poignant instead of cliched by a lovely, non-intrusive choice of music, by Ji Won's expressive face, and particularly by how well they've set up her character previous to this, making us really empathize with her enjoyment of a moment of quiet in her demanding life.The pace is also just well-done - by the end of the first episode, all four main characters have met each other, gained a sense of each other's personalities, and, in particular, I LOVED that the drama wasted no time in declaring the love triangle - the first episode ends with this. Actually, episode endings have just been a strength of the drama as a whole thus far - both ended on a solid climax of some sort - the first, having played around all episode with the idea of Gil Ra Im (Ha Ji Won) meeting Oska (Yoon Sang Hyun), finally brings the two together. The second, having played around with Joo Won (Hyun Bin) deceiving Ra Im as to his identity, has him finally revealing himself as THE! COMPANY! PRESIDENT! dum dum dum! (God I loved that scene - it was just such a perfect representation of his weird personality, his desire for her to think well of him, and such a perfect climax of their relationship up until that point) Mmm. The way he looks at her makes me melt.
On a final note, Yoon Sang Hyun is amazing as drama-queen popstar Oska, and the interactions between he and Joo Won, his cousin, provide some of the best comedy of the series thus far. Take two neurotic, egotistical, rich men related by blood, throw them in close proximity and swirl. The two men have some genuine affection for each other, but Joo Won spends a lot of time trying to one-up his more famous cousin, while Oska spends a lot of time throwing hissy fits when Joo Won doesn't do what he wants. It is hilarious, and the drama is worth watching for the pairing of Hyun Bin and Sang Hyun alone.
And for the record, much as it saddens me to say this, Sang Hyun is a much more convincing popstar than Jang Geun Seuk's indie rocker (seriously: that's barely even rock JGS is playing in Mary Stayed Out All Night, and much as I love JGS, he hasn't quite built up the presence Sang Hyun is able to bring to his famous-musician role).
Secret Garden has gotten off to an unusually solid start, especially for a rom-com; there's something a little magical about it so far, and I can't wait to see it develop further.