Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Drama Review: City Hunter & Secret Garden


City Hunter: C
Secret Garden: D

I have a horrible confession: two of last year’s most beloved shows are dramas I didn't like. Yes, City Hunter and Secret Garden, I’m talking about you.

My dislike may have as much to do with my expectations as it does with the actual quality of these shows, though. I usually watch only things that have already completed their run rather than watching as each new episode airs and is subbed, so I tend to be pretty spoiled from the get go. And so before watching either of these shows I’d already read any number of glowing reviews, many written by people I admire and respect.

City Hunter, in particular, is much loved by most people who aren’t me.

Billed as an action show, it’s a step outside my comfort zone—I’m more of a watcher of cozy romances, as embarrassing as that may be to admit. I expected City Hunter to be something dramatically different from the Korean dramas I’d already seen, as there tends to be a real dichotomy between the romance and action genres in American entertainment: Romance gets away with shallow, fluffy, and fun, while action is grittier and more nuanced.

Instead, City Hunter felt like last week’s leftovers, warmed up and served as filet mignon. It included all of the standard Kdrama tropes: cancer, birth secrets, romantic leads sharing living quarters, a Cinderella romance, and so on and so forth, all mixed in with a standard-issue revenge drama. It tried to be all things to all people, I think, and ended up looking like somebody who had gotten dressed blindfolded in a pitch black room: all the key pieces were there, but none of them matched or made sense as part of the greater whole.

The villains were one of the show’s biggest problems. They were largely bumbling fools, and because the show was so overstuffed each of them was far too easily dispatched. There was no subtlety here—see bad guy, thwart bad guy, move on to next bad guy.

Buried amid all the other junk, it is possible to find greatness in City Hunter: Lee Min Ho has star quality to spare. Bad Daddy is an amazing, ambiguous character, and his role in the final showdown is poignant and spot on. And even I’m not heartless enough to have disliked the comic relief provided by City Hunter’s live-in buddy, Bae Shik Joong.

Then there’s the prosecutor, who was actually more interesting than City Hunter himself: he was torn by his allegiance to law and order, and his growing realization that law and order sometimes isn’t the best way to get things done. But what could have been an exploration of this character’s conflicting emotions and existential angst was generally passed over in favor of City Hunter, a guy nice enough to punish bad guys without killing them, but not nice enough to feel guilty about his lavish lifestyle being funded with drug money.

To keep the womenfolk happy, the show also included romance, which was awkwardly shoehorned between the offing of bad guys. Park Min Young is thirty kittens worth of cute, but seeing her slight approach to Bear Na Na I wouldn’t feel comfortable with her protecting my ham sandwich, say nothing about the president’s daughter. (I do hope she and Lee Min Ho get married and have lots of adorable babies, though.)

To me City Hunter felt like a mildly entertaining show lacking in depth that was full of missed opportunities.

And on the topic of missed opportunities! Secret Garden, why did you break my heart so? I’m all about supernatural romance, so I thought I’d love this show. But after about three episodes I couldn’t believe what it expected to get away with.

If its characters hadn’t been paper-thin and indifferently acted, it might have had a fighting chance. As it was, though, it became clear that everybody involved knew the body-switch plotline was a complete failure when the actors stepped back into their original roles for key scenes, even in the middle of the switch storyline.

I’ve since watched Who Are You, another Kdrama body-switch show, and seen proof that this plot device can be handled brilliantly. During Who Are You the male lead’s body is taken over by the ghost of another man, who is sometimes also visible in his own body.

Who Are You's male lead always made it crystal clear who was inhabiting his body, unlike Hyun Bin's Pee-Wee Herman-esque turn in Secret Garden. (It’s hard to tell affectless wooden blocks apart, after all.) I would argue that this is partially the result of better writing, but what really made Who Are You more compelling was the actors it showcased. The male lead and the ghost brought their characters to life—they spoke in specific ways, moved in specific ways, and made certain character-specific facial expressions. This gave the actor playing the male lead something to work with when he body-switched with the ghost.

To my eye, it didn’t matter which character the Secret Garden actors were playing—it all looked the same, except for a sneer here and there and that painfully obvious toe kick thing the female lead was prone to do.

Secret Garden also committed one of the cardinal sins of Kdramas, as far as I’m concerned: it kept the lead couple apart too much. This might have been okay if their individual stories had been stronger, or if the secondary characters had been more interesting (or, in the case of Oska, less reminiscent of Jar-Jar Binks). As it was the viewer was forced to go from the not-terribly-interesting main leads to the outright dull second leads far too often.

And then there’s the plot, such as it is. Why were their bodies switched? Who knows. The show didn’t bother to tell us, because once it moved beyond this cutesy plot device it essentially ignored the whole thing.

Exactly what makes a show work for someone and not for someone else is a mystery. What's not a mystery is that neither of these shows worked for me.


  1. I see that I'm not the only one who didn't care much for Secret Garden. I was contemplating giving it another try...but guess I'll pass on that.

  2. I am secretly heartbroken that you didn't like Secret Garden - although, I guess now my secret is out. I will admit that while I really like City Hunter, it has flaws aplenty, and doesn't have quite the same amount of rewatch value, as I'm currently learning (with the exception of the Prosecutor.. siiigh, there was entirely too little of him overall).

    But Secret Garden.. not saying it's flawless either, and ok the body-switching was little more than a plot device. Oska can be a little too much at times, and I admit that after the first time I watched it I couldn't quite understand what Ra Im found attractive (or loveable) about Kim Joo Won.. but it was one of those shows that the more I thought of it, or watched other dramas, the more I couldn't get it out of my head. I just completed a rewatch, and convinced my husband to watch it with me too. Get this: He loved it!

    The main reason I would rate it so highly: cuteness overload. Everything from the sparkly blue track suit to the actress's excited shrieks ("Kyaa!"), to Secretary Kim's ("ottukay ottukay") complete with shoulder wiggles.
    Second reason: Kim Joo Won's (almost) instant attraction. He sees girl, He wants girl (Insert Kdrama plot of him doubting why he'd like such a poor unattractive girl), He gets girl.. just.. cause.. It's so primal, it makes me shudder! I enjoy it so much because despite using most of the same stereotypical Kdrama devices, it almost makes fun of its own genre.. Ex: staring comes across as creepy, his determination that she should call Him "oppa", the mother, while insanely evil and conniving, never actually backs down to give us some good, comfortable ending.. I could make an essay out of it.. but I'll take a break for now. :)

    1. I'm secretly heartbroken I didn't like it, too. I think it might be at least partially because I'm a nasty old grinch who doesn't like comedy much, no matter what continent it's from. But come right down to it, something just rubbed me the wrong way about the whole drama (and has even put me off watching other shows by the same writers).

      On the other hand, have you seen Protect the Boss? It's Secret Garden's fraternal twin: the characters are similar, the plots are similar, the settings are similar. The one big difference? I loved Protect the Boss like crazy.

    2. Protect the Boss.. I actually have it on my netflix queue, which means, I could feel even more like a bum and watch it on my TV! I just finished all of my current short term projects.. so maybe, this one next?!?

    3. If you do watch it, let me know what you think! I'd be interested to see if it and Secret Garden are just one of those either/or things—people like one, but not the other.

      Protect the Boss really has one of the best supporting casts I've seen, and it's really sweet and funny.

    4. I find it very easy to think Kim Joo Won is lovable. I think in the story's perspective she falls in love with him because he cares about her a lot more than rich people would. Although he doesn't show it he is really affectionate and nobody understands him well. Plus he has the weirdest sense of humor it's cute d(^-^)b, at first watch of Secret Garden i thought Kim Joo Won was a playboy that was probably never going to interest me but later on in the movie he played a HUGE PART. I agree with you I was sometimes frustrated with too much streaming of Oska because honestly I didn't care, the plot line has too many things going on that nobody cares about the minor things. Truthfully Secret Garden has a few plot holes but it still is SUCH a good drama! 4 1/2 stars X3

  3. I'm so happy that I found your blog - I stumbled upon it when I was looking for reviews on I Need Romance. I've seen about 40-50% of dramas that you've reviewed here, and I agree with most of your reviews. I didn't understand why people loved City Hunter and Secret Garden so much. For most dramas that I enjoyed, I could easily watch 4-6 episodes in one seating. But with Secret Garden, it was like start and stop many times during each episode for like the first 7-8 episodes. I don't know why I kept on going back, trying to pick it up again. Maybe I was curious about why it was so popular and thought I was missing something. It did get better after episode 7, then it got weird again. With City Hunter, I felt there was no chemistry what-so-ever between the female and male leads. And the ending made me feel like I wasted my time on the series - it was so anti-climatic.

    As I watched more K dramas, I became pickier with which ones that I want to invest my time in. I'm so glad that I now have your list to go with :) I tried watching Protect the Boss, but didn't like it enough to finish the first episode. But I'm going to give it another try based on your recommendation. Keep up the good work on your reviews! I love your content and writing style.

  4. I thought I was the only one who didn't like Secret Garden! I thought it would be perfect for me because I too am all about supernatural romance. But the main reason I couldn't get through it was the terribly unlikable male lead character (love the actor, hate the character). He was so insulting and cruel to the leading lady and, after fast forwarding through the second half of the drama, it looks like he never changes (except for one episode when the leading lady's life is on the line - after that he's back to being a jerk).

    With all the insults, arguing and shin-kicking I just can't find it romantic at all, I'm at a loss as to how so many others find it romantic.

    I actually bought the DVD set based on the plot description and rave reviews. I dont have netflix so I didn't watch it first, and now I regret it. Luckily I got it on a good sale, so I just passed it on to someone who might like it more than I did.

    Since you like paranormal romance, have you tried My Girlfriend is a Gumiho? I'm not much for comedy either but I liked it. Its more of a comedy/drama mix.

    1. Secret Garden is so weird—in some ways, it's like the Emperor's New Clothes. Lots of people didn't like it, but they're too shy to speak up because so many people did. It's probably my least favorite of the dramas I watched from beginning to end (nowadays, I would have dropped it by episode 5 or 6). The body-swap angle is completed wasted, and the romance is like Domestic Violence: A Love Story :b

      You could always have resold the DVDs...that's how I got my Coffee Prince set. Somebody else didn't want it, but I'll treasure it forever.

      I have watched My Girlfriend is a Gumiho. I liked it a lot, and am actually looking forward to that new Lee Seung Gi gumiho drama. It looks like he's going to specialize in mythological creatures—royalty, chaebols, and gumihos.

    2. Oh, I didn't know there is going to be a new gumiho drama, I'll keep a lookout for that!!

      If my friend doesn't like Secret Garden enough to keep it she's going to give it back to me and then I'll definitely resell it. I just wanted to give her a shot at it first.

      I think you are so right about people who didn't like Secret Garden being too shy to speak up. I just saw a couple of other people who posted negative reviews (kindly worded, not harsh) get blasted with a bunch of hateful comments from fans. I don't understand that. It's just a tv show! There are several dramas that I love that others haven't liked but that doesn't make me angry at all, that's just life and different tastes.

  5. I LOVED Secret Garden! It's one of my favorite dramas... But I guess everyone's different. Because I really didn't like Coffee Prince but other people (including you) seem to love it a lot.
    Anyway, I did have fun reading your review :)
    ~ Hira

  6. Faith was my first K drama so I watched it totally wide eyed and perhaps a bit too uncritically. It was just so much fun, and had a cast of so many beautiful people - with LMH topping the list. And was so refreshingly different. Even the villains were gorgeous. I did get a bit tired of fire girl and flute boy (in spite of his extraordinary beauty). They just seemed to lurk menacingly without contributing much of anything to plot development.

    What I enjoyed immensely was the growing maturity and compassion of the young king. It was also refreshing to have a heroine who could hold her own in the world. Plus I found that the "political stuff" created curiosity and I began googling information about Korea, it's history and customs - an area of previously appalling ignorance.

    So far (with 3 dramas watched-Faith, City Hunter and Secret Garden) I have found that K dramas are great therapy. They exist in some sort of alternate universe where there is no global warming nor religious, economic and political fundamentalisms. I laugh out loud frequently, enjoy the musical scores and theme songs and groan at the corny stuff. But the latter is seldom excessive- so far. I did start Boys Over Flowers because it is referenced so often and at first could not get though even the first episode. It was horribly overacted and promised to have a totally predictable plot. However, I have returned to it for the same reason I started in the first place and am hopeful that the acting will calm down and I will eventually understand it's immense international appeal.

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