Note: It’s the truth. I haven’t entirely moved on from Kill Me, Heal Me. But that’s a good excuse to write about other dramas with Ji Sung, who definitely knows how to pick the odd, interesting projects.
If you want to see Ji Sung playing a good guy, Secret (2013) isn’t your show. We first meet his character, Jo Min-Hyuk, seducing an actress in a hotel room, then stealing her clothes and leaving her behind without so much as a “See ya, baby.”
Later the family lawyer reveals that this love-em-and-leave-em routine is one of the hard-partying heir’s bad habits. His father has spent tens of thousands of dollars appeasing angry victims. Clearly, even compared to other spoiled chaebol heirs, Min-Hyuk’s in a class of his own.
Just as Min-Hyuk’s in a class of his own, Secret pushes the limits on angst. It’s not for everyone. If you find Min-Hyuk’s bad behavior entirely repellent, this melodrama isn’t for you. But if you find Min-Hyuk’s clothing theft intriguing—or perhaps even perversely sexy or darkly humorous—Secret may be a guilty pleasure.
Min-Hyuk acts like a jerk because six months ago, the girlfriend he loved suddenly disappeared and cut off all contact. He blames his CEO father, but Min-Hyuk’s secretly terrified she left to get away from him. He believes it’s his fault his mother committed suicide, after all. And before he can find out the truth, his girlfriend is killed in a hit-and-run accident. How he deals—or more accurately, doesn’t deal—with this loss makes for a creepy and unusual story of revenge that turns into an odd kind of love.
Ji Sung and Hwang Jung-Eum’s first collaboration, Secret shows off their excellent chemistry. It also depicts a relationship based on emotional sadomasochism. In fact, this “romance” walks the line between merely disturbing and outright abusive (at one of their first encounters, Min-Hyuk almost kills Yoo-Jung, below, which establishes a certain tone). What fascinates me about Secret is that it asks us to think about where we draw that line. At one point does this relationship begin to look like love rather than hate?
When Secret aired in autumn 2013, the critics at Drama Beans dismissed it in a couple sentences. JavaBeans correctly points out that this isn’t the story of a healthy relationship, and that Ji Sung’s character is a “deranged manchild.” She admits Secret is “entertaining,” but finds it deeply flawed because of its disturbing psychology. A few Drama Beans readers say the show promotes abusive relationships.
But the show also has fans—even among the smart female readers at Drama Beans. And in Korea, Secret was a surprise hit, despite competing directly against the super-hyped high school romance Heirs. Secret consistently beat Heirs in the ratings throughout the seven weeks that they overlapped in the same time slot. When a show is called “abusive” by some and “best of the year” by others, it’s clearly struck a nerve.
I admit I find Secret fascinating. Why does the story draw me in, even though I don’t admire these characters? Is this series a misogynist mess that I should be ashamed to enjoy? Is JavaBeans right that Secret is as mediocre as Heirs?
(Note: I’m not going to write any spoilers here—I’ll put those in a secret Secret post.)
Part of the story’s appeal is that the premise sounds impossible: supposedly Min-Hyuk (Ji Sung), our morally compromised heir, will fall in love with Yoo-Jung (Hwang Jung-Eum), the woman he believes was responsible for his girlfriend’s death.
The hero is unbalanced even before his girlfriend dies. Add in his anguish afterwards, and it appears the story is a non-starter. After a suicide attempt, Min-Hyuk decides to continue living for one simple reason: to seek revenge on Yoo-Jung. He goes on to make her life hell for five years. I can’t help my curiosity. How can that much hatred dissipate in only sixteen episodes? And how can she bear to be with him? Because we know the truth of the hit-and-run from the beginning, the suspense here is in the relationship itself.
Ji Sung is the right man for this anti-hero part, because he’s definitely playing against type. Jo Min-Hyuk’s most disturbing quality from a feminist point of view is the character’s desire to control women when he feels insecure.
But Ji Sung comes to this character after a couple popular projects playing endearingly uncontrolling heroes. In 2011 drama Protect the Boss, for instance, his character adapts himself to the heroine’s ideas about romance, which means not touching her without her permission. And as the heartbroken songwriter in 2012 film My P.S. Partner, Ji Sung again plays a hero who is relatively powerless compared to the heroine. His character doesn’t seek power over the heroine, as the second male lead does, but rather an equal relationship. Ji Sung’s real-life marriage to successful actress Lee Bo-Young reinforces his image as a man who is unafraid of equality.
We may try to forget an actor’s past when we watch a drama—we try to only see the character—but it’s hard to empty our minds of an actor’s past roles. Film history is full of directors using this fact to their advantage.
Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, cast Cary Grant as the morally dubious CIA agent in 1944’s Notorious. Grant’s character is essentially pimping out Ingrid Bergman to Claude Rains to gain intelligence information—not a savory role. But Grant was associated in audience minds with a decade of playing funny, bumbling “nice guys” in fizzy romantic comedies. Not any actor could make you root for a jerk to get together with screen goddess Ingrid Bergman. But Grant gets the benefit of the doubt.
With “nice guy” Ji Sung on board, I find it hard to think of Secret as anything other than a twisted fantasy. Min-Hyuk’s vengeance on Yoo-Jung is horrifying but fascinating. Although I don’t want to think of myself as someone who finds hatred entertaining, I guess some subterranean part of me does. The quantity of hate coming out of Min-Hyuk is almost sublime in its vastness. I feel awed by how deep this person’s suffering runs, and by how cruel he is as a result.
Ji Sung makes this monster believable, in an exaggerated, melodramatic fashion. Min-Hyuk is in emotional freefall, and you can’t help wondering when he will hit bottom. When his girlfriend dies, he first tries to commit suicide, then assaults Yoo-Jung with murderous anger. Next, he hocks his expensive watch, designer suit and even his shoes. He wanders town in cheap rubber shower shoes and a T-shirt. The show presents a series of striking images of his desolation (above).
Hwang Jung-Eum plays another extreme character, the self-sacrificing Yoo-Jung. If Min-Hyuk combines the worst qualities of every chaebol hero, Yoo-Jung combines the “best” virtues of the cliché K-drama heroine. She takes care of everyone around her—even those who despise her—and she has a nearly endless supply of pluck and good cheer.
In episode one, Yoo-Jung takes the fall for her fiancé’s hit-and-run accident and goes to prison in his place. And that’s just the beginning. The first five or six episodes make her suffer in ways that seem over-the-top even by melodrama standards. But Hwang Jung-Eum convinces me this woman isn’t an invincible Candy girl robot. And so I keep watching for the same reason I can’t turn my eyes away from someone walking on hot coals: I want to see how much more she can endure.
The relationship that develops between Min-Hyuk and Yoo-Jung is textbook emotional sadomasochism. He wants to control her and make her suffer, and she wants to sacrifice her happiness to make him happy. Over the course of the first ten episodes, Min-Hyuk stalks Yoo-Jung and her loved ones, attacks her physically, abuses her verbally, and manipulates her financially so that she owes him money.
And he makes her do laundry—which strangely bothers me even more than the stalking. I really hate laundry. It’s hard not to notice that Min-Hyuk watches Yoo-Jung hanging up the wash like someone with a cleaning fetish. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
These acts of dominance and aggression arguably occur before the two discover they have feelings for each other. These are the last scenes in his revenge, perhaps. But it’s equally possible to see the abuse as the first stages in an unhealthy relationship.
This show isn’t trying to depict normal human psychology, though. Melodrama is about how life feels, not how life really is or should be. Melodrama is about exaggeration, fantasy and human irrationality. I’m deeply uncomfortable with this “romance” (aargh, the laundry!). But my discomfort is like the thrill of watching a horror movie. I enjoy being scared by how emotionally damaged these people are. And I also enjoy how the story eventually contains the horror by allowing the characters to change for the better, to a certain extent.
The script acknowledges that it’s partly a horror story. Min-Hyuk’s potential fiancée Se-Yeon (Lee Da Hee), tells him to read Wuthering Heights, which she says contains lessons for him. The explicit references to Wuthering Heights give us a framework for understanding Secret. Emily Bronte’s nineteenth-century novel concerns a love affair, but it isn’t a romance. The main characters, Catherine and Heathcliff, are obsessed with each other in ways that destroy them both.
Secret echoes the idea that sexual attraction can overlap with destructive emotions. There’s powerful chemistry between Min-Hyuk and Yoo-Jung. But their attraction is mixed up with Min-Hyuk’s envy and self-hatred, and Yoo-Jung’s self-abnegation and misplaced guilt. (Though Min-Hyuk is the one with obvious moral flaws, Yoo-Jung is also flawed in her intense need to take the blame for other’s mistakes, whether they like it or not.)
Literary critic Rosemary Jackson describes the lovers in Wuthering Heights as having a “vampiric relationship.” The hero in particular is “closer to the demonic than to the human.” Both lovers are somehow outside of society, distanced from other humans. I get a similar feeling from Min-Hyuk and Yoo-Jung. Though they’re enemies, they’re also exiles from the world of normal, reasonable emotions. They’re both living inside their own nightmares—neither can move on from the hit-and-run accident, even after the passage of years—and they understand each other’s nightmares while no one else does. Their attraction, which seemed impossible, becomes believable.
Is the writer thinking about all this? I don’t think the writer would mention Wuthering Heights without knowing that it’s a tragedy about people whose emotions run away with them. The writer knows there’s something horrifying about Min-Hyuk and Yoo-Jung’s relationship—even while it’s the ultimate fantasy of people getting past their hatred. It’s unnatural and perverse for them to develop feelings for each other, not just because of the hit-and-run but also because Min-Hyuk’s revenge imposes terrible costs on Yoo-Jung.
Nor does the director of Secret ignore the horror elements. The narrative moves along quickly, but maintains a mood of dark brooding. The mise-en-scene includes Gothic elements that suggest eerie and irrational forces: Se-Yeon’s vaguely church-like loft apartment, the sepulcher-like marble hallways of the Jo mansion, a dark abandoned bakery. A few pivotal scenes take place at night in pouring rain, with people and objects appearing suddenly in car headlights like something out of a horror movie. Most of the music is of the melancholy, romantic orchestral variety, including a tango melody—the ultimate rhythm of illicit desire.
A few jarring elements in Secret contradict the idea that it’s a horror story. The one that bothers me most is the egregious TGI Friday’s product placement. The TGI Friday’s chain does cause me a few feelings of horror, but not the kind of horror that belongs here. I wish I could say the director and writer found a clever way to work this setting into the plot, but it’s merely distracting. Some scenes are almost unwatchable as a result. If you live in a nation without TGI Friday’s, I envy you those scenes.
Also distracting is the innocuous pop music typical of K-dramas. It isn’t overbearing—most of the background music is somber orchestral, not pop—but it does contradict the sense that these are scary people. By inserting it into a few of the more violent moments in Min-Hyuk and Yoo-Jung’s relationship, the director introduces a lot of ambiguity. Are we supposed to think this is romantic after all? The ending is jarring too, but click here for a separate post with the spoilers.
If I add up the ways Secret scares me and the ways it tries to sell romance clichés, I find a stronger argument for horror than romance here. The show would be much stronger if they cut the pop music out of three key scenes. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like Secret is arguing that stalking or violence against women is romantic, as some K-dramas genuinely do. (Writer Kim Eun-Sook, I’m looking at you and your crazy stalker boys in Heirs.)
Secret occupies the gray area of so much pop culture, however, because it doesn’t critique Min-Hyuk’s abusive behaviors either. Someone who believes stalking equals love could thus find the story romantic. I don’t like the thought of anyone idealizing the relationship shown here, and I know from forum comments that many do.
At the same time, I fully intend to hang onto my feminist ID card despite enjoying Secret the way it looks to me, as a dark fantasy about people in pain. And if other women enjoy it because they believe sexy equals romantic, I won’t blame them.
Secret is the essence of melodrama. In the opening credits, the title is formed by falling tears, a fantastic image for what melodrama is all about. It’s a show about grief, and worse. Each of the main characters has their own definition of love, and each definition is crazy in its own way. And the second leads are even more flawed than the leads. Yoo-Jung’s twisted ex-fiancé actually makes Min-Hyuk look reasonable and considerate by comparison.
In the end, I enjoy Secret not in spite of the craziness but because of the craziness. Ji Sung and Hwang Jung-Eum bring out the complexity in these characters, while maintaining the exaggerated, Gothic nature of the tale. If you’re dabbling in dark melodrama, you could do worse than Secret. It’s sexy as hell. Just don’t take relationship advice from these characters.♥
- Overall: 7/10
- Writing: 7/10
- Acting: 8/10
- Production & Directing: 6/10
Availability: Only licensed site with it is Viki.
Alternate titles: The Korean title is simply 비밀, Bimil or Secret, but in some overseas markets it was sold as Secret Love. This can be confusing because in 2014 the Korean cable channel DramaCube produced a show called Secret Love, starring K-pop group KARA. Secret was produced by KBS in 2013, with Ji Sung and Hwang Jung-Eum.
Also recommended: This one’s in a crazy-pants league of its own. But Ji Sung and Hwang Jung-Eum teamed up again in 2015 for Kill Me, Heal Me, which is the emotional and tonal opposite of Secret. It highlighted their great romantic chemistry and showed they have good comic rapport as well.