Note: This is part two of my post about Secret—the bit with spoilers. If you’re planning on watching the show, I recommend the main review post, which doesn’t contain spoilers.
If you want to tell a twisted story of despair and grief, you might do better to use film as your medium rather than television drama. K-dramas can break the rules, but they can’t break all the rules.
I didn’t expect Secret to have a happy ending. The first 14 episodes suggest a tragic opera by Puccini or Verdi. It looks like the ending will have to be as tragic as the rest of the story. When the show shifts gears in the last two episodes, it moves far away from horror and tries to establish sweetness.
Despite the last two episodes, I’m not convinced it’s a sweet story. The happy ending, like the product placement and the K-pop, is necessary to making a financially viable K-drama. But the fact that the pop music plays less often than the moody cello stuff—and the fact that the uncharacteristic sweetness appears only near the end—suggests these elements aren’t the key to the story.
Television story-tellers can only subvert viewers’ expectations up to a certain point. The best pop culture narratives (whether in film, TV or books) usually have a turning point near the end, where they pivot from messing with our minds to restoring order. They don’t destroy the old formulas completely. But at the same time, we remember the parts of the story that were disturbing and made us rethink the usual formulas.
A classic example of this pivot occurs in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), one of the greatest Hollywood Westerns (or movies, for that matter). Westerns, like K-dramas, had specific formulas they used again and again. John Ford was a master of the formulas for decades.
But in The Searchers, he cast the star John Wayne as an anti-hero, a man whose racism against native Americans runs so deep that it makes him hate even one of his own family members. After his niece is kidnapped by a war party at a young age, he spends the entire film searching for her. When he finds out that she’s grown up happy with the tribe and doesn’t want “rescue,” he intends to kill her for “going native.”
It’s a dramatic moment when John Wayne heads after her, gun in hand. John Wayne can’t kill a woman, he’s the all-American hero! Imagine the audience full of shocked nine-year-old boys raised on myths about honorable cowboys.
At the last minute, Wayne suddenly stops—and allows his niece to live. But if you grew up in my father or grandfather’s generation and took for granted the virulent racism of American Westerns (and American life, really), it could mess with your mind. Sure, the hero doesn’t let his racism destroy his humanity in the end, but for most of the length of the movie, you thought he was going to kill her.
No K-drama is a John Ford Western, but a similar pivot happens when the director and writer suddenly tidy everything up in the last episode of Secret. Having Min-Hyuk head off to a difficult assignment in Armenia for a year or two is a formulaic last-episode twist, but also allows for the fact that this relationship will only be credible if someone hits the restart button.
My little sister, who is wiser than I am in affairs of the heart, believes the forced separation in many K-dramas is a healthy thing—a chance for the main characters to grow up a bit after all the trouble they cause each other for most of the series. In Secret, they’ll need a lot of time to recover from each other. If we believe that Min-Hyuk and Yoo-Jung spent the year of separation doing soul-searching and self-improvement, maybe a happy ending is possible.
But the fact that Secret had a happy ending doesn’t change the fact that I spent most of the series thinking it would end in tears. And my favorite scenes remain the creepiest ones, the scenes you won’t see in another K-drama.
An example: the beginning of episode 11. If you’ve seen it, you might already guess where I’m going.
Min-Hyuk pursues Yoo-Jung to her father’s old apartment. She hasn’t been to work in days. She’s holed herself up, distraught after finding the CCTV footage that shows her fiancé Ahn Do-Hoon was responsible for her father’s death.
Min-Hyuk lets himself into the building and it’s silent except for a rhythmic thudding sound. He finds Yoo-Jung in a bedroom upstairs, banging her head against the wall over and over again like someone trying to knock herself unconscious. He puts his hand between her head and the wall, then pulls her close and tries to hold her. She struggles and struggles to heave her head against the wall again, then finally collapses against him and cries for a long time.
When she stops, Min-Hyuk starts to leave the room, then pauses. He sits down again, on the opposite side of the room from Yoo-Jung. At this point, more than a minute and a half have gone by without dialogue, without pop music, just tense, emotionally-charged silence.
Yoo-Jung breaks the silence and apologizes. She says she knows she isn’t the only one to lose a loved one. This masochistic woman actually feels guilty grieving for her father, since in her guilt-ridden version of events she was herself responsible for the death of Min-Hyuk’s girlfriend Ji Hee. She says to Min-Hyuk that she must look revolting to him.
He answers yes, but without his usual conviction. Then he adds that she’s been helpful to him as well.
“I didn’t have the courage to die after Ji Hee did, but I found you instead. By hating you to death, I held on.” He makes an offer that seals them in a weird partnership.
“You can hold on, too,” he says, “by watching me.”
In the twisted world of Secret, this is a love confession. Min-Hyuk relies on Yoo-Jung in a perverse way. She’s his reason for living, though not in the usual K-drama meaning of the phrase. Min-Hyuk needs someone to hate in order to live. And the emotionally dead Min-Hyuk can’t comfort Yoo-Jung except by offering to become a target for her hatred in return.
You can turn off the subtitles, close your eyes and just listen to the audio with no understanding of Korean—and this scene is still devastating.
It isn’t romantic, but it sure as hell is dramatic—and emotionally plausible. There’s no hint of a happy ever after. But there’s a strange camaraderie in that dark room.♥