Nguyen Thuy Thien (played by Seo Eun-ah) is a Vietnamese woman with a lot of debt. She agrees to pay this debt by offering herself as an overseas bride for a Korean man- in actuality a scam that will result in her coming back to Vietnam. Initially it seems like this is the most reasonable course of option for Thien. Her husband Cheol-joo (played by Kim Joon-bae) is old, sometimes violent, and not very smart. That initial negative impression seems cemented by the framing device, which reveals that Cheol-joo was murdered several years after their wedding.
There's a traditional Korean story (The Fairy and the Woodcutter) about a man who wanted a wife, and received instructions from a friendly deer that he could obtain one by stealing a fairy's clothes while she's bathing, since she can't return to heaven without them. Cheol-joo tries to control Thien using this exact same scheme, by hiding Thien's passport and foreign registration card. The generally creepy outlook of this situation also serves to make Cheol-joo seem less sympathetic.
Where "Drama Special - Secret" excels is that it takes these assumptions relating to the genre of international marriage gone wrong and rises above them to instead be a story about compassion and humanity. Thein came from a bad situation in Vietnam- note the awful looking injury on her neck. Cheol-joo's only physical wounds are from a life working a blue collar job. But he's suffered from loneliness most of his life and doesn't know much about proper conflict resolution. He has trust issues.
And yet Cheol-joo is still human. He makes mistakes, and the fact that Cheol-joo does hit Thien every so often does not make him a monster. I'm not...justifying wife beating here. That much I want to make clear. What "Drama Special - Secret" does that is so special is that it exposits how a man can beat his wife, not out of sheer evil, but because he doesn't know better. It's not that Cheol-joo is controlling. It's that he's scared.
I've always thought that The Fairy and the Woodcutter was an awkward story of a long ago era with very different values. Seeing a modern-day version of the story play out in "Drama Special - Secret" has helped me appreciate that marital relationships don't run a binary between feminist perfection and evil exploitive patriarchy. Sometimes people who have a hard time in life can't improve themselves overnight just for the sake of getting a romantic partner they think is attractive. And you know, that's OK. Just as long as they're really genuinely trying to do better, and get there eventually.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Drama Review] "Drama Special - Secret""
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