“Secret Love Affair” (Series Review)

I spent half of October suffering various flu bugs. (As you can see, that’s slowed down my posting schedule. Sorry!) Last week, I felt doubly sorry for myself: 1) I was in bed with stomach flu and 2) there weren’t any K-dramas I wanted to watch. 

And then! Then, I started watching last year’s Secret Love Affair. I watched the whole thing in two days, then immediately watched it a second time. I wanted to go for a third, but first I thought I should share the love and write something. This is a spoiler-free review, but I have thoughts about the ending that I can put in a separate post if anyone’s interested. This one could use a reference chart à la Pride and Prejudice.

A huge thank you to the KDT reader who told me this show is better than its awful promo poster! I have found meaning in life again.

It’s hard to say what’s more unlikely about an affair between a married 40-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man.

Most people will find it unlikely that a man would fall for a woman twice his age. But I find it equally unlikely that a brilliant woman in the prime of life would be attracted to a guy young enough to be her son. Men that age aren’t grown-ups yet, no matter how cute, likable or talented they may be. I think most 40-year-old women are looking for someone closer to their own age.

So I put off watching the award-winning 2014 melodrama Secret Love Affair. Not because I’m offended by the concept, like some netizens (“the actress is my mom’s age!” is a frequent complaint), but because it sounds outrageously implausible. I like my heroines smart and self-respecting. It would take a really amazing script to convince me that a self-respecting 40-year-old would screw up her marriage by having an affair with a kid just out of high school.

secret love affair episode 15 yoo ah in kim hee ae 4web

Secret Love Affair is exactly that amazing script. Though not everyone will find it as mesmerizing as I do—it helps to have a fondness for classical music—it’s a rare and brilliant show. It totally deserves the two Baeksangs that it won in 2014, for best screenplay and best director (beating out ratings powerhouse You From Another Star, in a victory for art over commerce).

Director An Pan-Seok and writer Jung Sung-Joo are the same team that produced Heard it Through the Grapevine for SBS in 2015. Secret Love Affair (for cable network jTBC) bears their distinct imprint but the 2014 series is better. Grapevine was an adroit, emotionally rich comedy of manners. Yet at 30 episodes, it was too long for my taste. It didn’t offer enough tension to go with all that style.

Secret Love Affair, on the other hand, is only 16 episodes, and has enough tension to fuel several dramas. Every kind of tension. Social, emotional, sexual. Definitely sexual. It’s the story of a highly unconventional relationship, but it’s also an understated critique of Korean society. Director An Pan-Seok’s style, with its baroque settings and oblique dialogue, matches perfectly with a story about passion, restraint, and the consequences of breaking the rules.

secret love affair episode 1 kim hee ae 4web

Though many K-dramas remind me of Charles Dickens novels, this one’s closer to something by Tolstoy or Edith Wharton. There’s an underlying darkness to things, the feeling that the world values money and status too much to allow us to be fully human.

The heroine is Oh Hye-Won (played by 47-year-old Kim Hee-Ae), the elegant, commanding director of Seohan Arts Center. In her early twenties, she was a talented concert pianist, but tendonitis forced her to give up her career. Since then, she’s become an expert in “taking rich people’s money.” She’s the trusted consigliere to a chaebol family—organizing concerts and events for their Arts Center, but also managing their illegal slush funds and secret stock holdings.

Kim Hee-Ae gives this character so much dignity and class that you can’t help but admire her, even if you aren’t sure whether to like her. She’s a stark contrast to the chaebol daughter she works for, who is the same age as her, but has a mean temper and chases after younger lovers to make up for her loveless marriage.

secret love affair episode 10 concert yoo ah in 4web

In early episodes, the only hints at Hye-Won’s financial responsibilities are the occasional references to Madame Han’s “chocolate money,” or a glimpse of account numbers on a computer screen. But Hye-Won’s skills at hiding money from tax collectors have made her indispensable to Chairman Seo. Her life is devoted to money and power, with music on the side.

Then she falls for young pianist Lee Seon-Jae (Yoo Ah-In). By falling in love with the wrong man, Hye-Won rediscovers the power of music. But she may have given her enemies an opportunity to stop her climb up the social ladder.

The screenplay assumes the Korean audience knows Korean arts organizations are often accused of being piggy-banks for their rich donors, and Secret Love Affair illustrates the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the Seo family treats the Arts Center like a toy. But the social commentary is primarily fodder for Hye-Won’s internal conflicts.

Hye-Won lives in a loveless marriage with Kang Joon-Hyung (Park Hyuk-Kwon), who seems to have married her primarily for career advancement. Professor Kang is the perfect portrait of a fool—a piano professor who never plays the piano, but devotes himself instead to academic politicking. He’s often pitiable, but never likable.

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Ironically, it’s Professor Kang’s ambitions that set this forbidden love in motion. Looking for a talented student to claim as a protégé, he stumbles across recent high school graduate Lee Seon-Jae, who works as a moped deliveryman. Seon-Jae is a piano prodigy, one of those amazing natural-born musicians. To Professor Kang, he looks like a ticket to that promotion to the dean’s position.

Seon-Jae is also almost entirely self-taught—a “weed” raised in poverty by a single mother, an alien to the Seoul of music academies and private arts foundations. He loves music. But he’s awkward around adults and deeply naive about the give-and-take of the world—the perfect foil to Hye-Won’s elegant cynic.

Yoo Ah-In brings a heart-breaking innocence to this role. If the ancient Greek pantheon included a Demigod of Sincerity, he would look like Yoo Ah-In playing Lee Seon-Jae. Yet the 28-year-old actor also has the charisma to convey Seon-Jae’s force of personality. Seon-Jae’s fearlessness and stubborn self-respect is strong enough to make him Hye-Won’s equal in emotional intensity, if not life experience.

secret love affair episode 3 yoo ah in reading 4web

As a couple, Seon-Jae and Hye-Won break so many taboos I had to make a list:

  1. Hye-Won is married. Adultery is not only bad manners everywhere, it’s a criminal offense in Korea. (The law was changed in 2015, but when this series was made in 2014, cheating was still punishable with prison time.) K-dramas still tend to treat divorce as mildly scandalous. Adultery’s usually beyond the pale, and stories about adultery typically end in tragedy.
  2. Hye-Won is 40, Seon-Jae 20. Twenty years is a sizable age gap by anyone’s standards.
  3. Hye-Won is Seon-Jae’s piano teacher and mentor. Social mores about teacher-student relationships have changed greatly over the past four decades, but nowadays in the States it’s considered an abuse of power for a teacher to get involved with any student, even an adult student. This is the taboo that makes me most uncomfortable—it conjures up images of the disturbing 2001 French film The Piano Teacher—though I suspect it matters less to Koreans.

Because this couple is mismatched in so many ways, I expected Secret Love Affair to portray Hye-Won as an unsympathetic character. It doesn’t help that the promo poster depicts a predatory Kim Hee-Ae and a somewhat confused-looking Yoo Ah-In.

Secret_Love_Affair-worst poster ever

But the writer gives us three-dimensional characters and problematizes the definition of “grown-up.” Seon-Jae may still be a kid in some ways, but in others he’s more adult than Professor Kang.

Hye-Won and Seon-Jae resist their mutual attraction at first. What brings them together in spite of themselves is their love of music. Though Hye-Won rejects Seon-Jae, she worries about his musical career. And though Seon-Jae tries to give up music entirely to avoid her, when he meets her again, he can’t resist asking her to play a duet.

It’s those duets that get them into trouble. In more than one extended musical number, the director goes to town conveying the parallels between harmonic music and good sex. This might be where viewers who aren’t classical music fans start to feel a little left behind. Not everyone believes Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor is the sexiest piece of music ever written. But for those who do, this is the K-drama you’ve waited for your whole life.

(Full disclosure: I’m apparently the target audience for this show. Once they started playing the piano, I was a goner. The piano concerto really is the sexiest form of orchestral music, I swear. A good concerto balances the competing sounds of piano and orchestra. It balances harmony with tension, cooperation with competition. The balance between strong personalities, the alternation of harmony and tension—here we have the makings of a good metaphor for romance, and writer Jung Sung-Joo uses it deftly.)

secret love affair episode 12 listening yoo ah in kim hee ae

In its plot and soundtrack, Secret Love Affair uses music both as a metaphor and as the centerpiece for profound emotional scenes. Seon-Jae and Hye-Won’s attraction starts with those sexually charged piano duets, but their friendship grows through reading about music, talking about music and listening to music.

Director An Pan-Seok isn’t afraid to devote a lot of screen time to showing us two people just listening. In one scene in episode 9, we simply watch Hye-Won and Seon-Jae listen to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini—for a full two and a half minutes. In episode 10, the two listen to Rachmaninoff again, this time for three and a half minutes.

It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Is it because of the music? The difficult-to-play Rhapsody alternates between sensuality and swift, passionate outbursts. It’s exciting stuff. The pause in the on-screen action invites us to listen carefully and appreciate it. But a scene in episode 11 where the pair listen to Billy Joel is equally compelling. (Not to knock the Bard of the ‘Burbs, but his stuff’s not quite as complex as a Rachmaninoff concerto.)

Is it because of the characters’ reactions as they listen? Yoo Ah-In’s portrayal of Seon-Jae is particularly fun to watch, as he goes through the full range of contorted faces that some pianists make when they’re concentrating. And in episode 10, listening to music is an excuse for the lovers to hold hands, gaze into each other’s eyes and exchange secret smiles, in one of the most intensely romantic scenes I’ve ever seen on film.

secret love affair episode 9 yoo ah in kim hee ae 4web

Or is it that writer Jung Song-Joo knows we need an occasional pause for reflection? The rich dialogue in Secret Love Affair keeps us on our toes, with characters who speak in coded language that hides daggers behind smiles. The occasional break from dialogue is a chance to observe the real emotions underlying the characters’ evasions and hesitations.

The screenplay is unusual in other ways. Though I’ll resist giving spoilers, it omits many of the scenes we expect in a melodrama. The writer assumes the Korean audience has seen a million melos and knows what’s going to happen next. Instead it focuses on the moments that happen between the usual plot points, the less obvious moments that make up a life: changing a light bulb, visiting the hair salon, cooking dinner.

These off-beat images and scenes are often filmed simply, in silence, in deliberate contrast to the lush musical numbers. In one such scene, Seon-Jae welcomes Hye-Won to his run-down apartment. The style here is so low-key and naturalist that it recalls American movies of the early seventies. The characters spend a full five minutes of screen time doing domestic stuff. They climb the stairs. Seon-Jae turns on the lights. He cleans up a bit and Hye-Won watches him. He pours her a glass of water.

secret love affair episode 6 seon-jae's apartment 4web

The magic of An Pan-Seok’s direction is that somehow their silent entry to the apartment feels as significant as the emotional conversations that come before and after. He invites us to closely observe what it really means to enter someone’s home. In scenes like this, we get another interpretation of what it means to be intimate—not through sex but rather by opening up one’s life to another person.

“How often do you meet someone who changes you?” Seon-Jae’s friend Da-Mi says, and that’s the kind of intimacy this series focuses on, the emotional intimacy of allowing oneself to be changed. The fact that these lovers are changing each other is what makes their stolen kisses so poignant.

We also get to observe the material details of Seon-Jae’s life. The tiny stove, just big enough to heat water for ramen. The stains on the walls, the patched flooring. This isn’t the prettied-up rooftop apartment of many dramas, this is the kind of grinding poverty that could wear down your soul (if your soul lives in Hannam-dong).

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It’s these small details that give Secret Love Affair its edge of social critique. The writer and director ask us to pay attention to details most dramas gloss over. Many dramas contrast rich and poor in general terms. Secret Love Affair does it with specific objects. It’s strangely reminiscent of a John Sayles movie.

As in Grapevine, the script gives attention to the people at the edges of wealth—secretaries, drivers, adjunct professors. Scenes sometimes continue a moment longer than we expect, long enough to show the maids and assistants relax and roll their eyes after the bigwigs leave the room.

But despite the naturalist style of some scenes, the series is remarkably polished. The homes of the rich are distinctively opulent, decorated in deep reds, golds and browns. When sunlight enters these rooms, it glistens. At night, the lamp light glows in sepia tones, as if the rich are living by candlelight, as if we’re looking at the first Gilded Age, the one in the 1890s, instead of the New Gilded Age of today.

secret love affair episode 10 interior

The director has a cinematic touch when it comes to long takes, most memorably in episode 15. The single take starting at 2:10 lasts for a full three minutes, as the camera follows Hye-Won and Seon-Jae walking slowly along a bustling sidewalk, talking and flirting, building up to the lengthy kiss that ends the scene. How did they manage to film for three minutes without interruptions in the middle of Seoul? This scene is the romance equivalent of a complicated stunt in a James Bond movie—hard to pull off and requiring a lot of preparation and luck.

The series is polished in invisible ways, too. Not many people on Earth can play Liszt’s Rhapsody Espagnole well. It takes tricks to make it look like the actors are performing. (If you don’t believe concert piano is a full-body sport, check out the amazing Son Yeol-Eum.) Rumor online has it that Yoo Ah-In and Kim Hee-Ae learned the fingerings and did all the medium-shot piano work themselves without stand-ins.

Of course, all that backstage stuff wouldn’t matter if Secret Love Affair didn’t deliver a compelling central couple. But Kim Hee-Ae and Yoo Ah-In make this unlikely romance look like the stuff of timeless poetry. I have intellectual qualms—he’s twenty! it shouldn’t work!—but when these two are on screen together, it’s impossible not to believe they love each other on many levels.

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In the second half of the series, Seon-Jae realizes he doesn’t know everything about Hye-Won. Her years of casual law-breaking for the folks in Hannam-dong don’t sit well with the young idealist. The Korean public takes white-collar crime seriously—the Sewol ferry disaster, which killed 400 people during Secret Love Affair’s fifth week on air, was facilitated in large part by petty corruption, after all. As head over heels as Seon-Jae is, he’s starting to see Hye-Won with clear eyes.

How Seon-Jae and Hye-Won handle his disillusionment makes for a strong and suspenseful third act. In fact, this series remains strong all the way to the beautiful final images. The ending wasn’t what I expected, but nothing about this show was what I expected. I came for the sexy pianos and stayed for the profound meditation on beauty, art and the purpose of human life.

The series isn’t for everyone. If you haven’t watched a few K-dramas, the omission of a couple obvious plot points might be disorienting, especially in the complex business intrigue that makes up the third act. But for viewers who don’t mind the subtlety, it’s a gorgeous, hypnotic puzzle box about a relationship that looks a lot like true love.

It’s proof that when the stars align, Korean television can produce great art. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch it a third time. ♥

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Overall: 10/10

Writing: 10/10

Acting: 10/10

Production & Directing: 10/10

I’ve never given a drama a 10 out of 10 before, because I’m afraid people will interpret that as saying “everyone will love this drama!” There is no drama that everyone will love. But in this one the writer and director have succeeded in telling exactly the story they wanted to—a rare feat.

Full cast info at Asian Wiki and Drama Wiki.

Alternate Titles: None, but it needs one. The Korean title is more romantic and suggestive than “secret love affair”: it’s 밀회 (milhwe), which translates as “rendezvous” or “tryst.” The show deserves an equally smart English title.

Availability: At Viki. The volunteer subtitlers deserve huge kudos for this one. Their subtitles occasionally include comments on whether characters are using formal or informal speech, which is vital to understanding a show about social distance and boundaries.

Reasons to Watch:

  • Lots of classical music
  • Touching depiction of forbidden love that goes way beyond the physical
  • Beautiful visuals and use of sound, alternating between Merchant Ivory opulence and early seventies cinema verite
  • Intriguing, off-beat script that suggests the writer is only telling us a fraction of the story

Reasons to Skip:

  • Lots of classical music
  • It’s pure, unadulterated melodrama, which seems to be less popular with overseas viewers than romantic comedy
  • The writer only gives us glimpses of the corporate corruption story, rather than laying it all out. Subtlety alert!
  • It pushes the boundaries on what we imagine a couple can look like, which will make many of us uncomfortable to one degree or another

24 thoughts on ““Secret Love Affair” (Series Review)

  1. A wonderful review for a wonderful show. Thank you. I too avoided this show, likely because of the awful poster, and I also decided to give it a try based on the recommendation given in the favourites discussion. I look forward to any follow up post that discusses the ending and I always love charts. I am also curious to know what standard scenes you felt were omitted. I feel sad I can not recommend this show to my mother as I suspect she would love it but would get lost in the vague references to the shady behind the scenes activities of the power brokers and hangers on. But for those of us here who have watched enough k-dramas to not be confused I strongly suggest you open yourself up for this one. Even if I ignore that stupid poster on the face of a basic description this should not have been a show I enjoyed. Firstly we have a lot of classical music and then there are the 3 taboos that you listed.

    I like classical music well enough but rarely choose to listen to it. I don’t generally enjoy the scenes in k-dramas that are just music setting the tone. in fact just today I was fast forwarding through music I liked because it bored me to watch the show at that point. So 2-3 minutes of just him playing sounds bad to me. But it is not. And it is so fundamental to the story that when I watched it a second time I did not skip the piano scenes. I have watched videos of both Jacqueline du Pré and Yo Yo Ma performing Elger’s cello concerto in E minor. To me they both seem charged with sexual energy. So despite not being an aficionado I understood the story being told with the music. I really expected to see some clumsy hand double camera work for the piano scenes. I was quite pleased with how they were filmed and figured Yoo Ah-In had enough prior piano experience to pull it off so well. I was quite shocked to read he did not play and had to learn each little snippet before filming. I also completely bought into his facial expressions for these scenes.

    Adultery is not something that upsets me in a story. While I generally don’t approve in real life I am old enough to know that everyone has different circumstances and I am not living in their shoes. I think in most real life cases it is a very bad idea but that is what makes it a useful plot device. I did worry that the Korean broadcast sensibilities would constrain the script. I think it did in a minor and acceptable way.

    Age gaps in relationships make me itchy. Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina are so far apart in age as to make the movie unpleasant for me. I also do not find younger men attractive and do not enjoy seeing the shower scenes in k-dramas. Oddly I have found I like some of the so called noona romances despite the fact I find the male leads devoid of sexual attractiveness. I have pondered this and I think it is because Korean culture means these shows have to face the age gap head on and provide some reason (other than sexual desire) for this frowned upon behaviour to be overlooked. This does not always happen when the genders are reversed and we have an older male with younger female. And in this case Yoo Ah In has a body build that is not typical of young men so this helps.

    Being a North American in education the biggy for me is the student-teacher relationship. I routinely get 20 year old males coming and sharing intimate things with me. Hence Sun Jae’s awkward shaky conversations with her at the beginning were very believable. Taking advantage of such a young man is abhorrent to me. I think my reaction to such stories is similar to other people’s reactions to adultery. Just NO. I would probably need to watch it a third time and concentrate to figure out exactly why I was able to get over it in this show. (mild spoiler warning for rest of paragraph) I think it has something to do with his falling for her before the power relationship is fully formed. While she is clearly ahead of him in world experience she is almost his equal in the love department. I do indeed need to ponder more.

    The English title is awful. I like your translation versions much better. It really implies that they affair is a big secret and that the effort to hide it and the subsequent exposure will be the story. Who creates English titles?

    The physical contact was well done. From simple touch through kissing and sex I thought it was restrained but still true to the characters and the story. It was hot enough to make one believe they were a couple despite the fact they look like mother and son. Without giving spoilers I will say it is my favourite k-drama bed scene so far. In Witch’s romance where we have a similar age gap the show starts with a pretty hot kiss with all follow ups seeming timid in comparison. I wondered if the real life age gap between actors affected their ability to film such scenes as they got to know one another better and settled into age appropriate interaction. I think Secret Love Affair managed to film in such a way as to avoid this being too much of an issue.

    I see you changed the ratings a teensy bit. I won’t argue. I think I amight watch six flying dragons for YAI alone.

    • You spotted my last minute edits! 🙂 I’m one of those hard graders who thinks a B is an appropriate grade for most things. So on principle, I couldn’t give this show full marks across the board. I agonized, decided the script and the directing are the most impressive things about it, so acting got the A minus. Then right after hitting publish, I came across the info that YAI was basically learning to play piano on the fly, and I was so flabbergasted that I had to admit it–I was beat. It deserves a full A (and I added a note about the piano playing). All the performances were good, and if they didn’t use stand-ins for the piano (just for close-ups)–well, wow.

      I’m so glad you’ve watched this show because I was really curious what your reaction would be. Now I want to stay up all night writing my Spoilers Post! We’re thinking about a lot of the same things. This is a story that absolutely shouldn’t work. Because I work in education, too, sometimes with delightful young men, the teacher-student taboo means a lot to me. And I’m puzzled at the idea of finding a guy that young attractive on a personal level.

      The fact that this relationship makes me uncomfortable is part of why I find it so compelling, I think. It challenges me to think more deeply about the characters and how they relate to each other. I also found myself thinking that this show would be too controversial for American cable TV. Even if you removed the student/teacher thing, which is a non-starter, I bet the age gap alone would make people too uncomfortable. We can handle zombie eviscerations here, but not sex–and definitely not acknowledging the emotional power dynamics of sex.

      Curiously, age gaps still shock people. The only person I know who came into real conflict with her family over her choice of spouse was my friend who fell in love with a man 30 years older than her. They have a real love story, but her family disapproved intensely. I know gay couples who’ve married with less bother. It’s a reminder that even as old social norms change, society still has strong expectations about what’s “normal.” I was trying to think if I’ve ever seen an age-gap couple on American TV. We have gay and lesbian couples and polygamist Mormon families, but the last age-gap I can think of was two decades ago on Northern Exposure, and that was an ensemble show where those characters (older man/younger woman, of course) only occasionally got screen time.

      I agree about Witch’s Romance–where did the chemistry go after that first romp? I enjoy noona romances a lot because they’re trying to do something different, but I haven’t found them particularly romantic. This is the first one I’ve seen where they convinced me they were a couple. Kim Hee-Ae made her character’s complicated personality believable. And Yoo Ah-In deserves some sort of Baeksang for Good Hugs.

      Gonna put the rest in a spoilers post! Thanks for your fantastic comments!

  2. This is one drama I didn’t watch till ends just because I catch up on weekly watch at the time and it doesn’t really make me wanting more, there’s no tension for it to me because the real problem for her is her lifestyle other than the romantic tension with Ah in character.
    I am totally understand that this drama has it own genre, it is satisfying and overall very good drama, but at the end of each episode when every small glance and touch already feel enough, I feel that it’s enough. Too many silent shot that just make think why I need to see this, again.

    This drama for me stabilize Yoo Ah In as someone more than cute next door boy because I really love him in this drama, I don’t get him sometimes but every things he did for me is real, I can believe he did it because it;s him, I believe whatever he said even I don’t care much, it just a really good performance.

    I want to watch it till ends but I guess I am not gonna enjoy it as much because the way it presented -as beautiful as I think it is- doesn’t entertain me. The romance is uncomfortable but believable which make me don’t know what to do with the couple.I get spoiler here and there by accident so I might re-watch it sometimes later,

    thanks for the recap as always, I hope you have a nice nice day, it finally rain at my place.

    • I like what you said about “this drama has its own genre.” This director and writer have such a unique style that it’s hard to predict how people will react to it. It can go either way: mesmerizing or boring. This one hypnotized me, but I had the opposite reaction to Grapevine: pretty show, didn’t need to keep watching.

      The ending is interesting, though. I’ll try to explain why in my Spoiler Post, to save you the time of watching more! I’m glad to hear you’re finally getting better weather, Anastasya! 🙂

    • I love to hear your alternate reaction Anastasya. I read it as you noting the quality but simply not being taken with the style. And despite how much I adored this show I can completely understand that reaction. It is probably part of the reason I hesitate about suggesting it to others and also why I wrote so much on what my areas of discomfort were.

      ” I don’t get him sometimes but every things he did for me is real, I can believe he did it because it’s him, I believe whatever he said even I don’t care much, it just a really good performance. ”

      This is a powerful sentence and I think it supports Odessa’s last minute change to the acting rating. And while I did care I did not always get him either, but like you I believed.

  3. Okay, I did not know the bit about the piano. That is freaking nuts. Years from now YAI’s going to be playing something phenomenal at a Christmas party or some such, someone will ask him where the hell he found the time to learn to play, and he’ll say, “Oh, I had to learn Rachmaninoff for this one role on live shoot, it was nuts,” all casual like. All the young people’s jaws will drop, except for that one upstart who resolves to do something exactly as nuts within the year just to show him who the uber-actor is around these parts nowadays.

    I’m off to rewatch it again after this. I feel about SLA something like what you feel about KMHM. A good review that gives me new ways to look at it is really the last thing I need. Thank you? No, I have deadlines looming. The opposite of thank you. A sarcastic, drawled /Thaaanks/.

    Every time I rewatch, I find myself focusing on an enitrely different element of the show. The chemistry gets me every time – that hug in episode 6 is explicit in ways I felt like I didn’t know hugs could be, with all the breathing against the neck and the hands shifting against ribs. The music does too, ebbing and flowing and playing with scenes, impossible to ignore (and who would want to?) But besides these two inescapables, SLA feels a bit like a croissant, where each bite is a choice I can make between peeling a delectable layer and letting it melt slowly on my tongue, tearing off wafery multilayered morsels of plot, or smushing willy-nilly into my mouth in a glorious hot buttered symphony of texture. Because I can’t possibly make every choice for every part of a single croissant, of course I have to eat multiple.
    (Now, of course, I want a croissant.)

    I focused once entirely on the ideological throughline, mentally turning over and analysing every aspect of the ethics debate I felt like Hye Won and Seon Jae were constantly having. Once I kept minute track of all the ways everybody thought of everybody else – the social roles, impressions, preferences, estimations, and the ways they cast themselves in relation to each other. One run-through, I could do nothing but listen, enraptured, to the soundtrack; until it felt like the video, and the story, were just accompaniment to it. There was of course a run through involving desperate attention to the romance. In the latest rewatch, I followed the money – how rich everybody is, how much they want, how secure they are right now, what they have to do to keep it that way and make more.

    What I like about Hye Won’s and Seon Jae’s attraction to each other is that it’s a story in its own right – when asked to stand under primary consideration, it doesn’t collapse into a series of cliche romantic moments, provocative social commentary, or the soft porn that is fanservice. I suppose that was why the show could sell the two of them as partners – their attraction stands on its own, but is woven inextricably into its context, meaning it doesn’t have to make meta-narrative sense the way rom-com couples often do.

    One particularly interesting difference in my impression and yours is how we see Seon Jae’s apartment. Maybe it’s because I’m from a country where peeling paint is really not a big deal, or old fashioned plugs, or a limited kitchen – those conditions are easily found in small towns or city outskirts, in the house of a cousin with a low-level post office job. To my mind, Seon Jae’s living within city limits, in a clean, fairly spacious place of his own, with no debt, and a marketable calling, aged 22. That sounds to me like, in a lot of ways, he’s living the dream.

    However, the poverty scale is very dependent on society and location, and the kind of poverty in housing that wears at one’s soul in New York is not going to be what it is even forty miles north of it. What does it look like in Seoul, or in Korea in general? Where does Seon Jae’s family, going by his house, fall on it? Even in dramas, I’ve seen smaller living quarters (though prettified); and kitchens seem to be in general a luxury. Oh My Ghostess’s tiny windowless gositel room is probably the most cramped I’ve seen in a drama, and gositels don’t exactly seem uncommon.

    Because Seon Jae’s situation seems comfortable to me, I’ve always thought that their primary bone of contention was security. Hye Won has leverage of the sort that can tear down entire corporations; if the store owner downstairs wanted to give Seon Jae beef about his scooter parking and his scooter got stolen, he’d be out a major asset and source of income. Hye Won’s terror of using and losing the greater part of her leverage seems at least in part rooted in becoming lightweight enough to be buffeted by those winds – or at least, that’s the part of her argument that makes the most sense to me.

    • Thanks a lot. Now *I* want a croissant and to go watch episode 6.

      (hmm I swear just as I finished typing that I got an email asking me to pop over to a department that is right beside the croissant vendor here at work. Please let them still have some. But I really do not have time to watch anything. sigh)

      As to the piano playing I think he only learned the snippets of fingerings required for the shots that show his hands. I wonder how on earth the sound engineer matched everything up.

      Despite your lack of time I hope you rewatch it (I know I will be doing so) and come give us your detailed thoughts once Odessa has her spoilers review up.

    • Ah! I love hearing your thoughts, and I can’t wait to hear your feedback on my next full-of-spoilers post. I suspect there’s a lot of stuff about the business transactions that I’m still not quite getting. Sometimes there’s just one line of dialogue that changes the whole way I think about things.

      You’re right to call me on dissing Seon-Jae’s apartment. I shouldn’t have used the word “shabby,” which makes it sound like I’m judging the place. (I won’t edit it, though, so later readers can get mad at me too.) SJ’s place is palatial compared to the windowless walk-in-closet (no joke) I lived in when I was in New York in my twenties, the kitchen is pretty similar to what I’ve got right now (good luck trying to use the oven), and I lived two awesome years in Egypt in an apartment with very creative electrical wiring. But I’m thinking about the contrast between his apartment and Hye-Won’s house or the Hannam-dong house. I think the set designer did a wonderful job making the spaces look as different as possible, and we’re supposed to see Seon-Jae’s place through Hye-Won’s eyes.

      Through her eyes specifically, the place looks pretty rough at first. She works hard so that she won’t be buffeted by the winds of fate and “end up” in a place like that. But on her second visit, she sees how cared-for the place is and realizes it feels like a home in a way her own house doesn’t. The closing lines of the drama suggest if you look at something closely and try to love it, you’ll find the beauty in it. I think it’s important that Seon-Jae’s place doesn’t look like Hye-Won’s dream, but she finds it beautiful anyway. She starts to see that maybe “living within city limits, in a clean, fairly spacious place…with no debt, and a marketable calling,” as you say, might be the dream.

      I’m so curious to know more about what this means: “it doesn’t have to make meta-narrative sense the way rom-com couples often do.” Please say more! I have a couple guesses but I could be way off.

  4. This is simply an appreciation of your appreciation of Secret Love Affair as art created within a Kdrama format. It was one of the first Kdramas I ever watched. Probably about the 5th or 6th. Even then I could tell it was in a class by itself. In fact I feared that I was ruined for all future Kdramas. That has not been the case. I have found many quite enjoyable. However most of them I will never watch a second time whereas I have already watched SLA twice and may very well watch it again.

    Also SLA sent me searching for anything directed by An Pan-Seok (and I think I also need to research writer Jung Sung-Joo). Most of his work has been fairly hard to find. I did finally manage to watch A Wife’s Credentials on a very poor definition site, and now that it is available on Viki I may watch it again. And I started Behind the White Tower but it disappeared from the cable site and I have yet to find it in an acceptable (read HD) format.

    So when I saw that Heard It Through the Grapevine was also from the An Pan-Seok/Jung Sung-Joo team I was not about to miss it. Curiously I found it best in small bites. It was just too delicious to gobble up all at once. So I watched Grapevine much more slowly than many Kdramas. Though it seemed to move languidly it was actually extremely dense with satire and social commentary. But enough about Grapevine.

    A thought about one of the elements that helped make their mutual attraction believable. If I remember correctly Hye-Won revealed that she had never experienced romance as a young person. Her first and only love had been the piano and when that was lost to her she shut down that part of her life. So as she listened to Seon Jae play the piano with a passion and devotion similar to what she may have felt so many years before, she began to remember and her own passion reawakened. So in a sense she was emotionally very close in age to Seon Jae.

    And absolutely 10/10 on all counts.

    • I might go back to Grapevine again. I stopped about halfway through, because of that “languid” pace. At the same time, it was full of scenes and characters I still think about. The APS/JSJ team are really amazing, and everything came together perfectly in SLA. I hope they make many more. SLA is so good it’s almost ruined me for television in general!

      And I agree about Hye-Won’s emotional life.

  5. Welcome to the (albeit tiny) club of the SLA admirers.
    I was and still am a hardcore fan of this show. Can you imagine watching it live? Having to wait a whole week (and after the ferry disaster even two) to see the next episode? It was a crazy time and I almost exploded due to the absolute need to talk about it. (Koala’s comment section saved me.)
    Soompi was the place to go to to read all the interpretations of other viewers and after the show ended, they created this blog:


    They translated parts of the scirpts (all Korean originals are downloadable there) and put YT videos up with the script as subs. (You’ll find the links in the blog.)

    About the piano scenes. They indeed played themselves. On YT was a vid with YAI playing – soooo amazing. I looked, but can’t find it anymore, but it might be archieved in the blog, too, or over at YAI fan page (they call themselves Sikseekers).

    • Ah! I can’t wait to check out that blog. I really don’t know how you survived watching it live. I imagine I would have had more than one sleepless night actually lying awake worrying about these characters. But when it was airing, I saw the poster and avoided it. Probably a good thing, because it might have ruined me for all subsequent dramas.

      I’ve been wanting to get ahold of the Korean scripts. I’ve been studying Korean recently, and I love that on Viki, SLA is 100% subbed in Korean. It’s a great exercise to read the subs while listening to it (since even in the big city where I am, it’s very hard to find Korean classes).

        • Well that was wonderful thank you 🙂

          and an especially lovely way to find my way back here after a very very hectic last few months.

  6. It was torture. But, oh so, sweet.
    I spent my weeks of waiting like this: Watching the unsubbed ep, watching the subbed ep, re-watching the subbed ep, maybe even re-watching all available eps, again, and again. Reading Soompi’s comments, writing at Koala’s and then came the last ep. I watched it unsubbed and cried for maybe four hours (I’m not kidding you!), because I didn’t know whether they stayed together or not. Phew.

    But it was worth it. So very worth it.

  7. I came here because someone recommended your review in Dramabeans. This is such a perfect wonderful review! Suddenly I missed this couple. You made me want to rewatch SLA again. Thank you so much!!

  8. I personally wish for the story to continue. Oh hayweon and lee sonjae are just amazing actors. So much to learn…… Koreans rock.

  9. I just finished a binge watch of this drama and now I’m hooked. I gave told so many people about this series and hoped at the end there was more.
    I cried. I laughed. I cheered them on in their affair.
    I yelled at my TV for them to kiss.
    The best loverall story by far. And the music was delightful. I can see why it won awards.
    The problem. … I want more.

  10. Thank you for your amazing review. I just came across this series, and like you, I was hesitant to dive in because of the age gap.

    This drama is so beautifully developed I was instantly hooked. So very different from other Korean Drama I have previously watched… I made it to episode 7 and just had to go to the last episode. This I have only done maybe once or twice, but I was so vested in their relationship, I could not wait to find out how the series ended. And again, not surprised the ending was so amazing and not typical.

    Now, I can wait to go back to see the rest of the episodes. And maybe repeats viewing. 🙂

    I would love to find other series like this one. So well crafted, acted and with to-die-for music.

    Thanks again!

    BTW I just subscribed to your blog and look forward to hearing from you in the future.

    • Thanks for commenting! This one definitely rewards re-watching, not like some K-dramas that I love the first time, only to realize, hmmm, not much there. This one is remains special. But make sure you have a lot of time blocked off–even when you know what’s going to happen, it’s hard not to keep watching!

  11. And don’t forget the remarkable – not a good enough word – photography – loved the review, agree whole-heartedly – let your mom see it, she’ll looove it!

  12. Love your review! Thank you for sharing it with us. 🙂 Need to quote parts of your review that speak for me. 😀
    “In its plot and soundtrack, Secret Love Affair uses music both as a metaphor and as the centerpiece for profound emotional scenes.” The music, the soundtrack is what I love about this drama beside the excellent main leads. I love Yoo ah-in’s performance here. <3 The filming style! To be honest the promo-poster did give me an irking feeling about the drama but because I was very curious about the the young actor perform, I decided to watch the first episode and could not stop watching it. Have to say again the piano music they used as background music in some of the scenes of the main couple is connected and help deliver the emotion of the scenes so well.

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