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 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.
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.
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.
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.
As a couple, Seon-Jae and Hye-Won break so many taboos I had to make a list:
- 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.
- Hye-Won is 40, Seon-Jae 20. Twenty years is a sizable age gap by anyone’s standards.
- 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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. ♥
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.
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