In one of the best scenes in Secret Love Affair, piano prodigy Lee Seon-Jae delivers a musical message to his older teacher and lover Oh Hye-Won that is equal parts rebellion and lament. It’s the third act and Hye-Won is trying to hold onto power by acting like a loyal wife to Professor Kang. Seon-Jae and Hye-Won are struggling to keep up the illusion of being teacher and student rather than lovers.
At an evening cocktail party, Professor Kang demands that Seon-Jae “show everyone” how good he is. The professor has never seemed so petty or foolish.
But Seon-Jae does show everyone, with an improvisation on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that transforms Mozart’s effervescent variations into something darker and more passionate. Hye-Won breaks down weeping as she listens from another room.
Seon-Jae’s performance reflects how nuanced this student-teacher love story is. When fellow piano student Min-Woo plays the Mozart piece, it’s simple and easy to listen to. When Seon-Jae takes his place at the piano, the lullaby takes on new meanings. Like the twenty-year old Seon-Jae, it’s left childhood behind. This is a deliberately scandalous story of a love affair with a 20-year age gap, but it pushes us to question why we find the age gap so shocking.
This is also a story about a student-teacher relationship. It doesn’t minimize the ethical problems involved, like many K-dramas about “cradle-robbing teachers.” Secret Love Affair is more like Seon-Jae’s dark salvo, a piece that won’t allow easy generalizations.
It’s hard to overlook the initial power disparities between hero and heroine. It’s also hard to hate Seon-Jae and Hye-Won’s relationship, even as it breaks a common taboo (a taboo that exists in Korea too).
Educators consider student-teacher relationships unethical because they’re inherently imbalanced. The most obvious imbalance is that teachers give students grades. But even in the music and arts, where students aren’t graded, teachers have other kinds of power—the power to write recommendation letters, or give life advice.
Thus, the thinking goes that students—even cheeky young adults like Seon-Jae who seek out a relationship with a teacher—are unable to protect their own interests. In a student-teacher romance, one person will always unfairly have the upper hand.
I’m a teacher—of high school and college age students—and I like the taboo on student-teacher relationships. It protects teachers as well as students from difficult situations.
But my experiences as a boarding school teacher taught me that difficult situations have a way of arising anyway. Several years ago, a former student of mine became a high school teacher himself, then took his own life after a rumor spread that he was involved with a student. He was a principled, generous kid—one of my favorite students when I first started teaching—which made his pointless death in his mid-twenties all the more upsetting to everyone who knew him.
My community holds the student/teacher taboo sacred, but it isn’t worth sacrificing lives for. It’s a culturally constructed taboo, unlike the universal taboo on incest. Following it takes not just good intentions, but also a lot of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Even good people can screw up on this one. So I come to this topic with a conflicted mind. Student-teacher relationships horrify me, but they aren’t unforgivable.
When the student is twenty years old, the ethical issues are even murkier, and Secret Love Affair takes place in that murky gray area.
But first, are Seon-Jae and Hye-Won really teacher and student? K-dramas often finesse this matter. For instance Flower Boy Ramyun Shop makes the heroine a trainee teacher and the hero a young heir. There the teenage hero actually has the power of hire and fire over his teacher/crush—a power imbalance of a different kind.
In Secret Love Affair, however, it’s unequivocal: Hye-Won has the official forms of power on her side. She’s Seon-Jae’s social and economic superior. She’s older than him by twenty years. Though she doesn’t really consider herself a teacher, her work with Seon-Jae is an official work assignment (thanks to Professor Kang’s initial obliviousness and Madame Han’s cunning).
To make it more problematic, the only thing Seon-Jae knows about Hye-Won the first time he sees her is that she is a teacher. He overhears Min-Woo calling her “teacher,” and Seon-Jae’s fascination with Hye-Won is closely tied to his desire to learn from her. His awe when he first meets Hye-Won in person is the awe of a young disciple, mixed with a schoolboy crush on an inaccessible “goddess.”
Writer Jung Sung-Joo captures how emotionally charged the interactions between student and teacher can be. That Fantasia that Hye-Won and Seon-Jae when they first meet? Schubert composed it for a female student he had a crush on. Not to judge Schubert too harshly—it was the nineteenth century—but what could be a more flirtatious gift? This duet requires teacher and student to sit side by side on the piano bench, paying attention to each other’s every move—a seductive exercise. No wonder Seon-Jae and Hye-Won feel intensely connected as they perform it.
There is no doubt that before they were lovers, Seon-Jae and Hye-Won were teacher and student. So how does Secret Love Affair make the evolution in their relationship not only credible, but so perversely beautiful?
One possible answer would be to blame it on the music. The nineteenth century, which Secret Love Affair alludes to musically and thematically, gave us the idea that artists break the rules, and put individual self-expression before social conventions. Dean Min mentions composer Frederic Chopin, for instance, who lived with pseudonymous writer George Sand without marrying her—and although she was (scandal!) six years older than him.
Secret Love Affair encourages us to see Seon-Jae as a modern version of the Romantic artist. He chafes at Professor Kang’s career advice and tells Hye-Won he wants to enjoy music for its own sake. He’s even willing to walk away from a scholarship to keep his artistic independence. He’s eager to have an audience, but his audience doesn’t have to be the rich donors at the Seohan Center.
The idea that artists are “different” disarms us. It makes it harder to judge Hye-Won when she falls for Seon-Jae. Surely by serving as his muse, she’s serving the noble cause of music, right?
The music is a big factor in making the characters’ emotions credible. But if we take education seriously, music can’t excuse Hye-Won from a teacher’s responsibility to look out for her student. So we have to look beyond the Power of Music.
Is it possible this series works because the central romance is at least more ethical than the other relationships in the story?
One smart bit of plotting occurs in the last twenty minute of episode 3, when Hye-Won’s visit to the host club is followed by her encounter with Seon-Jae in her garage. The commodification of the young men at the club—including Seon-Jae’s friend “Justin”—is painfully crass. It highlights how lonely Young-Woo must be, and it kicks off the sub-plot in which Justin tries trading his innocent looks for upward mobility.
By contrast, when Seon-Jae finds Hye-Won in the garage, they’re encountering each other as human beings. Compared to the commercial exchange of love at the club, their connection appears relatively untainted by power disparities.
It’s not just Young-Woo’s affair that looks distasteful. Some of the secondary couples in Secret Love Affair are outright lying to each other. Chairman Seo and Madame Han don’t trust each other, for good reason. Young-Woo’s husband barely speaks to her, and Justin is impersonating a member of the upper class to get dates with Madame Baek’s daughter. Worst of all, Chairman Han pursues the beef restaurant waitress so relentlessly she has to quit her job and change her address.
We’re also seduced into supporting Seon-Jae and Hye-Won because they’re in unsatisfying relationships at the beginning of the story. Ostensibly, both have partners, but romantically they’re alone. Seon-Jae knows his girlfriend Da-Mi is a gem of a friend, but he isn’t sexually attracted to her. And Hye-Won feels contempt for her needy, social-climbing husband, who in turn would rather hang out with his ex-girlfriend Young-Woo.
Seon-Jae’s innocent relationship with Da-Mi raises a question most of us have agonized over at some point: why does attraction have to be such a fickle, mysterious thing? Seon-Jae says he thinks Da-Mi has always been pretty. Why can’t he have a crush on her, then? This is the unfairness of human emotions.
And Hye-Won’s relationship with Professor Kang raises ethical questions about marriage. If you subscribe to romantic ideals, their relationship is creepy in its own way. How can you have sex with someone you don’t love—or even like? (The show skirts this question by not putting Hye-Won and her husband in the same bed. But presumably they’ve slept together even though the professor calls his wife “an empty husk.”)
Next to these relationships, Seon-Jae and Hye-Won look uniquely good together. They enjoy each other’s company in simple ways—listening to music together, playing the piano. They’re attracted to each other, but they have an emotional connection that is equally strong. And Seon-Jae has talents and strength of character equal to Hye-Won’s, unlike her husband.
Perhaps even more seductively, Seon-Jae does house work. (Never underestimate the power of washing the dishes, gentlemen.)
Does the fact that they look good together excuse them from ethical questions? It does make me less inclined to roast them over the fire.
But that’s not everything. The key to the taboo-breaking romance is how carefully the script acknowledges and handles the taboos. Writer Jung Sung-Joo doesn’t rush to romanticize the relationship, and the characters themselves don’t rush to get involved.
Instead, Seon-Jae and Hye-Won continually negotiate and renegotiate their relationship, complicating any simple moral judgments we could make. They’re as aware as we are that they’re breaking taboos. We see the taboos through their eyes as they struggle with forbidden emotions.
At first, neither wants to cross the boundaries between them—boundaries that include age, status and Hye-Won’s marriage vows. Early on, Hye-Won is moved by Seon-Jae’s piano playing, but the pinch on the cheek she gives him is a motherly gesture. And Seon-Jae’s initial crush on Hye-Won is of the distant, worshipful kind that doesn’t seem to require an answer from her.
But even in these early meetings, some mysterious spark of sexual and emotional connection keeps getting in the way. They don’t have to give in to it, but they can’t wish it away either.
If you can’t wish it away, you have to deal with it. And Hye-Won doesn’t deal well at first. Her discomfort with Seon-Jae’s crush leads her to treat him harshly in the episode 3 piano lesson. Seon-Jae’s humiliation here leads indirectly to the tragedy that follows, and which almost drives him away from music.
Episode 3 is like a cautionary tale for how a teacher’s emotions can damage a student. This is arguably the most unethical moment in Hye-Won’s teaching career, and it occurs without the two being in a relationship—in fact, she’s trying to avoid a relationship. But she embarrasses Seon-Jae in front of Professor Kang, a bad blow to the young man’s ego.
Seon-Jae tries to reject her in turn, chiefly because she’s married. When he receives the Richter book in the mail, he drives to Seoul to ask her not to contact him again. (Clearly a bad idea, in light of what happens next, but his intention were good.) And when he finds himself in trouble with the law, he begs his friends not to contact Professor Kang. Even after Professor Kang bails him out of jail, he tries to refuse his help.
No one can accuse Seon-Jae or Hye-Won of rushing into this thing. It’s a cruel irony that circumstances keep bringing them together. Professor Kang’s ambition to have a talented student is a force neither of them can argue with. And Seon-Jae’s musical talent keeps bringing him back to Hye-Won.
Now here’s the discussion question for professional teachers who watch this show: As the older of the two, and the teacher, could Hye-Won have stopped things from progressing?
My answer is an emphatic “maybe.” Instead of sending the Richter book to Seon-Jae herself, she could have suggested that Professor Kang send it. Sending the book is one of her first small acts of unprofessionalism. So is caressing Seon-Jae’s cheek in the garage at the end of episode 3.
Yet most of us can understand why she sends the book to Seon-Jae. Her encouragement will make a difference to him, whereas a gift from Professor Kang won’t do it. And Seon-Jae badly needs encouragement after his mother’s death.
In the garage, too, her gesture has a certain innocence. It starts as a spontaneous attempt at comfort, which at first looks motherly.
For Seon-Jae, it’s anything but a mother’s touch. The camera focuses on Hye-Won’s face as she realizes what she’s done. Her expression turns to fear as Seon-Jae moves in to kiss her. Seon-Jae looks equally horrified a few moments later, when he realizes what he’s done. This scene is powerful because it plays out more as horror than as typical romance. (The director even uses a fast zoom when Seon-Jae kisses Hye-Won, giving us a shot that belongs more in a horror film.)
By the end of this scene, both of them have crossed a boundary they shouldn’t have crossed, but I can’t put all the blame on Hye-Won. Isn’t some of the blame Seon-Jae’s, for driving to see her in the middle of the night?
Or maybe we shouldn’t blame him because he went there intending to say goodbye to her. Hmm.
Then what about blaming Seon-Jae for kissing Hye-Won? The standard ethical answer might be that we shouldn’t hold the student—even an adult student—responsible, because he’s in a position of relative weakness. Hye-Won shouldn’t have let the conversation reach that point. But Seon-Jae acts on his own. He may be Hye-Won’s inferior in status, but he isn’t a powerless victim—in fact, the kiss is filmed more as an act of violence than of love.
The entire series plays out like this, each interaction nuanced and complicated. Whose “fault” is it that they’re drawn together? Often it seems like Seon-Jae is the one pushing for a relationship. Even while Hye-Won’s telling him to stay professional, he’s saying he loves her. (In the real world, this is how some student-teacher relationships start. One of the challenges for a young boarding school teacher is that students will inevitably try to flirt with you.)
On a simple level, Seon-Jae is a quintessential love-struck kid with no idea what he’s doing. Hye-Won should protect him from himself.
On another level, though, the twenty-year old is pushing his own complicated ideas about what a “teacher” is. From the beginning, Seon-Jae sees Hye-Won simultaneously as his teacher and as a beautiful woman. He chooses to call her teacher despite her protests. And because the Korean language rarely allows the word “you” in formal speech, this means Seon-Jae calls Hye-Won “teacher” in almost every sentence he utters, for much of the series.
“Teacher” sounds like a constant reminder of their social distance, but this is tricky. It’s arguably more intimate than the other option in Korean, which would be to call her “director.” “Teacher” is actually less distancing (which might be why Min-Woo wants to call her “teacher”). Note that the Korean language doesn’t permit Seon-Jae to call Hye-Won by name; he tries it out flirtatiously only after they’ve slept together.
For Hye-Won, though, the title of teacher is a refuge from sexuality. She hides behind the title when she rejects Seon-Jae abruptly and somewhat cruelly at the beginning of episode 4.
(Aside: Language is a fascinating issue in noona romances. Koreans use formal language with their elders and social superiors, and informal language with those below them in age or status. The lower social status of women used to coincide with women being younger than their husbands. That made it easy: men always spoke informally to their wives, while women spoke formally, respectfully, to men.
New generations of Koreans are having more egalitarian relationships, with partners speaking to each other in the same register. But the age difference between Seon-Jae and Hye-Won requires them to use different forms of speech. She always “talks down” to him. And it’s only after they sleep together that Seon-Jae dares to occasionally cross the line into informal speech when he’s teasing Hye-Won or wants to make a point.)
But even if Seon-Jae has his own ideas about what a “teacher” should be, Hye-Won is the older one. She’s the one the ethicists should scrutinize. Are we sure she isn’t taking advantage of Seon-Jae?
Perhaps she is. She’s accepting his love and worship to make up for her bad marriage, instead of finding a lover her own age. She’s endangering Seon-Jae’s scholarship and career prospects. And in early episodes, she tries to alienate Seon-Jae in disturbing, sometimes even creepy ways, like this kiss in episode 5.
At the same time, we can see that Hye-Won doesn’t want to manipulate Seon-Jae—perhaps doesn’t even know how to. If anything, she feels powerless in her interactions with him. Love is Hye-Won’s blind-spot, the one negotiation she can’t handle. Because she’s powerless over her emotions, she’s unable to step back from this dangerous relationship.
If Hye-Won’s weakness is her difficulty understanding her own emotions, Seon-Jae’s weakness is his unfamiliarity with Hye-Won’s complex and cynical world. He wants answers to precisely the questions Hye-Won can’t answer. He wants to know why she returned his kiss and pretended not to remember. He wants to know why she’s married to Professor Kang. He wants to know why people hurt each other.
Seon-Jae embodies the K-drama ideal of youthful sincerity. His emotions lie close to the surface and he can’t hide what he’s thinking. Hye-Won, on the other hand, calls herself an expert liar.
In their conversations, they pull each other closer simply by being themselves. The dynamic is simple and inexorable. Seon-Jae asks questions. Hye-Won evades. His questions and her evasions slowly erode the boundaries between them in spite of themselves.
And at some point in the story, it’s impossible to see Seon-Jae as a kid any more. It’s hard to pin down when it happens—one pleasure of Secret Love Affair is that the story seems slightly different each time you watch. But by the final episode, they appear to be equals, in some indefinable way that defies our paper codes of ethics.
How can they become equals, although Seon-Jae was Hye-Won’s student and is so much younger?
Is it because this is, in some sense, Hye-Won’s first love, making them equally new to this kind of relationship? There’s more to adulthood than romance—and much more to the brilliant, powerful Hye-Won than her love life—but it’s significant that both are new to this kind of overwhelming emotional rush.
Or is it because they show equal respect for each other? Despite the series’ tawdry title, the sex in Secret Love Affair isn’t a tactical move in a relationship game. They care deeply about each other.
The Korean language gives us one hint about when they become equals, because Seon-Jae’s way of addressing Hye-Won evolves.
In their secret meeting at the pottery studio in episode 13, Seon-Jae addresses Hye-Won as teacher for the last time, with a touch of sarcasm. “Teacher” is an emotionally charged word here. In fact, some smart subtitler at Viki has called our attention to it, by translating the line, “If I kept my eyes closed, Teacher would take care of everything.” (It could just as accurately be translated, “If I kept my eyes closed, you would take care of everything.”)
“Teacher” is tinged with bitterness. He looked up to her enormously. If the worrying thing about student-teacher relationships is the abuse of trust, we should be bothered by how much he trusted her. She betrayed that trust—not by taking advantage of him sexually, but by hiding her white-collar crimes from him.
In the remaining episodes, Seon-Jae finds ways to avoid addressing Hye-Won directly. He barely speaks at the cocktail party in episode 14, communicating through his defiant version of Mozart instead. In the scene that follows, when he refuses a kiss from Hye-Won, he addresses her as “a pitiful woman.” And in episode 15, he teasingly calls her “his girl” (kijibe, scientifically proven to be one of the cutest words in the Korean language).
At the very end of the series, his language becomes yet more intimate. In the final voiceover, Seon-Jae shifts to calling Hye-Won “you” (tangshin). The Viki subtitlers translate it as “dear,” to convey the full emotional impact of this pronoun. This older, wiser Seon-Jae now addresses Hye-Won as an equal, rather than a goddess.
What can we conclude?
If this was a real-life story, the newspaper headlines would say Hye-Won crossed a line we shouldn’t cross. Most educators would condemn her.
But the detailed account we see is more nuanced. Like Seon-Jae’s version of “Twinkle, Twinkle” that defies its lullaby origins, these characters don’t fit comfortably into roles like “teacher” and “student.” Seon-Jae was looking for a teacher who would change his life in every way, and he found her. His brashness and confidence are part of this story, too. (And Yoo Ah-In’s performance goes a long way towards making this character believable.)
Also part of the story is that none of the relationships in this series are between equals. Inequality defines Madame Han’s marriage, Chairman Seo’s affair with the waitress, and Young-Woo’s affairs with young models.
Hye-Won and Seon-Jae start out unequal as well, but finish as something else entirely, and without hurting each other any more than lovers usually do. It’s hard to argue the world would be better off if they’d avoided each other.
That’s what makes this a compelling story. Every interaction between human beings is a “boundary crossing.” Hye-Won and Seon-Jae cross a bigger boundary than most, and perhaps they should have kept their distance. But Secret Love Affair argues that there’s something even more important than keeping our distance, and that’s learning how to be close. ♥
I sound sure of myself here, but from an educator’s viewpoint, I wonder if I should be harder on these characters. Or do I think, there but for the grace of God go I? This show really messes with my mind. Please tell me what you think!