“Secret Love Affair”: The Bit with Spoilers (Pt. 1 of 2)

First things first: I figured out it was reader Rouny who recommended Secret Love Affair, back in the September favorites thread. Thank you, Rouny! I’m excited to have any readers at all. And I’m extra lucky to have readers I can learn from and discuss with. In fact, that discussion thread added a few new shows to my list, and made me feel even more urgency to watch the ones already on the list. Will there ever be enough time?

This is a two-parter. I get even more prolific when I’m not trying to avoid spoilers! A bunch of things about Secret Love Affair are running around in my brain, but I’ll try to stick to two: 1) the ending and 2) the ethics of the teacher/student relationship.

The Ending

Now for the big spoiler: the ending. Leave now if you don’t want to know! Or go back and read my original no-spoiler review.

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The ending surprised me. It’s the perfect ending, something we don’t come across often in K-dramas.

This show has a sense of impending tragedy from the start, because it concerns adultery, which thou shalt not portray in a positive light on Korean television (or that of most countries). So it’s a shock that it ends on an optimistic note, with Hye-Won keeping Seon-Jae’s love and her own self-respect, and helping the law by turning state’s evidence against the Seo family. She’s divorcing and going to jail—not a typical “happy ending”—but she’s free of her “elegant” bondage to the upper class.

How does this happen? And why does this ending feel so right?

The show shifts emphasis subtly over the course of 16 episodes. At first, we expect the thing that destroys Oh Hye-Won to be the affair. The Korean title Milhwe, like the English word “affair,” suggests something clandestine and fleeting—a fling that’s broken off when society finds out. I expected Oh Hye-Won’s downfall to occur when she and Seon-Jae are exposed.

But halfway through the series, the emphasis shifts from the individual-versus-society plot-line surrounding the affair to a more intimate story: Hye-Won versus Seon-Jae, Hye-Won versus her own ideals. It turns out most of the people around her have already guessed how she feels about Seon Jae. (In fact, Madame Han has been subtly encouraging the affair.) It’s a scandal, but it makes less of a difference than we expected.

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Instead, Hye-Won’s own choices will determine the finale. Does she want to follow music for its own sake, with an uncertain future, or keep fighting an indifferent upper class for respect and economic security?

Nowhere on the horizon in episode one did I see the possibility of this show ending up with Hye-Won in jail. Aren’t K-drama heroines supposed to start the series in jail, then work their way up to being elegant career woman by the end of the series? Secret Love Affair delivers the reverse.

Her choice is partly a Pyrrhic victory over Chairman Seo and Managing Director Kim. But more than that, she’s rejecting materialism for a life devoted to art.

If Redemption through Art sounds like an ambitious theme, we can thank the idealistic Seon-Jae. He would rather live in a simple apartment and work as a quick delivery driver than give up his dignity. He’s a modern version of the artist in the garret, that hero of Romantic art and literature who accepts economic uncertainty to pursue a passion for creating something beautiful.

(Because Secret Love Affair is so rich with Romantic references and themes, I feel compelled at this point to include an 1839 painting titled “The Poor Poet,” depicting a stereotypical nineteenth-century garret. Lee Seon-Jae’s upstairs apartment, with its small windows and neat stacks of musical scores, is visually an echo of these quintessential artist hideouts, though the true socio-economic equivalent of the garret in Seoul today is probably the windowless hostel room.)

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The last-minute transformation is a relief, because I expected a tragedy. Hye-Won’s impressive return to power in episode 15 shows she’s still capable of masterful political moves. Kim Hee-Ae gives Hye-Won such a polished public face that it’s hard to know what she’s thinking, but it looks like part of her is thrilled to be back in the game. As episode 16 starts, it’s possible Hye-Won will choose to continue striving for promotion at the Arts Center.

The only compelling reason for her to go to the Prosecutors’ Office is because she’s losing Seon-Jae’s respect—and possibly her own.

If Hye-Won continues working for the Seos, this will complete Seon-Jae’s disillusionment and drive him away. Losing him would serve as Hye-Won’s “punishment” for adultery, if the writer and director were inclined to go the traditional route. But instead, they portray adultery as a minor sin next to corporate corruption. The crimes that Hye-Won has to atone for are her economic crimes, not her betrayal of Professor Kang.

The pivot point where the story shifts from “will they get caught?” to “will they stay together?” is the dramatic sequence halfway through episode 10. Hye-Won’s husband searches for the couple as they’re wrapped together backstage. It looks like Professor Kang will find them at exactly the wrong moment.

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But then something unexpected happens: the text message from Young-Woo. When Professor Kang calls out to Hye-Won in the darkened theater to tell her the prosecutors have arrived in Hannam-dong, the ground shifts. The real obstacle to Seon-Jae and Hye-Won’s relationship isn’t her husband—it’s the prosecutors. It’s Hye-Won’s life of casual white-collar crime. They’re caught in flagrante delicto by Hye-Won’s job.

In the next few episodes, a bit of suspense arises from the question of what happens to the Seo family accounts. But more suspense comes from Seon-Jae’s disappointment in Hye-Won.

It’s at this moment in the story that viewers unfamiliar with Korea might feel like they’re missing something. Secret Love Affair doesn’t take us through the prosecutors’ investigation step by step. It counts on viewers to know the general gist of how these things go, and focuses instead on the romance.

But the general gist in the background is important to understanding Hye-Won’s options. Knowing a few small things might help viewers new to Korean economic scandals.

First, the big photo opportunity of a corporate scandal is when the CEO makes a trip to the hospital and claims poor health so he can avoid appearing in court. Secret Love Affair shows Chairman Seo getting ready to go out in his pajamas and hygenic face mask, merely implying the typical scene where he claims illness.

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Also left mostly implied at first is that Hye-Won, as the family’s money manager, is duty-bound to take the blame. If she takes responsibility and goes to jail, the investigation will end and the Seos will keep their secrets. She can later return to her position working for them and expect compensation for her trouble. (Yes, this is basically the rich paying people to go to prison for them. I suspect it happens everywhere in one form or another.)

But Secret Love Affair doesn’t mention prison out loud at first. In fact, it’s episode 14 before Hye-Won’s husband explodes at her to “go in there right now!”, referring to jail. The screenplay’s only concession to explicit narrative is Dean Min, who occasionally spells things out to Professor Kang, and even Dean Min speaks in coded language. The careful silence makes the pressure on Hye-Won feel all the greater if you’re familiar with this kind of narrative, however.

A third and most important example of keeping things implicit is the matter of Madame Han’s secret stock purchases. The series just hints at what she’s up to.

But we can guess at some of the details, if Madame Han is a typical K-drama second wife. This is how I read her situation:

Madame Han has raided the Arts Foundation endowment for some money to invest on her own account. She seems to be investing some of it in futures, thanks to the “fortuneteller” Mrs. Baek (who I suspect is involved in some kind of insider trading).

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Madame Han is also secretly buying up stock in the Seo conglomerate, to fortify her position in the family. She particularly wants to strengthen herself against Young-Woo—Chairman Seo’s only other close family member—who presumably sits on a nice nest egg. But Madame Han can’t buy stock openly because that would expose her to government regulations (which limit family holdings) and, of course, taxes.

Thus Hye-Won’s most important job for Madame Han appears to be managing Madame Han’s “borrowed-name” stock holdings. “Borrowing” a name is a common way of bending the law in South Korea, and allows Madame Han to avoid taxes and corporate accountability. We can safely assume that a number of stocks are owned in Hye-Won’s name. Madame Han’s holdings also include accounts under the names of Hye-Won’s parents.

The person who manages your borrowed-name accounts has to be someone you trust. On paper those assets belong to Hye-Won and her parents. And Madame Han isn’t the only Seo family member counting on Hye-Won for this kind of loyalty. Hye-Won’s father is in fact the majority shareholder of Chairman Seo’s company in Singapore, though her father probably doesn’t know it.

Hence the power Hye-Won wields in the final episodes. She not only “guards the safe” for Madame Han, but watches over Young-Woo’s slush fund and Chairman Seo’s holdings in Singapore. Managing Director Kim is looking to edge Hye-Won out, but he can’t as long as she holds these accounts and the information on them.

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(Disclaimer: At this point, I should admit some of this is conjecture based on watching Heirs and reading the occasional Economist, two things you don’t often see in the same sentence, so I welcome alternate theories.)

In Heirs, Secretary Yoon (Choi Won-Young) guards the chairman father’s secret holdings; his cooperation is essential to keeping Kim Won (Choi Jin-Hyuk) in power during the corporate governance showdown at the end. It’s an odd power dynamic, in which the servant holds unusual power. Some interesting negotiations play out as Kim Won tries to get Secretary Yoon’s support and Yoon tries not to pick sides between Kim Won and his father.

We see a similar dynamic in Secret Love Affair. Madame Han and Young-Woo both court Hye-Won, while on the surface Hye-Won works for Chairman Seo and the Arts Center. Hye-Won calls herself a “triple agent,” playing the three off each other to remain indispensable.

But everything changes when Young-Woo’s husband, Managing Director Kim, gets back from visiting his art student girlfriend in Europe. He and his father want more power in the Seo family, and that means pushing Hye-Won out.

And here’s something that fascinates me: Hye-Won’s affair with Seon-Jae makes no difference to her fight with the Seos. As Managing Director Kim points out, the Seo family can’t cast stones in that direction. Everyone knows his wife Young-Woo is carrying on an affair with a much-younger model from the host club she frequents.

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Instead, the reason Chairman Seo takes power away from Hye-Won and turns the reins over to Managing Director Kim is because of Young-Woo’s affair. The Chairman says to Hye-Won that everything could have continued on as it was, if only Kim wasn’t threatening to divorce Young-Woo. Young-Woo’s affair has given him the ammunition he needs to extract concessions from Seo.

“You’re lucky you don’t have children,” the Chairman says to Hye-Won, as he reluctantly agrees to give more power to Kim. Because of his insider connections with the Prosecutors’ office (I suspect), Kim is too valuable for the Chairman to lose.

Hye-Won’s downfall in episode 14 doesn’t occur because she made a tactical error, nor because of her surprising choice of boyfriend. It occurs because Young-Woo’s affair changes the balance of power. In a big picture sense, Young-Woo gets away with infidelity, and Hye-Won pays the price, though she did everything “right.” Because she’s an outsider, she’s expendable, even after her return to power in episode 15.

Her cellmates in prison believe the reason she had to betray her boss was because she was caught with Seon-Jae. But they’re wrong. She chose to betray the Chairman because the fight really was never-ending.

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The fact that the screenplay doesn’t spell this stuff out testifies to the idea that “the power you can’t see is the most frightening,” as Seon-Jae’s friend Da-Mi says. It’s telling that we only glimpse Kim’s father once, in episode 11, as an anonymous grey-haired figure. He seems to have an important role in guiding Managing Director Kim’s tactics, but he remains a mystery. (The Kim family doesn’t even make it onto the official “correlations chart” accompanying the series.)

Not spelling this stuff out also illustrates that this white-collar crime is business as usual. Besides occasionally showing Madame Han the balance sheet, Hye-Won doesn’t have to make much effort. She doesn’t appear to be taking risks. As far as she and the Seos are concerned, there’s no subject for a story here.

Instead, the screenplay shows us something that does seem noteworthy in her corner of high society: Hye-Won being kind to people. She’s gracious to Da-Mi at the hair salon. She tips her substitute driver well and eats lunch with her secretary. Except for the embezzlement, tax fraud, etc., she’s a good person. Day to day, she treats people much better than the impulsive Seo Young-Woo does.

Hye-Won is morally responsible for her crimes, but we can also see that the larger society around her encourages and facilitates corporate corruption. Everyone in the Seo family probably deserves jail time. But only the two relative outsiders, Hye-Won and Madame Han, go to jail. They’re part of a bigger system, in which “money is at the top,” as Hye-Won tells Seon-Jae in episode 8.

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Instead of using up screen time making this stuff explicit, Secret Love Affair focuses on Seon-Jae and Hye-Won’s relationship, which makes the costs of Hye-Won’s crimes feel more real.

Seon-Jae grows up fast during this third act. Early in the series, he adores Hye-Won in a way we can only experience once per lifetime, with that overwhelming passion of a first love affair. For him this isn’t a passing fancy but Forever. But in episode 10 he starts to learn more about Hye-Won, and he realizes his love, which he thought was unconditional, has limits.

Every time they meet during the final episodes, Seon-Jae urges Hye-Won to distance herself from the Seos. Seon-Jae even verges on an ultimatum when he meets Hye-Won at the pottery studio, telling her she’ll have to live the next 60 years of her life without love if she continues trying to outwit the Chairman.

He delivers an intense musical ultimatum, too, at the climax of the painful episode 14 party.

Seon-Jae is in agony seeing Hye-Won’s unconvincing attempts to play along with her husband. Then the drunken Professor Kang calls on “his protege” Seon-Jae to perform for the group. Seon-Jae takes the cheerful Mozart Variations that Min-Woo has been playing, and delivers his own defiant version, far more complex than what Min-Woo was playing—essentially, a musical “f— you.”

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This scene is worth watching even if you never watch the series: Seon-Jae turns “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” into something by turns passionate, majestic, sensuous, raucous and finally, mournful. (The scene starts with Min-Woo’s version at 15:00 in episode 14 and lasts a luxurious five minutes. I would love to know who composed this piece.) It’s an eloquent example of how music can communicate emotions we don’t have words for, a lament for his lost feelings of trust in Hye-Won.

Seon-Jae is naive in that he doesn’t understand how thoroughly Hye-Won’s life is entertwined with the Seo family. And his imploring her to change her life radically might be annoying if the show drew a crude contrast between his free spirit and Hye-Won’s materialism. Film and television sometimes make the mistake of portraying a strong career woman as in need of a spiritual and emotional makeover. Having a sensitive guy show up and talk about how there’s more to life is bordering on the offensive, if it’s a way of condescending to a powerful, professional woman.

But Seon-Jae’s reminding her of things she already believes. When she masquerades as an unemployed 25-year-old grad student in episode 1, she urges Seon-Jae to disregard “specs” (degrees, etc.) and focus on enjoying music. It’s when he repeats her words back to her (quoting the anonymous internet hyung) that she decides to move forward in their relationship. She knows she’s with Seon-Jae because at some level she values music more than her own status.

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Her gift of Sviatoslav Richter’s Notebooks also reflects her love for music for music’s sake. Richter was possibly the greatest pianist of the twentieth century. Late in his career, he really did spend six months traveling around Siberia with his piano on the back of a truck, playing in small rural towns. He was, like many artists, famously unconcerned with managing his career.

But leaving her position with the Seo family means giving up her job, material luxuries (most of which she doesn’t own outright), and the only employer she’s ever had. I don’t blame her in these episodes for being drawn back into her familiar world. After 20 years of serving the Chairman, the uncertainty of life on the outside is excruciating. Watching her struggle is one of Seon-Jae’s painful “life lessons.”

At the police station in episode 15, we have a snapshot of a relationship that could go either way. There’s a beautiful dignity in the way these unconventional lovers turn an embarrassing situation into an opportunity to go public, with Hye-Won’s calm divorce announcement and a long embrace. (Give that man the Best Hug Baeksang already!)

But whereas Seon-Jae embraces Hye-Won spontaneously, out of caring and relief, Hye-Won is already thinking about how the gesture looks to their audience and strategizing her next move. Seon-Jae says it’s as if she’s “bewitched” by her fight against the Seos.

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The distance between them has grown in episode 16. Early in the episode, Seon-Jae and Hye-Won have a curt encounter outside his apartment. He’s slightly sarcastic, and she knows he’s disappointed with her but leaves without confronting him. We sense it might be too late to earn back his respect.

And so the beauty of allowing the story to end this way. Hye-Won does realize what’s at stake—will she be the admirable woman Seon-Jae first thought he fell for, even if it means going to jail and potentially losing him? When she visits Seon-Jae at home for the last time, she appears to understand their relationship might be ending. She’s not only heading to prison, she’s the woman who disillusioned Seon-Jae about the imperfections inherent in the people we love. Can he get over it?

The simple dialogue and gestures that follow are full of emotional complexity. Seon-Jae hesitates, and doesn’t seem to know whether to invite Hye-Won in. He doesn’t have anything comforting to say when she tells him her decision. For a long moment, we don’t know if everything’s going to be okay. It feels like we’ve achieved something hopeful for humanity when Seon-Jae says “remember this with flesh.” (Like Hye-Won, I’m amazed at Seon-Jae’s ability to pull off lines like that.)

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After a certain amount of ominous foreshadowing, I was kinda stunned by this ending. Nobody died! The lovers are still talking to each other!

And the last scene between Seon-Jae and Hye-Won shows they still love each other, though they seem to recognize how uncertain the future is. There’s a slight bittersweet note in the ending—just enough to give me the feeling these are real people who once had real lives, somewhere.

The important thing isn’t where they end up when she gets out of jail, or whether they stay together for one year, or ten, or sixty. This isn’t a drama that skips to “two years later” to reassure us that everything will be okay forever and ever.

Instead, what’s important in the closing scenes is how they’ve changed each other. When Da Mi asks “how often do you meet someone who changes you?”, she could be talking about Seon-Jae and Hye-Won. I get a profound feeling at the end, the sense of how rich human relationships are, of how much we learn from each other. A sense that the characters are more alive than they were before they met.

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Music is why Hye-Won and Seon-Jae fall in love in the first place, and the thing that connects them. So it’s appropriate that although we’re ending in the place most dramas begin—with our lovers separated by prison walls—the final scene points to music as a consolation. Seon-Jae writes to Hye-Won about how he plays Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor for her every day.

“This is the secret of Mozart: Calmly look at life. Look deeply into it, and try loving it. That’s what the rondo whispers. Ah, you don’t ‘play’ this piece, you ‘touch’ it! There are about 2770 notes, and I guess around 500 chords. That’s how I touch you every day, always.”

The last lines and images elucidate an understated theme throughout Secret Love Affair: the idea that beauty and connection are where you look for them. It’s an echo of the odd and beautiful sex scene in episode 8, which combines quiet dialogue with still images of the everyday objects in Seon-Jae’s apartment. There’s something decent and real in this apartment and this relationship, something the Seo family can’t buy.

It’s a good ending.♥

Pt. 2 of 2 still to come, regarding the taboo relationship, educational ethics, and maybe some sex.

15 thoughts on ““Secret Love Affair”: The Bit with Spoilers (Pt. 1 of 2)

  1. Lovely and illuminating analysis Odessa. I’m so glad I was able to recommend this drama to you and that you enjoyed it so much. If Secret Love Affair were a movie, I’d imagine it being nominated for the big awards—it’s so artistically crafted and loaded with meaning, while also managing to be sweepingly romantic in its own understated way and genuinely heartfelt. Like you, I felt that it was much more than a story about adultery; adultery was just the springboard for the daunting inner struggle between idealism and ambition, integrity and corruption, external appearances and inner peace. Everything about this drama is so beautifully done: the lovely beyond words score, especially the piano pieces; the art-house look of the drama, where everything is sepia-toned and sensual; the acting, both leads are phenomenal; the intelligent and thought-provoking writing; and the story, which is passionate, tension-filled, and unexpectedly sweet. I also really admired the camera work in this drama–how there are always objects obstructing our view of the characters, conveying a voyeuristic feel, and how everything is dark and tainted, which contrasts thematically with the moments of redemption (usually in the daylight or overlooking beautiful green vistas). It’s such a studied approach, and it’s thematically cohesive with the nature of their relationship and the nature of their emotional journey—moving away from an almost claustrophobic and forbidden relationship to something more harmonious and open-natured. For example, when Hye Won savors the tea and tells Sun Jae she intends to remember this moment with tea, with taste, but he pulls her into his arms and tells her to remember it with flesh, with touch … (which, *thunk*) … and the camera no longer hides their kisses (which was endlessly frustrating at the beginning; the way the director intentionally obscured their kisses) and we see them naked in each other’s arms for the first time. I also love the closing image of the empty apartment: it’s an analogy to the cheap instrument that Professor Jo described in the email he read aloud to the quintet, “no matter how cheap the instrument is, it can express your feelings and contain them.” The empty apartment is like an instrument waiting to be played, echoing the beautiful music created by the love Hye Won and Sun Jae feel for each other (or it could just be an empty apartment and I’m overthinking the whole thing). My favorite aspect of the drama is just what you described in your analysis—the beautiful irony of the fact that while Sung-Sook and Professor Kang hoped to use Hye Won’s secret love affair as a weakness, to corrupt and manipulate her, it actually became a source of strength, purifying and redeeming her. The secret love affair was actually not sordid at all; it was everything else in Hye Won’s life that was, and Sun Jae made her realize this.

    And I loved the ending. It really was perfect.

    P.S. You should watch Thank You (2007), I think you’ll like it.

    • Thanks again, Rouny, for getting me to watch this one! I’m going to watch “Thank You” on your recommendation–I’ve had qualms about it, despite being a huge Kong Hyo-Jin fan, but clearly we have overlapping taste and I will give it a try. I love the things you mention. I hadn’t thought about the way the different senses come into it, like in that ep 16 scene. One thing I particularly love that I haven’t written about is the way the camera work is always obscuring things (and yes, even the kisses): it’s mysterious, beautiful, strange. There’s so much to say about this show that it’s hard to stop writing, as you can tell from how long (overly long I suspect) this post was.

      And this show has gotten me listening to the good turn-of-the-century orchestral music again, which I hadn’t listened to in ages. So much beautiful, moving stuff.

      • I also have to thank Rouny for the suggestion of Secret Love Affair. It is absolutely divine. Spurred on by these two articles I have of course been rewatching bits and pieces. Thi has stirred everything up in my head again and I probably best let it settle again before commenting or I might use up all of the available space on the server.

        I can second the suggestion to watch Thank You. I also quite like the actress and chose to watch Masters Sun, Thank You, and Biscuit Teach and Star Candy. Of the three Thank You was by far the best although I wanted to his her character with a stick almost all of the way through. I will be interested to hear what you think of it. Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy was another archaeological project taken on despite the subject matter out of interest in the actors. I would not recommend it. Sufficeth to say both her and Gong Yoo can act. But one nugget that came back to me while thinking about Secret Love Affair is the issue of teacher-student love affairs. It is made quite clear that such things are not okay with at least the powers that be. Sadly the show seems to be saying it does not matter. But that at least some parts of Korean society view that as unacceptable makes the bravery of SLA even greater in my mind.

        • I really ought to proofread my own stuff before posting.
          1) hit* her with a stick
          2) It is made quite clear that such things are not ok … (references BTASK not SLA)

          sigh

        • You’re welcome Erin. I have to admit, I ended up loving BTSC, despite all its flaws and despite my qualms about the ethics and legality and general moral ick-factor of student-teacher relationships. I know this is off-topic, but I’m going to go on a tangent here about this specific sub-genre of noon romance. For one reason or another, I’ve watched quite a few of these already—BTSC, Majo no Jouken, King of High School Savvy (though she wasn’t his teacher), Flower Boy Ramen Shop, I Hear Your Voice (again, not his teacher), and Unstoppable High Kick (just finished this one)—but the only one that really made my hackles and gorge rise was Majo No Jouken, precisely because they didn’t attempt to disguise the fact that this was a relationship between a teenage boy and a mature older woman; the male protagonist barely looks like he’s hit puberty, so as viewers we can’t romanticize the relationship the way we would tend to do if it was Gong Yoo, Seo In Guk, or any other actor in their 20s playing the role of a student. I know, these are murky waters; regardless of how mature the actor looks or how old the actual age of the actor is, we shouldn’t just shelve our moral and ethical concerns about something that in most parts of the world would be considered illegal, and rightfully so. Still, I tend to get pulled along by the narrative into rooting for a relationship that I’d probably frown upon in real life because … and here I’m using Odessa’s lexicon … these dramas aren’t crafted as naturalistic stories, we’re being groomed to respond at the level of feeling .. not fact. In real life, arrogant chaebols are irredeemable jerks, bad boys on motorbikes are nothing but trouble and probably have bad hygiene, and high school students are just pimply faced walking hormones with attitude—but we’re not wearing that lens when we watch Kdramas, so we buy into the fantasy and get swept along with the feels and shelve our moral quandaries for another day and another type of show. At least I do … so, my bad ; )

        • “Bad boys on motorbikes are nothing but trouble and probably have bad hygiene.” I am laughing out loud. It’s true that it isn’t supposed to be life. Plus Korea is far away from me–I might have a very different reaction if these stories were set closer to home.

          Have you guys read the 2012 Drama Beans thread about the cradle-robbing teachers sub-sub-genre? The most interesting thing is the wide range of reactions. People bring up some smart things in the comments. One of the funniest things is that a few readers say, “This noona romance thing has been done to death, there’s no way they can make any more of these.” And this was BEFORE I Hear Your Voice, King of High School Savvy and Witch’s Romance. K-drama producers never let a good idea go. I think you’re right, Rouny, about the choice of actors making a huge difference. Interestingly, with Secret Love Affair, even though Yoo Ah In is 27 or 28, Kim Hee Ae is still 20 years older than him. I appreciate that they didn’t try to make their crazy story look less crazy with deceptive casting. In rewatching (to write pt. 2 of course!) I’m amazed at how barely okay the SLA relationship is.

        • According to Dramabeans, there’s a new drama coming out called Madame Antoine that includes a romance with a 33-year age gap between the second leads! That takes noona to a whole new level (I dub thee a halmoni romance). Not quite Harold and Maude, but getting there. So SLA is quite tame by comparison. Again, I think it’s the brilliant casting; Kim Hee-ae has this ageless elegance and refined beauty, while Yoo Ah-in has a magnetic intensity and weirdly appropriate combination of youthful exuberance and commanding self-confidence. Plus, they have amazing chemistry together, which is drama gold.

          I did read that thread on cradle-robbing teachers a while back, Odessa, and really enjoyed it. Like Javabeans, noona romances tend to be my Kdrama “kryptonite” too, so I picked up a few suggestions from that thread. Most recently, Unstoppable High Kick, which I just finished and really enjoyed. It’s a multigenerational family drama that’s 167 episodes long (each about 30-min), and watching it seemed inconceivable at first (I just don’t like family dramas/sitcoms or anything really that lasts beyond 24 episodes), but that thread made the noona romance sound irresistible, so I took the bait, and ended up loving it. I blame Jung Il Woo, who was fantastic in the role of erstwhile noona killer—his character was mischievous, brooding, badass, childish, mature, tender, earnest, misunderstood, and foolish all rolled into one. It’s not for everyone though, fast forward you must young Padawan, especially since a lot of the humor was crude and the storylines of the older family members were too repetitive. If anyone ever wants a list of episodes to watch, just the episodes that focus on the key storylines or that are really funny (about 50 or so), then I’m ready to aid and assist.

          Erin, regarding Thank You, I agree that the heroine was annoyingly bull-headed about things, but I eventually admired her obstinate humility, and I understood what was driving her. This drama really lingered in my thoughts, and I was genuinely moved by it, kind of like the gentle hum of the theme song. Also, I adored the grandfather, and the little girl was sunshine personified. As for the leads, Kong Hyo-jin was excellent as always, and Jang Hyuk was mesmerizing in a raw and intense way, often unsympathetic but completely compelling. I have mixed feelings about the ending though, but not enough to tip the balance.

        • Darn, darn, darn! I almost missed this story, but now that I know, I’m going to want to watch Madame Antoine out of sheer curiosity. I’ve gone pretty “blah” on Sung Joon in the past year, since his recent roles made it clear he has a limited range. So I thought I could skip Mme Antoine. Now I have another thing on my list! I mean, how can I resist at least checking out a “halmoni romance”?

          Noona romances don’t always work for me, but I always want to watch them. (So I guess that’s a form of kryptonite.) I’m always curious how the writers will use the unconventional set-up to reimagine relationships and gender roles. Even so, I will never make it through the lengthy Unstoppable High Kick, so when I have time, I’ll have to ask for your recommendation on key episodes!

  2. I stumble upon this series in Netflix and loved every minute of it! Its amazing how korean dramas ( this is my first) are so different to latin Telenovelas.. not only in the content but the production. Im hooked!

  3. Not quite a spoiler, more a casual hint of what’s to come, perhaps – episode 12, Seonjae to Hye-won, “are you ready yet?” A reluctant Hye-won joins him on the couch – it’s a tense scene – and immediately I thought of the Maid of Orleans – her costume an up-to-date version of sackcloth and ashes, rope tied at the waist. Ominous enough – what is going to happen here? or not here, in the future?? gripping stuff.

    One more thing so impressed me – how a 28 year old played a 20 year old. eons apart in reality – very tricky – beautifully mastered! (I only saw the actor’s age “after” watching the series).

    I never doubted for a minute these two were not playing the piano – and thought, at first, they were at least grade 10 piano grads who also, remarkably, could act! But I’m a long way away and know next to nothing of Korean entertainment culture or names of stars. Now I look for everything Korean on Netflix – totally hooked!

    • Ooo, well put! I’m so glad you discovered Korean stuff. It can be really riveting when it’s good–and SLA is among the very, very best. I hope you aren’t disappointed by everything you see after it! If you get tired of the Netflix collection (they rotate their stuff so that will probably take awhile, but they don’t have everything), there’s other good things on Hulu, Dramafever or Viki. My other favorite “musical” K-drama is probably “Shut Up Flower Boy Band.” It’s totally different in tone from SLA–it’s about a teen rock band–but still concerns how music brings joy and emotional healing.

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