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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.