I hate to say it, but I’m ready for this cycle’s dramas to end.
My first experiment in watching two currently airing shows has been something of a failure: there’s always something new to distract my attention, so I don’t really think about the dramas as much as I do when I have to wait a full week for episodes. The shows I’m watching are also part of the problem: They’re fine, but neither has really run away with my heart and soul. I Need Romance 3 is turning out to be just another cookie-cutter love triangle drama with little of the quirky charm of earlier installments in the series. And while My Love from Another Star is glossy, fluffy fun, it’s a little too slick for my taste.
Next time around, I’m only going to watch one new show—jTBC’s romantic melo Secret Love Affair, the story of a worldly, married woman who’s embroiled in a steamy romance with a much younger man.
I’m a lover of Kdrama’s patented noona romances, which means this show pretty much had me at hello. The finest examples of this species—as embodied by What’s Up, Fox and I Do, I Do—twist the power dynamics between their leads. In the patriarchal world of Korean dramas, women are often at a disadvantage in their relationships. They’re the followers, not the leaders. But add into this equation an age difference, and things change—thanks to the traditional hierarchy of Korean society, the female lead is suddenly the one with the power, both in her romance and her already established, grown-up life. Instead of being a wide-eyed innocent who’s easily manipulated, a noona in love can be a person of power.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. Many of today’s noona romances find a way to hamstring their female leads, handing the power right back to their love interests. I Need Romance 3 is a perfect example: in the beginning, Joo Yun seemed to have her shit together. She lived on her own and was devoted to her successful career at a home-shopping network. But as soon as family friend Joo Won appeared, all this competency was revealed to be a lie. Of course Joo Yun is actually fragile and frigid, having hidden away her woman’s heart in favor of professional success and a series of casual romances. After an initial kerfuffle involving Joo Won’s identity, he steps into Joo Yun’s life as the stable, nurturing grownup the show is convinced she has needed all along. He makes her healthy meals and acts as her tour guide to the world emotion. Although it’s not without its pleasures, that’s no noona romance.
Secret Love Affair, on the other hand, promises to be a noona romance on steroids. In fact, it might actually be an ajumma romance—its female lead is twenty years older than her love interest, and she’s a professional success, acting as director of an arts center. It’s hard to believe that she won’t have the upper hand in the show’s romance, especially because her male lead sounds like a lost boy. He’s a twenty-something pianist who’s unsure of his abilities in spite of the genius other people hear in his music. Played by the dreamy, bedroom-eyed Yoo Ah In, it’s not hard to imagine why she would fall in love with him.
And then there’s the poster. Take a look at that baby—it’s burnished and glorious and sexy as hell. (According to Soompi, the caption reads “My heart races. A bad feeling.”) What makes this poster special is its orientation: It very carefully presents its lead couple at an unexpected angle, twisting a landscape image to run in portrait orientation. And because of this twist, Kim Hee Ah is firmly on top. She looks down on her male lead from on high, drawing him upward toward her. Captured in the aching instant just before a kiss, Yoo Ah In’s puppyish expression of longing is a perfect contrast to the sharply defined lines and planes of her upturned face. She drapes one arm casually across his shoulder and pulls him close with her other hand. While most Kdrama hugs are dominated by their men, in this image the male lead’s arms aren’t even visible. He is fully enclosed within her embrace, clearly the recipient of the hug rather than its giver. The ultimate coded symbol of her dominance, though, is that her eyes are still half open, while his are almost fully closed.
Even more than its topic, this show’s pedigree is what has me looking forward to it. Secret Love Affair is written and directed by the team behind the mature, layered 2012 drama A Wife’s Credentials. That show’s lack of youthful star power and hard-to-find subtitles ensured that it didn’t make much of a splash in the international community, but it was truly wonderful. It detailed the life of an unhappily married woman, exploring her loneliness and longing for connection. She eventually finds a new love and embarks on a (well-mannered) affair, all the while grappling with the very real pain of tearing her family apart for her own happiness. A Wife’s Credentials includes none of the cheesy overacting or melodramatic plot twists that are so common in Korean dramas—instead, it feels like a gritty indie film. It isn’t set in the perfect Disney World of dramaland, but exists in the real world, flawed and grimy as it may be.
Although it’s not referenced in any of the current articles about this show, there has been some speculation online that it’s related to Tokyo Tower, a similarly themed Japanese movie that was based on a novel. Dramabeans actually reported way back in 2009 that SLA’s PD, Ahn Pan Seok, had bought the rights to Tokyo Tower, although at that point two other actors were attached. It’s possible that the project just sat on the shelf until now. The story lines certainly are similar: both feature younger men in relationships with older, married women.
Tokyo Tower focuses on the long-running romance between Toru Kojima and Shifumi, a friend of his mother’s. The characters and tone seem like a great fit for Secret Love Affair—the movie is gorgeous and cosmopolitan, just as I would expect from the makers of A Wife’s Credentials. Toru is a sensitive soul prone to crying at piano recitals, and his love is intense and unwavering. His feelings for Shifumi define him; she’s everything he cares about. In spite of their age difference, in spite of her husband, he genuinely wants to marry her. Shifumi, on the other hand, seems to be less involved. She obviously cares for Toru and enjoys being with him, but throughout the movie there’s always the nagging possibility that she might just be using him for his body.
Most of their story doesn’t seem well-suited to a Korean drama. They’re introduced three years into their relationship, with the business of getting together already in the distant past. Even more un-Kdrama-y, though, is the fact that the movie Tokyo Tower is told very much from the perspective of its male lead. Shifumi is an object he wants to possess, and we barely catch a glimpse of her life independent of him. I can’t imagine a Korean drama being so boy-centered or overlooking the rich narrative possibilities of their first meeting and the beginning of their relationship. Part of Tokyo Tower’s suspense arises from Shifumi’s ambiguity, but that also means the movie never really explores her motivations. What makes a married woman stray, especially with a man young enough to be her son? I hope that this will be the real meat of the drama, even if it was barely addressed in the movie.
Tokyo Tower also involves a parallel romance that doesn’t seem to be included in the Secret Love Affair: Toru’s friend follows his lead, beginning a romance with another older woman. She’s more of a character than cardboard cut-out Shifumi, and her lack of satisfaction with her life is just as detailed as her voyage to Cougar Town. She’s also a bit crazy, rear-ending the her boy’s car just for the joy of it after they’ve broken up.
I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the movie. Its narrative was choppy and disjointed, and it lacked anything like a fully imagined world. This might be a side effect of being condensed from a novel, but the ultimate result was a movie that overlooked the humanity of its characters in the interest of cramming in as many eventful scenes as possible. Its filming style is self-consciously arty, with lots of dreamy shots of Tokyo Tower hovering the the distance. Its dialogue—no matter how prosaic—is always delivered as if it offers profound, philosophical insight into the human condition.
This show will air on the cable channel jTBC starting on March 17th. Although jTBC is notoriously unpredictable when it comes to its shows being picked up by subbers, Secret Love Affair appears on Dramafever’s coming soon page.
See you there!