Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An open letter to the creators of Secret Love Affair

Dear creators of Secret Love Affair:

How dare you?

As of this writing on Saturday morning, your show is more than 48 hours from premiering in Korea, and subtitles probably won't be available for more like 72 hours. And yet, you’ve already driven me to the brink of obsession.

First there were the posters, which were burnished and glorious. Then there was the 30-second teaser, which was dramatic and sexy. And then you killed me dead with the 22-minute preview. At first I swore I wouldn’t watch it, not wanting to spoil the Christmas-morning experience of seeing the drama’s first episode. But of course I gave in, and of course now I can’t keep myself from hitting play again and again. 

The preview is intense and sexy, piano porn complete with a healthy dose of human erotica. Everything about it is perfect—from Yoo In Ah’s awkwardness to the way the leads’ faces reflect in the piano’s polished surface to the intimate, bedside glow of the lighting.

Having watched the two recent dramas you collaborated on, I expect great things of you. A Wife’s Credentials was a moving look at the end of a marriage and the beginning of a woman, while The End of the World was a terrifying thriller about our never-ending battle against mother nature and human nature. Your work has an indie-movie verisimilitude, and your lead characters feel like fully fleshed people, not Kdrama archetypes. They’re textured and deep, always in possession of both flaws and graces.

So when I heard about Secret Love Affair, I was excited. But that’s nothing compared to sheer elation I experienced when I realized what the drama would be about—a forbidden love between a middle-aged woman and a much younger man. New revelations have hinted that his character will be a Good Will Hunting-style working-class prodigy, and that she’ll help him uncover his genius for music. As they say on Tumblr, my body is ready.

(A website called their expressions in these pictures “sad.” I guess that’s one direction you could go, but I’d say “hungry” is much more appropriate.)

My response is pretty unusual, though. SLA’s subject matter has made it controversial on the dramaweb. Lots of people are put off by the lead couple’s twenty-year age difference, and the fact that she’s married makes it even worse. But it’s easy enough for me to see why you made both of these narrative decisions: Kdrama romances have such a long history of breaking taboos that doing so has become a stereotype. Fauxcest, rich boys and poor girls, noona love stories, and even extramarital affairs are a dime a dozen. The familiarity of all these plot points has robbed them of any true shock value, making them seem about as dangerous as a pair of pink-nosed bunny slippers.

But a married woman who’s old enough to be the mother of the boy she’s in love with? That’s something different, something startling, something dangerous. It’s sensationalism, which is a great tactic for motivating people to watch television shows. That’s fine with me, especially because I know that in spite of what might be a tawdry premise you can be trusted to respect your characters and your audience.

And I don’t believe for a minute that this show is going to be a gross, skin-crawling take on Lolita. Although he was incredibly convincing as an unsure and gawky young man in the preview, Yoo In Ah is in fact a man. He’s playing a nineteen-year-old college student who’s led a tough life, not a pampered high schooler who has yet to reach the age of consent. If a delicate little flower boy like Lee Hyun Woo or Lee Jong Suk were to play this role, even I would be weirded out. But Yoo In Ah is big and bulky and strong in spite of his boyish face. On screen, he reads as an adult, not a child.

(I usually prefer Kdrama couples that spend a lot of time looking at each other. Secret Love Affair seems to be an exception to this rule: The leads barely made eye contact, but their positioning always allowed for hidden, lingering glances. They kept a conspicuous amount of space between them, as if they’re afraid what might happen if they get too close.)

About that older woman. As someone who might even fit into that category myself, I can appreciate that life doesn’t stop at thirty. We live on, human beings with the full complement of emotions and needs enjoyed by the young whippersnappers of the world. Just because someone is younger than you doesn’t mean you can’t be attracted to them, or that they can’t be attracted to you in return. Kim Hee Ae is so beautiful, how could you blame Yoo Ah In’s character for wanting to be with  her? The reverse is clearly true, too. (I would also like to point out that in real life The Prime Minister’s leads are exactly 20 years apart, yet we didn’t hear much of this age-gape griping when people were talking about that show. I don’t think the drama itself even acknowledged that there was an age difference. Why is it okay for an older man to be with a younger woman, but not for an older woman to be with a younger man?)

I am worried about this couple, but for different reasons. As I’ve written in the past, the Japanese movie and novel Tokyo Tower is apparently the inspiration for your drama. The Kdrama version seems to have addressed most of the things that concerned me about the source material—it’s starting with the beginning of their affair, rather than jumping into their love story years later. And it doesn’t look like it will be a man’s story of the remote woman he loves. In the extended preview, Kim Hee Ae shows more emotion than the female lead did in the entirety of Tokyo Tower. But there’s still room for the movie’s big flaw to intrude here: in TT, the love almost always felt one-sided. The female lead seemed to be using her paramour for his body, youth, and tireless devotion to her. I really, really don’t want Kim Hee Ae’s character to be similarly unaffected by her student’s passion. That’s the real peril of a grown-up relationship this unequal—not that they might love one another, but that the person holding all the cards might take advantage of their younger, less experienced partner.

I don’t even mind the infidelity aspect of the story, and I think you can convince the doubters to give your female lead a chance in spite of her actions. You certainly managed it in A Wife’s Credentials, which revolved around a woman leaving a deeply unhappy marriage. Her husband treated her like the hired help, and his ever-present family was actually nasty whenever she was around. I don’t think anybody could have genuinely wanted her to continue a relationship that served her so very badly. Marriage is a wonderful thing. But sometimes marriages end, and infidelity can be a symptom of that end, not its cause. Anyway, who says that your leads need to be pure and blameless to be worthy of our attention? 

(Good luck making any kissing in this drama as hot as this duet. I’m not convinced the censors would allow it on TV.)

In honor of our new-found friendship, I thought I’d share my wish list for this show.

Piano sex. Not to sound like a disgusting horndog or anything, but please don’t leave us hanging with this incredibly potent duet scene. Your recent dramas haven’t really involved much skinship, but I think we can all agree that a good shag on the piano bench is in order here.

But don’t let it be all about sex. I’m a little conflicted about how I want this drama to end. On the one hand, I’m always a proponent of happily ever after. On the other hand, this is a serious age difference. Being together now is one thing, but what happens when she’s eighty and he’s sixty? That’s the difference between being elderly and being middle aged. To believe that they have even a tiny chance of lasting happiness together, I’m going to need them to have more in common than just lust. We all know that has an incredibly short shelf life. The piano is a good place to start building them a relationship, but it should only be the beginning.

Please don’t hurt his hands. I know you’re made of finer stuff than more other drama production teams, but I’m sure this trope will still be tempting. Don’t succumb. For once, I want to see something about a genius pianist that doesn’t include mangled hands that cause his career to come to a tragic end. It was a joy to watch Yoo Ah In playing in the preview, and I want to see more of it throughout the rest of the drama.

How about making them compose together? Because if there’s anything hotter than a good duet, it’s the giddy high of a successful creative collaboration.

Make everyone as nuanced as your leads. While you tend to do great work bringing your lead characters to life, your secondary figures can veer toward the cartoony. It’s time to prove to the world that you’re better than the utterly irredeemable marital family in A Wife’s Credentials and the mustache-twirling bad guys in The End of the World. Making the female lead’s husband a dick doesn’t really absolve her of the responsibility from walking away from him, so don’t even try.

Be selective about what you include from Tokyo Tower. Things to keep: The trip out of town (and its associated bathroom scene, the most heart-wrenching moment in the whole movie), the pool, the party, and the rooftop. Things to ditch: The crazy-town secondary couple, the male gaze, and the disjointed editing.

Thanks to you, I can’t wait for my weekend to be over, because it will mean that I’m that much closer to embarking on the journey of Secret Love Affair. 

Please, please, pretty please don’t let me down.  


P.S.: I couldn’t wait—I watched the first episode yesterday without subs. Naturally, I had things to say.


  1. " Please don’t hurt his hands." I didn't even consider this.. but now it's kind of all I can think about.. hah.

    I skipped the long preview, because I want to go into this sorta blankly. Honestly, even I can't because I keep reading what everyone else has be saying about it. I might as well have watched the trailer. :P I suppose I'll be watching this show very soon. I don't really have the strength to resist it.

  2. You're so excited about this that I hope it's as good as you are hoping it will be!

  3. I just watched the first subbed ep (no preview for me, I hate spoilers) and I fell hard, like never before. This show is gonna be good. I'm stunned how much I love it already. Wow.

  4. I'm not excited about this drama, but I am intrigued. If the characters are written well and I can understand them, then I might even get over the cheating part.

    The age difference doesn't bother me in this case. I mean sometimes it can and it can get in the way of enjoying a series/movie. But if the chemistry is there and their romance seems believable then I should be okay. But I guess it also helps that Yoo Ah In is in his late twenties and not actually 19. Like you said, if it were "a delicate little flower boy like Lee Hyun Woo or Lee Jong Suk" it would make it a lot weirder.

  5. The producer(s) was clever to cast Kim Hee Ae as the heroine because she's so elegant and looks so young for her age. I watched the first 2 eps and had no problems imagining the two leads together - age wasn't even an issue in my mind.

    Do you know if anyone is recapping this drama? There were parts that I needed clarifications on. I'm so glad Viki is subbing this; they're so fast.

    1. Hello, I've found one blog that does called noises from the closet.WordPress.com but it seems to be the first or even only one so far. I love the tone of it.

  6. Just watched the first two episodes last night.The first one is setting the stage for what is to come.
    The duet is absolutely riveting! The tension mounting and mounting! I love the piano ,but that it could be so sexy....hmm...that is a whole other side I never considered.Emotional yes,but hot steamy sexy,no....
    I think I will just wait until the next 5 episodes are out before watching again...One episode just will not do...

  7. I just hope that none of them die (like in the latest dramas Yoo Ah In made) hate those endings!

  8. 2nd-ind your request!! sex on the piano pretty please

  9. hahahahahaha.. yes I agree with that picture they said "sad", it should be "hungry". :D
    (I've bookmarked your blog on my tab, it's so fun to read. thanks) ^^

    regards, Indi from Indonesia

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