Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Still more swooning for Secret Love Affair

You know that feeling when something you’re looking forward to doesn’t live up to your expectations? Well, the first two episodes of Secret Love Affair made me feel the exact opposite.

I watched and admired both A Wife’s Credentials and End of the World, the other recent dramas made by the writer and director behind Secret Love Affair. But this new show is the first time I feel as if they’ve set out to do what I really want: Tell a love story. Those other series were great, but they were primarily about bigger things, which meant that their romantic plotlines had only secondary importance. This time around, the relationship between female lead Hye Won and young pianist Sun Jae feels as if it will be the driving factor behind most everything that happens in the show.

In some ways, this is a case of the right drama at the right time: I’ve watched a lot of fluffy romantic comedies lately, and they’ve left me hungering for something darker. SLA is exactly that, both literally and figuratively. It takes place in a drab world of blacks and grays that are only sparingly punctuated with warm, buttery yellows. Its every scene feels like an epic battle between how things look and how they really are.

All the details in this drama feel lovingly constructed and intelligently conceived—from the camera angles to the amazing lighting to the telling set direction and wardrobe. Its storytelling is sophisticated and reserved, but even two episodes in it’s easy to see that the groundwork has been laid for a narrative roller coaster ride full of great, surprising things. Like A Wife’s Credentials, this is a show that will play with our expectations of Korean drama, taking the kind of insane, over-the-top plotting we’d expect and wrestling it down to earth through a deeply felt script and naturalistic performances.

And oh, the performances. The people behind Secret Love Affair have a repertory theater thing going on—they’ve already worked with many of this show’s actors. The actresses behind female lead Hye Won and her assistant played sisters in A Wife’s Credentials. Park Hyuk Kwon, here playing Hye Won’s bratty husband, has actually been in both of their other dramas—in A Wife’s Credentials he played a philandering jerk, and in The End of the World he teamed up as an evil bureaucrat with the man playing Secret Love Affair’s chancellor (i.e., Coffee Prince’s Mr. Hong). Thanks to their obvious comfort working together and the capable direction of Ahn Pan Sook, the actors are doing the kind of nuanced, unaffected work you hardly ever see in Korean dramas.

While the younger actors are newbies to the team, they will more than do their characters justice if Yoo Ah In is any indication. His hotness is certainly one reason why I can’t tear my eyes away whenever he’s on screen, but another reason is that he’s giving this unassuming, boyishly naive character enough gravitational pull for a planet. It’s no wonder Hye Won will fall in love with him—what woman could be unmoved by his stirrings of puppyish devotion?

It’s a bit early to know for sure what this drama’s end game will be, but for now Secret Love Affair is a riveting exploration of passion, connection, and the perils of living something other than a genuine life.

I was disappointed to realize that Dramabeans isn’t recapping this show. I could really use their help understanding a drama this subtle, and I always love having their general impressions of each new episode before I can watch it. Alas, it is not to be, and I certainly can’t recap it myself. I just don’t have the time or the skills (I’d write a thousand words about somebody’s hair and then miss key plot points). But out of respect for this show’s layered storytelling, I’ve highlighted some of my favorite scenes from the premiere episode and tried to pull apart their many levels of meaning.

(Spoilers to episode 2.)

Hye Won’s skirt

Level 1. Upon arriving at work one morning, Hye Won realizes that she’s forgotten to put on a skirt, leaving home in just a slip. After a moment of shock she repurposes a scarf as a super cute skirt stand-in.

Level 2. Hye Won isn’t just another drama girl who’s incapable of facing a crisis. Her low-key, can-do attitude is backed up by her mad problem-solving abilities and innate, effortless style.

Level 3. But who leaves home without putting on a skirt? Even though she’s capable and smart, Hye Won is incredibly stressed and distracted. Her work is an intense mix of politics, party planning, and babysitting. It doesn’t help that her office is a powder keg that could explode at any moment.

Level 4. No, really. Who leaves home without putting on a skirt? Hye Won lives with a husband and a maid, but neither of them noticed she was missing this key piece of her outfit. Doesn’t see anyone in the morning? Is she lonely?

Thank God it’s nothing like: The similar scene in A Gentleman’s Dignity, my least favorite drama of all time. That heroine is completely unequipped to deal with her own wardrobe malfunction, so she stands on a street gaping like a goldfish until a man comes along and solves her problem.

Going to the head
Level 1. Hye Won struggles to pull Madame Han off her stepdaughter, whose head she’s currently holding in a toilet.

Level 2. The partially obscured camera angle reinforces the behind-the-scenes feel of this assault. On the surface, Madame Han and her stepdaughter are on chilly, barely polite terms. Their relationship is full of barbs that the men around them either downplay or don’t even acknowledge. But when it’s just the women together in a room, the gloves come off and the two engage in a physical fight that feels heavily influenced by high school bullies throughout the ages.

Level 3. Madame Han is a badass bitch who doesn’t take any lip. (Which I really like about her character.) Oh, and she’s also a former bar girl who might just be engaged in a longterm relationship with the chancellor of the piano school.

Level 4. Young Woo is so blinded by her rage and the suspicion that she doesn’t plan ahead. She just lashes out with no endgame in sight, and is left powerless when things spiral out of control.

Level 5. Hye Won doesn’t try very hard to stop this, does she? She ineffectually fists her hands in the older woman’s shirt and delicately pulls at her shoulders. But if she really wanted to stop her, couldn’t she? In truth, Hye Won is just playing out her role as mediator and go-between, not acting as a participant in the scuffle. At the end of the scene, she doesn’t ask Young Woo if she’s okay or do anything to comfort her—she grabs a container of combs and proceeds to fix her hair. Hye Won does what’s called for, but won’t get her hands dirty, physically or emotionally. As she herself says in this scene, the only side she’s on is her own.

Thank God it’s nothing like: The same old water-throwing scene we see in every drama catfight. There’s water involved, all right, but it’s currently in a toilet. I bet it’s a pretty clean toilet, but still.

Hye Won takes the wheel
Level 1. Hye Won drives home after the mahjong party, visibly shaken. In the garage, she takes a minute to compose herself before going inside.

Level 2. Problem-solving, self-sufficient Hye Won drives herself wherever she wants to go. Other characters, including her husband, usually have a driver. 

Level 3. Alone in her car, Hye Won is free to be herself, to show weakness and acknowledge just how hard her life is. Most everywhere else, she hides these facts under tireless good cheer.

Level 4. Interesting that Hye Won’s car is snowy white, while her husband’s is dirty gray. We know what they did with white hats and black hats in old Westerns. Hye Won’s husband is definitely a whiny baby. Is this a hint that he’s truly a bad guy, and something other than pure?

Thank God it’s not like: The ditzy heroines attempting to drive in Dal Ja’s Spring, December Fever, or My Love from Another Star. Comedy is great and all, but must it always come at a woman’s expense?

Their first duet
Level 1. Hye Won takes over her husband’s computer to message a young pianist: He needs to visit a doctor to treat an ailment she noticed in a video he posted online.

Level 2. Hye Won isn’t looking to impress people with her credentials. She could feed her ego by giving away her identity (aka, exactly what her husband would have done in this situation), but instead she gets the job done without stepping into the spotlight herself, just like always.

Level 3. Hye Won is tempted by the possibilities of being someone else. For her, being an unemployed young man would be the ultimate freedom: her family would take care of her, instead of the other way around, and she could spend her time loving music instead of always striving for personal gain. Pretending to be a 25 year old, she makes herself someone a little bit older and more experienced than the person she’s chatting with, but not so fundamentally different. Her lie allows them to connect as people, even as it obscures her true identity.

Level 4. Also, that Sun Jae is going to kill me with his cuteness long before this show is over. The subtitle makes this line a little bit difficult to understand, because it sounds as if he’s asking about his medical condition. But what he’s really doing is asking what she thinks of his playing abilities, in the most sad, quiet way possible. His whole life, piano has been a solitary exercise. It’s what he did as a little boy when his mom was at work, and later we’ll see that he’s been forced to line his walls with egg crates so he won’t disturb anyone with his playing. But playing a piano is meant to be disturbing, and it’s meant to be something that brings people together. Under everything, Sun Jae knows this—it’s just that he doesn’t have the people he needs in his life to appreciate the social aspects of his music. (Hmmm...reminds me of me and Korean drama.) Through Hye Won, he’s made a connection with someone who loves what he loves, and we get the sense from his request to meet up later that he’s not going to let go of that connection easily.

Level 5. This scene is kind of reminiscent of a love-triangle meet-cute, isn’t it? Hye Won is obviously the male lead—she makes contact with the ingenue first, and hides her identity from him. In this triangle, her husband will play the part of second lead, only he’ll be desperate and pushy about it.

Thank God it’s nothing like: How I would have written this scene, which would have been much more maudlin. This breezy first encounter feels just right for the characters, and creates a basis for a friendship that will develop throughout the rest of the show.

Free food
Level 1. While waiting for the big recital, Hye Won’s husband tells his assistant he doesn’t want to eat.

Level 2. Hye Won’s husband really is as self-obsessed and mean as we’ve suspected all along. To someone who cares about other people, it’s perfectly clear that the assistant emphasized that the meal is free for a reason. It’s because he’s hungry, and probably poor, and wants to take advantage of a chance to eat without paying. But Professor Kang doesn’t care—all that matters to him is his delicate ego, so recently bruised by his wife’s competence.

Level 3. This scene serves as a counterpoint to one in episode 2: Hye Won tells the maid to give Sun Jae dinner before heading off to marvel at what a prodigy he is. If Hye Won were in her husband’s shoes in this moment, she would have told the assistant to go eat even if she didn’t want to join him. We’ve seen again and again how she treats people who work for her: with cool efficiency, but kindness and compassion. When Sun Jae’s friend broke Hye Won’s necklace while washing her hair, Hye Won didn’t freak out or cause a scene. She just shrugged it off and got on with her life without trying to make the girl feel bad. (Was the necklace really a cheap knockoff, as Hye Won claimed? I almost suspect we’ll find out later that it wasn’t.)

Level 4. Later in the scene, professor Kang really shows his true colors: he sighs to his assistant about not having someone to mentor. Only his assistant clearly knows all about the piano himself—he was the one who spotted the oddness in Sun Jae’s playing, after all. So why doesn’t professor Kang turn him into the next star pianist?

Thank God it’s nothing like: The “Here’s your silver platter, dumbass” characterization in shows like The Prime Minister and Moon that Embraces the Sun. Some Kdramas love to explain every motivation and attribute, as if they don’t trust their viewers to be smart enough to follow along. I eventually got so frustrated by the explanatory voiceovers in Moon that Embraces the Sun that I actually dropped the show. In spite of reports to the contrary, not all drama watchers are idiots who need this level of hand-holding. (Not to be all judgy or anything, but there’s a lot of talk on the Dramafever comments about this episode being slow, and I think most of those people are probably so used to that cotton-candy kind of treatment that they’ve forgotten what to do with a big, juicy steak.)


  1. I love how this show makes us think for ourselves. Ahhh it's so refreshing! I'm also at a level to pick up some of the more subtle musical vibes that are hinted at, but not explained. Granted, not everyone will pick up on all these things, and I didn't even think to fully analyze half of the scenarios you put in this post (thank you btw!). But I think these kinds of scenes make for a more invested viewership. In contract, shows that tell you everything you need to know (or god forbid, may have missed! dun dun dun).. that kind of storytelling tells me that I can sit back and multitask and not pay so much attention to what's going on onscreen. I'm even tempted to say this is becoming my problems with more and more Kdramas these days.. If I don't have to watch it to get it, why am I watching it again?? In contrast.. I sit with my eyes glued to SLA in case... something tiny but HUGE happens in the space of half a second. Now THAT's good TV. :DDDDDD

    1. I completely agree about the attention required to watch SLA. I'm watching Miss Korea right now, and it's a fine show. But it just doesn't require anything from me—I can look away, go to the bathroom, check tumblr and not miss anything. But with SLA, everything seems so perfectly calibrated that I don't want to miss any of the little details. I just hope it doesn't suffer when it gets to the live shoot stage.

      As for the musical stuff...I get nothing of the subtleties, having dropped out of middle school band after two weeks. In a way, I'm almost grateful for being clueless. I can truly believe Yoo Ah In is a magical prodigy, because I don't know any better ;)

  2. This drama is incredibly demanding, intellectually and emotionally. I think this is the first drama where i find myself constantly replaying scenes and images in my head as if i AM the one about to start a love affair. Watching it, i feel how the characters must feel. Suddenly thrown off balance; life no longer the routine. One holds one's breath for the next encounter and in the meantime, one is consumed by the thought of the other. Egads, how can i keep my mind off the drama till next week???!! LOVE the show. Thanks for a platform to voice and for your insights. Anticipated the show a lot and it is, as for you, exceeding my expectaions!


  3. Yoo Ah In is adorably innocent, isn't he? But then, not, at the same time. I'm interested to see how things play out between them all.

  4. Pleased to see that people are perceptive to the details! I watched the episodes over and over and never got bored. There are so many layers to be uncovered!
    Love your review =) Please make mooooore!

  5. Great to see, that you offer a platform to voice the thoughts on this show. It is so intense, layered and emotionally involving lots of people will just have to talk about it.
    Just finished ep 4 and I'm in awe how this show is created. Both leads are fantastic. Love it so much.

    1. Oh, and one afterthought for those interested what the cello teacher said as she was speaking (flawless) German in ep 4.
      She said: 'Das kann ich mir nicht länger anhören. Wie konntest Du hier überhaupt rein? Muss ein Fehler gewesen sein. Die blöde Sau!' Which translates to: 'I can't listen to this any longer. How could you get in here at all? It must have been a mistake. This stupid sod.'

  6. So glad to have found this blog since - exactly - Dramabeans isn't recapping, which usually means limited intelligent engagement. However, your insights are marvelous. Perhaps because the drama likely targets women like its cool, intelligent, and accomplished heroine, even the level of dialogue the drama generates has been rather elevated. Or at least yours has been. So thanks. I'm looking forward to stopping by regularly to feed on your insights.

  7. Having watched through episode 4, I have to say, I feel dirty while watching this drama. Not in a bad way, but in all the good ways. I feel like I am watching something private that I really shouldn't be looking at but cannot turn away. The directing is just AMAZING. It feels claustrophobic and hot and full of friction, like any moment the there is just going to be a sexual explosion, but of course, being a Kdrama there won't be one on screen, and that makes it even sexier (HBO could learn a lot about the difference between sexy and just sex by watching something like this). The chemistry in the air is so palpable it's like sex soup. Of course that is not just the directing but the acting too. I've seen some good chemistry in Kdramas before, but I don't think I've ever seen it sustained to the point where the leads have chemistry with each other even when they are in different towns. This is so good it hurts!

    1. I absolutely agree. HBO shows are at best titillating with all their obligatory nudity and sex—Secret Love Affair is so sexy I'm surprised my television doesn't melt from the heat.

      Sex soup indeed...

    2. P.S.: I loved your comment so much I wanted to share it on Tumblr. I hope that's okay!

    3. Absolutely true! Even when they are apart, the heat is there and that is so real. This drama really makes you FEEL like youre in an affair yourself. Thats how good it is.


  8. Totally ok (although I just noticed I had a little typo)! Thank you! I love your blog and I'm so glad you are watching this drama. I'm really disappointed that it's not even being discussed on Dramabeans. I find the current crop of network Kdramas very disappointing, so I'm happy to have this to keep me going.

  9. I really appreciate your discussion of this drama; You brought up points that flew over my head. I was lamenting that no one seemed to be recapping this show and I'm probably missing quite a few of the nuances.
    Please keep this ongoing; I know I'll need everyone's keen observations for me to fully appreciate this story.

  10. I really enjoyed all the details you pointed out. I miss so much action while reading subtitles. I've watched each episode twice, once on Viki and then on Dramafever. May watch a 3rd time this weekend. Love all the subtle personality tics from the characters. My favorite scene is the chat confession where SJ says he gave himself totally to the goddess.

    1. modest-goddess, with a show this layered and complex, I do the same thing:
      - watch ASAP on viki, because I just need to know what happens next and I get the plot flow.
      - watch on Dramafever, paying more attention to the dialog this time, comparing the subs, catching more nuance and the feel of it.
      - watch at least once more where I don't have to pay as much attention to the subs, and catch watch expressions, follow inferences, pay attention to body language.

      With this show I may have to add another watch, because I have the feeling that some things that were just glossed over in earlier episodes are going to turn out to be majorly important later on. A mini-marathon may be called for...

  11. I'm just hoping this drama doesn't go the "Brief Encounter" route. Don't get me wrong, Brief Encounter is a legendary film for a reason, and I love it. I also loved a movie that was very much an homage to Brief Encounter called "Cairo Time". But I think that storyline only works in a 90 minute to 2 hour film. I don't want to watch 16 hours worth of desperate, but unfulfilled yearning. It may be crass of me to say, but these two need to get a little action.

  12. Thank you for your insightful comments. I hadn't thought about the scenes in terms of the levels: it's quite revealing. And all the more reinforces what a beautiful drama this is.
    There is a certain meanness with HW's husband: the tone he uses with her is quite disrespectful. I don't know if this is the typical way husbands speak to wives in Korea (I've seen it a bit in other dramas). But certainly is a sign of nastiness, and wanting to domineer and control. My parents in law have been married 50 years: I've never heard that tone from either of them.

  13. I am thrilled that others are as enveloped by SLA as I am. As HW is by SJ in that ridiculously stunning back hug. But I also want to grab onto it and hold tight. So I guess I get to have both sides of that achingly beautiful experience.

    I haven't rewatched episodes and scenes or wanted to share my thoughts like this since Coffee Prince. And just when I think I've gone over the edge I discover something new so my behavior is reinforced and my love for SLA deepens.

    Regarding the camera level, the angles in the long trailer are used in an amazing way. At about 1 min when HW and SJ enter the music room the piano lid prop literally separates HW and SJ by a vertical line. Even as the camera and actors move, it continues to split the scene into two distinct parts. But I started getting excited because I knew what had to be coming and at about 4 mins I got my reward. As soon as SJ begins to play the piano, the camera smoothly changes and they are together. They separate again when HW tries to put distance between them. The 9:40 min is an example. But it doesn't last for long becasue she can't fight againt SJ and his piano.

    And neither can I . . .

  14. I am so excited to see enthusiasm for and thoughtful commentary on this drama. Until now, most reactions I had seen were hung up on the age gap between the lead characters and the (im)morality of the affair. I'm happy to know that I am not the only person lapping up the mature themes, sophisticated characters and portrayals, conscious staging and camerawork, layered meanings––I'm all-in! I never thought I would say this, but SLA may be giving Coffee Prince a run for its money in my books as "best drama ever."

    Two personal notes that I will add to your observations: I think Hye Won's skirt incident may also serve as a sort of foreshadowing (I'm finding a lot of that in this series... like when Sun Jae wears Joon Hyeong's clothes!). Hye Won's focus is about to turn from the politicking and babysitting and looking out for number one to the most passionate love affair of her life. If she's not careful, she'll get caught with her skirt down.

    Also, there is a really memorable visual metaphor during the piano sequence of Episode 2 (again, something I'm seeing a lot of in this drama). Sun Jae is leaning into the piano as he plays, and the camera is placed just so, framing--no, cradling--his face with the curve of the piano. It just feels like that was intentional, a symbol of how fitted he and the piano are to one another (and, by extension, how fitted he and Hye Won will become).

    I may be reading too much into things, but you can't say I'm not enjoying every re-watch of this fantastic drama. I'll keep my eyes glued to your blog to feed my new addiction!

  15. SLA held me captive from the first episode. The piano music was incredibly erotic. I felt the raging emotions up and down the scale. Kudos to the lead actors. I too think HBO should take notes. The understated leads to lovemaking blew my mind. When SJ said,"Tea, my ass.". I knew OH was his forever. Good work!!!

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