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.)
(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.
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.)