Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My love affair with Love Affair

Last December, I posted a wish list of things I wanted for the coming year in dramaland.

The first of those wishes seemed the most unlikely to come true: I asked for a new show that I would love as much as Coffee Prince. In my three years of drama watching, no other series has gripped my heartstrings or my head quite so hard. I’ve rewatched it an insane number of times (six? seven?) and written tens of thousands of words about it, ranging from appreciative fangirling to fan fiction.

I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think Secret Love Affair might just be my wish come true. It’s not much like Coffee Prince—one is a dark, indie thriller of compromised morals and bad behavior, and the other is sunshine on a stick—but both shows feel compellingly real and nuanced. And like Coffee Prince before it, I’m so wrapped up in SLA that I can barely function. 

Here are some of the Secret Love Affair points I’m pondering these days.

Hye Won will cut you.

Hye Won, the grown-up Candy girl gone bad. You know how boring and one-dimensional drama heroines can be? Well, in Hye Won Secret Love Affair has given the world a new breed of female lead. She’s crisp, capable, and in control—except when she’s not. She’s also kind and high-minded and upright—except when she’s not. (How like real life!) In a lot of ways, Hye Won is the classic drama Candy girl. She spent her life working hard, using her brains and interpersonal savvy to improve her lot in life. She scored funds to study abroad, and then landed a lucrative job that affords her every luxury. 

But unlike all the other Candys out there, Hye Won’s standard-issue happy ending never seems to have appeared. At work she walks a tightrope over shark-infested waters, always a heartbeat away from a brutal ending. At home she babysits her needy husband, never once showing him any sign of affection or love. They seem less like a couple than a pair of long-suffering roommates, and they maintain both separate beds and separate lives. And now the face looking back from the mirror isn’t the one Hye Won remembers. Her years are starting to show, an inescapable reminder that youth passed her by while she was otherwise occupied.

Whatever innocence Hye Won might once have had is long gone—she abandoned music, her first love, in favor of an administrative position that mostly finds her keeping dirty secrets for her bosses. She breaks the rules whenever they ask, whether it means rigging their college’s admissions system for financial gain, covering up their extramarital affairs, or using her parents’ personal bank accounts to hide their ill-gotten money. Her dalliance with Sun Jae, a student twenty years her junior, is just another in a long line of questionable things Hye Won has done in this show.

But Hye Won isn’t an antihero. She’s a deeply sympathetic, deeply flawed human being who has let her circumstances get the better of her. It’s excruciating and exhilarating to watch her navigate through her increasingly complicated life, armed only with steady nerves, the tactical brain of a four-star general, and maybe even a secret core of decency. There’s still a soul in that body—after all, the sheer beauty of music can bring her to tears. (Plus, she’s a saint compared to most of this show’s other characters.

Somewhere under the skin, I even see parallels between Hye Won and Coffee Prince’s Eun Chan: Both characters cross traditional boundaries between men and women. Eun Chan does this in an obvious way, dressing and wearing her hair so ambiguously that she’s usually mistaken for a boy. Physically, Hye Won is all woman, but the show is still allowing her to do things that most drama girls wouldn’t dream of. She’s a hardworking professional who’s considering cheating on her spouse with someone significantly younger than she is. (When this transgression occurred to Hye Won’s friend, she automatically assumed that Hye Won was the wronged party. No one would ever guess Hye Won herself might be the one breaking the marital bonds, both because she’s so steady and responsible and because infidelity is usually gendered male.) Hye Won doesn’t do housework or cook, she drives her own car, and she prefers clothes that are tailored and strong rather than flouncy and feminine. Heck, she’s even had her own broody shower scene, a privilege almost always reserved for Kdrama men.

Servant Da Mi...

...and servant Hye Won.

How do you say “upstairs/downstairs” in Korean? Downton Abbey has nothing on the world of Seo Han Arts Foundation. Everything is stratified there. Starting on the bottom rung, there’s the help—people like Hye Won’s maid, delivery boy Sun Jae, and shampoo girl Da Mi. Then there are the working class professionals, including Hye Won’s assistant and her hairdresser. Next up are the executives like Hye Won and her husband, and at the very top are the Kim family in the role of uber-wealthy royalty.

Much of SLA’s tension comes from the sharp dividing lines between these groups. In the first episode, Hye Won compares her system of ethics to traffic signs you have to obey to avoid accidents. To extend that metaphor, this caste system provides the lanes on the road. This was especially obvious in episode 6 when Da Mi averted her eyes and stepped back to let a rich client pass on the stairs. It’s true that this didn’t turn out the way the client expected, but the mere fact that the girl wasn’t surprised by Da Mi’s behavior has a lot to say about how she’s used to being treated. In that moment, Da Mi might as well have been the lowest scullery maid at Downton Abbey.

And Hye Won? While her blossoming relationship with Sun Jae is dangerous, so is the rest of her lifestyle. By working so closely with the Kims, she crosses into a lane that isn’t her own every day. This means she’s always bowing and scraping, pretending to enjoy mahjong tournaments and accepting extravagant gifts that are obviously intended to buy her, body and soul. As Young Woo pointed out in the premiere, everything Hye Won has rests on her relationship with the Kims. She’s their servant just as surely as the celery-stick toting maid is hers.

I predict that Korea’s birth rate will spike nine months after this episode aired.
(Could SLA be a government scheme to raise the population?)

Boning up on the piano. When information about this show first started to come out, the word “steamy” was always prominently displayed. It made me chuckle—steamy? A Korean drama? Surely not. 

I’ve been wrong before, but usually not this spectacularly so.

It’s obvious from the very beginning that physical desire is going to play a fundamental part in this couple’s relationship. That’s incredibly rare for Korean drama, a medium that uses skinship almost exclusively as relationship marker: That single kiss or hug in a 16-episode series is what tells you the couple is really together, and it will likely never happen again. Take Spring Waltz, my favorite of the four seasons dramas. The leads begin their relationship with a kiss, but that’s it—there’s no hand-holding or physical closeness in the remaining five or six episodes. If those characters are ever physically intimate, they’re left to do it in private, without the prying eye of the camera. This is also the case in more recent shows, including Miss Korea. That drama’s lead couple got together, but as shown their relationship was almost entirely platonic.

That’s not the case in Secret Love Affair. With the exception of its first two hours, each episode has included at least one incidence of skinship. And it’s not just any skinship. It’s nuclear skinship, epic and deeply primal, but it still somehow maintains that uniquely Korean reverence for physical touch. Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve watched a lot of smutty television, from Queer as Folk and Sex and the City to True Blood and Game of Thrones. But none of them have ever been what I would call sexy. Maybe it’s a girl thing, but to me they always seemed more interested in shocking viewers than portraying any sort of genuinely compelling sexual experience. No matter how many times Sookie and Eric had graphic intercourse on screen, it just wasn’t that interesting. But Secret Love Affair is approaching sex from a different angle: Instead of being intentionally titillating like American shows, the physical attraction between the leads is treated like something sacred and profoundly tender. Which makes it something like porn for girls—every touch is alive with emotion and desire.

As of yet, nobody in this show has had any sort of sex. But everything Hye Won and Sun Jae do together bears shades of carnal pleasure—from piano duets to flirty exchanges to romantic motorbike rides through nighttime Seoul. No matter what they’re doing, Hye Won and Sun Jae seem to have a intense awareness of each other’s physical being. This really comes to the forefront in episode six, which included both Hye Won checking out Sun Jae’s butt and Sun Jae being fixated by the delicate curve of Hye Won’s neck, just behind her ear.

As a commenter so aptly put it, Secret Love Affair is sex soup. Will its understanding of love as a bodily, animal experience become part of Kdrama’s ongoing narrative?

Tokyo Tower acknowledged the existence of books...

...as does Secret Love Affair. When Hye Won calls Sun Jae at the end of episode 6,
 he’s reading the biography she gave him.

This is no Namsan Tower. I’m fascinated by what little DNA this show shares with the Japanese movie Tokyo Tower. They have hardly anything in common at all, in spite of their stated relationship—the director of Secret Love Affair bought the rights to Tokyo Tower, and its title is referenced in SLA’s closing credits.

Was Secret Love Affair actually inspired by the novel that Tokyo Tower was based on, rather than the movie itself? Did the film slice and dice the source material so severely that it’s practically unrecognizable? Korean dramas are always intensely “intertextual,” to use a fancy word I heard on NPR the other day. They build themselves, Frankenstein-style, from the shows that have come before them. Is Secret Love Affair essentially sampling Tokyo Tower, transplanting a shoot from this source material into a totally new garden? Or will the two become more similar as time passes?

At this point, Secret Love Affair feels more like an AU fanfiction about Tokyo Tower than a true retelling. Both are about younger men who are desperately in love with older women, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. And yet Secret Love Affair picks up on tiny, unimportant details in Tokyo Tower, amplifying them into major plot points. Hye Won cries whenever she hears Sun Jae play the piano; Tokyo Tower’s male lead cries at a piano recital. In Tokyo Tower, the male lead says that he’s lived for his older lover for years, and one of the examples he gives is that he read all her favorite books. In Secret Love Affair, Hye Won gave Sun Jae a meaningful book, and he was seen reading it in episode 6. Tokyo Tower’s female lead won’t let the male lead call her, and in a recent episode of Secret Love Affair Hye Won laid down a similar dictate. (Sun Jae hasn’t been so good at following this particular order.)

Tokyo Tower ends with a European tower. Might SLA end the same way?

About the end. I’ve heard rumors that Secret Love Affair will only be 16 episodes long, although the big database sites like Dramawiki say 20. From the very beginning, I’ve been thinking about this show’s eventual end. (I like to torture myself, you see.)

If Secret Love Affair had aired ten years ago, Hye Won would almost certainly be headed toward unhappiness. Back then, dramas punished their shades-of-grey characters with death, as happened in the similarly adulterous 2004 series December Fever. But in today’s new era of happy endings might Hye Won finally find personal and professional fulfillment? 

If you trust Tokyo Tower, this possibility isn’t so far fetched. I could handle a Tokyo Tower ending here—Sun Jae goes off to all the European competitions Hye Won mentioned in episode six, and she joins him there after divorcing her husband and leaving her job in Korea. I’d also be happy with a modified take on the Spring Waltz finale, which would find them both happily teaching piano at a middle-of-the-road school in the countryside, not a big, prestigious college like where they are now. Or maybe the writer could go for a What’s Up Fox ending, which would see the series close with Hye Won visiting Sun Jae during his time in the military. (Perhaps bringing along their child?)

Even if my OTP doesn’t end up together, I can still imagine a happy ending for them—Hye Won ditches her husband and reclaims the piano by becoming a professional teacher, and Sun Jae dedicates himself to music until he realizes that Da Mi isn’t such a bad girl after all. The only thing I really, really don’t want is for this series to end with a bang, like What Happened in Bali. 

When it comes right down to it, I truly believe that Secret Love Affair will have a satisfying, non-tragic ending. That would be in keeping with the tradition set by A Wife’s Credentials, the last series this writer and director teamed up on.  

As far as I’m concerned, Hye Won’s journey should end with rebirth, not death.

(P.S.: If you’re looking for more about this show, I’ve been posting pretty obsessively about it on my drama tumblr.)


  1. Wow, just wow! This post is compelling and detailed! I really love your tumblr and blog. It's very entertaining to read. Keep it up!

  2. The story line here is a distant remake of the late 1940s noir "Humoresque" starring Joan Crawford as the older woman and John Garfield as the younger somewhat lower class musical genius, this time on the violin. Needless to say for its time, the story does not end well for the older woman.

  3. I put off watching this due to all the steamy reviews. Mainly because I'm a much older woman than most of you and the thought of a younger man made me cringe. To me all young men are my sons or grandsons. Believe me, I like men, just my age or a little older. Anyway, I caved in and I'm getting ready to watch episode 4. I skimmed your review but will go back and read it once the series is over. I know you are crazy about it, Amanda, and do so hope it doesn't disappoint!

    1. I totally get what you mean. I like the show a lot, but if Sun Jae is 20 in the show, that's Korean age, which means he's US 19. I'm Hye Won age, and I want to push every 19 year old I meet down the stairs. They are super annoying with all their YOLO's, Snapchats, and obsession with texting.

    2. Somehow Sun Jae doesn't come across as your typical 20 year old. Probably because of his difficult situation growing up with a single mom then working at a young age, he seemed a lot more mature for his age than professor Kang. Maybe the trappings of youth is passion and older people are financial and utilitarian pragmatism. Hye Won and professor Kang's marriage falls into the second lot. It's almost a warning signal of what can happen when a person sacrificed passion and vitality for money, status and social climbing. I don't see Hye Won and Sun Jae relationship as something bad but a blessing for Hye Won and in essence ...for Sun Jae as well.

      It is true that your average 19 year old kid is annoying. Even your average under 30 year old guy is annoying too. Sun Jae is definitely the exception to the norm.

  4. I have been just as enthralled with this show as much as you have! Every time an episode airs I immediately log onto to your site to read your juicy comments. I pore over the words, agreeing with every translation of the episodes. I feel weak after every episode and your words give me strength until the next episode. I absolutely love your site and appreciate the fact that you seem to be the only one blogging about this incredible show. FYI… I opened a TUMBLR account just I could follow your posts! I don't even blog! Thank you…you rock

  5. I have been totally engrossed in this series and I agree wholehearted with everything you've written (extremely well, I might add)! I have been waiting for a mature, more cerebral but with-steaminess-intact show without even realizing it. I could feel everything Hye Won felt during that first piano duet and I had goose bumps, it was so amazingly done. I'm older too, but I can relate to the ageless attraction that can appear between two people who are so different but have a shared passion. I look forward to more of SLA and your reviews of it.

  6. I've been quietly reading and enjoying your blog and tumbler posts regarding SLA. Please keep 'em coming. And thank you for this insightful analysis. SLA certainly deserves it.

  7. I honestly don't know what I find more entertaining, the show or how much you enjoy the show!

  8. I am loving your comments, you are indeed insightful. There are only a few other people writing about it. I am also loving this show, right from the start, when I saw the piano playing in the 21 minute preview. I am usually pretty disdainful of instrument playing in shows because since I play myself, I can easily see how fake it is. The photography is great and the music is great, the whole soundtrack. I'm happy to see a thoughtful show for grownups, and not just another shallow teen fest.

  9. This drama is alright, but I'd have to disagree with you on it being as good as Coffee Prince. In Coffee Prince, some of my favorite characters were the side characters, from Waffle Sun Ki to Sweeper (I don't know if the dog counts but I like him nonetheless).

    With this show, I can't bring myself to care about anyone except Sun Jae and Hye Won. Sometimes the scene cuts (how they fade to black like they do) reminds me uncomfortably of Boys Before Friends (although SLA is worlds ahead in terms of acting and writing, it still leaves me cringing on occasion).

    1. I'm also slightly put off by all if the workplace nonsense. Maybe because I'm only 17 and most of my favorite dramas are fluffy teen romances, but I find my attention wandering in those parts.

      I really thought I'd be put off by the age gap, though. Im surprisingly finding Sun Jae's innocence and nervousness adorable. Hye Won is pretty cool, too.

      I thought the lady who knees her cheating husband in the balls was really spectacular, though. Finally a woman who won't take that from her man.

  10. I feel you on Coffee Prince, the struggle Gong Yoo goes through was real, surprisingly real and if you have any awareness of that kind of struggle (loving someone you are not supposed to) his performance pulled all the right strings. It will always be my second favorite drama for that reason but for some inexplicable reason that I really can't put my finger on my favorite drama is The Master's Sun. Don't get me wrong it is good. It is funny, different, and doesn't seem to have any of the usual drama cliches yet still manages to build a solid relationship along the way (and character growth in both leads) but why I like it over CP is still an unknown for me. Gong Yoo pulled off the part of a lifetime in CP.

  11. There is SHOCKING news in the sports betting industry.

    It has been said that any bettor needs to see this,

    Watch this or quit placing bets on sports...

    Sports Cash System - Advanced Sports Betting Software.

  12. Quantum Binary Signals

    Get professional trading signals sent to your cell phone every day.

    Follow our trades NOW & gain up to 270% a day.

  13. If you want your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (no matter why you broke up) you must watch this video
    right away...

    (VIDEO) Want your ex CRAWLING back to you...?