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.)