Thursday, May 22, 2014

Drama Review: Secret Love Affair (2014)

Grade: A++

Romantic melodrama

What it’s about
On the surface, Oh Hye Won is an elegant professional who works at a ritzy arts organization, living a life filled with luxuries that anyone would envy. But in truth, she has more dark secrets than she knows what to do with: She has sacrificed her soul to a loveless marriage and a morally bankrupt workplace, giving up on her true love—music. When she meets Lee Sun Jae, a handsome young piano genius, his dazzling talent, idealism, and adoration of Hye Won leave her reeling. Will Hye Won sacrifice everything to have him, or will she keep fighting for status and success, even at the expense of his love?

First impression
As expected, this show is proving to be gorgeously produced, swooningly romantic, and charming as hell. I can already tell that this is a pairing I will ship to the grave and beyond. I can only pray that the drama overlords will continue to smile upon Secret Love Affair, a series that uses the best of indie-movie realism to disguise a big, beautiful Kdrama heart.

Final verdict
Both dramatic and organic, dark and inspiring, Secret Love Affair is one of my favorite dramas of all time. Be forewarned, though: this is an extremely polarizing series. Commenters regularly complain that its tone is unremittingly depressing. They also say it’s slow and that they can’t root for the adulterous relationship between Sun Jae and Hye Won. 

But if you like your melodramas serious and deliciously realistic, you should still give this show a try. Its perfectly cast leads and their astonishing chemistry make it easy to overlook the age difference between them, and also to forgive Hye Won for breaking her marriage vows. An intriguing cast of supporting characters frame their relationship, and an insightful, carefully constructed script makes them all feel more like people going about their lives than the typical dramabots. Everyone has their own motivation, and all their conflicting desires and manipulations serve to highlight just how pure and wonderful the romance is between Hye Won and Sun Jae.

As far as I’m concerned, Secret Love Affair’s luxurious pacing is one of the best things about it. This series isn’t afraid of the silent spaces between big narrative moments; its slow, measured storytelling gives texture to its characters and makes their world feel like our own. A single hug can fill fifteen minutes of screen time, and a few frames of a lonely figure watching kites soar are just as important as the most exposition-heavy scenes. SLA isn’t stuffed with random events or obstacles—the inner lives of its characters are what it’s really interested in.

This drama’s production values couldn’t possibly have been higher. Its lovely soundtrack sets a dark, intense mood. Gorgeous cinematography and direction, a winking script filled with foreshadowings and clever inside jokes, and some of the most subtle acting ever seen in a Korean drama combine to make SLA feel more like a superb independent movie than a television series.

Even I have to admit that things do fall apart a bit toward the end, though. The first 10 episodes are as powerful and atmospheric as a tightly constructed thriller, but the last quarter feels rushed. And while the show’s open-ended finale is close to perfect, it would have been improved by the addition of another episode devoted to its impact on the drama’s extended constellation of relationships.

Ultimately, Secret Love Affair’s few shortcomings can’t obscure its exquisitely crafted genius. The only thing I disliked about this drama is that it had to end, and I will definitely be mourning its passing for a long time to come.

Random thoughts
This part of the review is where I would normally compile the notes I made while watching the drama in question. The depth of my obsession with Secret Love Affair makes that impractical, though: my notes consist of almost 300 separate Tumblr posts, some of which are very long. So instead, I give you links to commentary about each episode, all organized in chronological order. 

Other posts on this blog inspired by Secret Love Affair

You might also like
A Wife’s Credentials, another edgy infidelity drama from the creative team behind Secret Love Affair


  1. Secret Love Affair really is a rare find in k-drama land. If anything the story and pacing remind me of Japan's better slice-of-life dramas.

  2. My enjoyment of this show was greatly magnified by your episode-by-episode comments. I forget to breathe during this hour. And the piano duet sex... It's hard to move on from this one.

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  4. I am sorry but Credential,s wife is better than secret love affair from my humble point of view,this one has the same sin than The Blade and the petal manierismo vacuo in artistics terms is some similar to the prerafaelitas during Oscar wilde age...I cant explain me better forgive me

  5. I have too many Words to say about this drama, but I will try to be as short as I can. This drama is HOT, truly sexy and wonderfully executed. The acting is off the charts and the "piano sex" is the most erotic and spiritual thing I have seen in a kdrama so far. I am so loving the fact that the ladies run the show and are awesome flawed, intelligent, beautiful "sly foxes". I went through so many feelings while watching this show that I believe it has been an almost catharsis-like experience. Thank you for your post and most definetely thank you to SLA for being dangerously excuisite.

  6. Watching it reminded me of Bridges of Madison County and The English Patient. Superb acting indeed!

  7. I enjoy your reviews and I find myself watching series you recommend. I have watched Korean dramas long before you started, so, just like you after awhile you end up choosing dramas according to your own preference. You are right in saying it is unremittingly depressing and slow, that's why this is the only drama you recommended that unfortunately I didn't like. Not because the actors didn't deliver their characters or even about the morality issue but I just found it tedious. I really tried but after 10 episodes and dragging issues of corruption in the school, I just felt sleepy and so tired. I even went to see the final episode hoping it will encourage me to go back to the episodes I didn't see but even that I have to fast forward it till the end.

    Maybe I don't like too deep films that goes on and on with too much reality because after all my preference when I watch films is mainly to escape the real world and feel good again. So, if one's preference is like me, then, this series is not for you. However, if you enjoy a well done acting and production with a very realistic tone, then, one will enjoy this series. But, definitely not my cup of tea.

  8. Hello. This is A.K.I.A. Talking…
    Thanks for the great review of Secret Love Affair! I enjoyed it a lot.
    I added it to my collection of reviews for the show. The show has now an average score of 80%.
    Here is a link to the page if you would like to give it a look:
    Thanks again for the review.

  9. I love foreign TV and films and discovered this on Netflix. Given all the reviews that I have read online, one must be Korean to truly appreciate this series because I personally find the acting to be wooden and horrible. The only two characters in this that have any appeal are Sun Jae and his girlfriend Park Dami. The piano pieces are the only redeeming qualities to the drama and were quite enjoyable to watch. I am however getting some insight into Korean culture of which I knew nothing and I can't say I like what I do see from this. There is corruption everywhere but the blaze way in which this series approaches it is quite disturbing. I kept watching in the hope that it would get better and continue to be disappointed. This is first and will definitely be the last KDrama that I will ever watch.

  10. Well, I for one love this drama. I find the acting excellent, and tortured as it should be, by good frustrated human beings. I have seen over 150 various Korean dramas,have read up on the culture and recently returned from a trip there. Yes, things are different there. We don't have to like it, but accept it, we must.

  11. I don't agree with you that their first kiss is forced (on tumblr). It was a forced hug but not a forced kiss. She had 5 seconds to push him away. Imagine you were in the exact same situation but with an unwanted advance. Would you seriously do nothing for 5 seconds? I know I wouldn't and I was in a similar situation once. Especially just after a forced hug.

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