Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Secret Love Affair: Winding to a close

“All good things must come to an end” is one of the cruelest—and most accurate—expressions in the English language.

Unfortunately, it definitely applies to Secret Love Affair. The ending is creeping ever closer, although there is some controversy about just when it might happen. Most English-language database sites say SLA will be twenty episodes long. But then again, they also say that the series Yoo Na’s Street will start airing in its place on Monday, May 19. That would mean a total of sixteen SLA episodes, which feels pretty likely. That’s the traditional (if increasingly uncommon) length for Kdrama miniseries, and it matches the running time of A Wife’s Credentials, this production team’s previous show.

With the home stretch in sight, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to happen in SLA’s remaining episodes. I trust the creative team to stick the landing on this one, but here are some thoughts about how they could do it.

More piano sex. For Sun Jae and Hye Won, playing the piano together is more than just playing the piano. Instead, it’s a profoundly physical and spiritual connection that unites two people through motion and sound and desire. In short, their duets are sex. Using this direct correlation, the production team has been able to get away with amazing things. We’ve seen it again and again—breathless and glistening with sweat, the characters’ faces twist with dreamy passion as their song rises to a crescendo. The heated intimacy displayed in these scenes would never, ever make it onto Korean television (or American, probably) if it was presented as part of a sex act.

I get that using this trick sparingly is what keeps it so special, but before the end of the show I think we need at least one more steamy duet. I’m definitely not the only viewer who’s been longing for a kiss at the piano since this drama was first announced: how about giving us both of these things in one scene? (Pretty please?)

Tell us about Hye Won’s marriage. Everybody talks about how useless Hye Won’s husband is, and how their marriage is one of convenience. Professor Kang himself told the fortune teller that he and his wife are mostly companions, not lovers. But is that how things started off? Did Hye Won really marry him for strictly mercenary reasons? Did she do it to protect herself from her lecherous boss, or maybe to ensure that she got to stay in the world of music after her hand injury ended her career as a pianist?

To be really, truly revolutionary, Secret Love Affair could acknowledge that Hye Won once liked her husband a lot, and even thought they would be good partners. Maybe she even loved him. In the real world, people can grow apart no matter how their relationship started. But when there’s cheating in dramas, the shows tend to make it clear that the marriage was doomed from the start—one of the partners was either forced into it, or turns out to be such an awful person that it’s only a matter of time before things explode.

The motives that brought Hye Won and her husband together may not be straightforward or easily explained, but I still want to know more about them. There isn’t great precedent for this, though—a similarly dysfunctional marriage was at the heart of A Wife’s Credentials. That union was never really explained, either.

Show us Hye Won’s family. We’ve been given tantalizing hints about Hye Won’s family. She told Madam Han that her parents live in the countryside with her sister and help out with their grandchildren. Her brother-in-law lives separately in the city, presumably because his job is there. There have also been hints that Hye Won doesn’t come from money—she didn’t seem too shocked by Sun Jae’s dilapidated house, and according to one of her arguments with her husband, they “had nothing” when they were in their twenties.

Hye Won makes six figures, and we know that her house and car belong to the foundation. From the gas station receipts in her glovebox, we can guess that she’s even reimbursed for her milage. Her mid-range designer clothes can’t eat up all that money she’s making. So either Hye Won has a serious nest egg saved up (all the better for running away with Sun Jae), or her salary is going elsewhere. Could it be that she’s supporting her family?

Hye Won must not be all that close with her parents or sister—we’ve never seen her call home, and she never discusses her life before Seohan. But by the end of the drama, I’d love to learn more about where she came from. Could we please take a field trip to visit her family home? Maybe with Sun Jae in tow?

Give Sun Jae his own story. For the first ten episodes of Secret Love Affair, Sun Jae was always making progress. He was cozying up to his teacher, improving his piano technique, and taking part in a series of challenges designed to prove his worth—from his very first audition for Hye Won to his big orchestral performance in episode 10.

In contrast, last week’s episodes left him standing in place; he didn’t do much more than brood about his feelings for Hye Won and send out audition tapes. You’ve got two great characters here, writer-nim. Don’t lose one for the sake of the other.

I think we’ve seen Sun Jae’s endgame—he’ll end up going abroad to study. I don’t want him to be left treading water until that happens, though. There are more stories to be told about his life than just the one about his love for Hye Won. The show should expose Sun Jae to the other pepole at Seohan, and continue his eminently satisfying character arc by giving him more achievable goals for the next few episodes. Maybe even pit him against Chairman Seo in a battle for Hye Won’s soul. That sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?

Break out of the skinship rut. In most Korean dramas, you’re lucky if the leads kiss more than once or twice in the show’s entire run. Secret Love Affair has spoiled us on this front: almost every episode has featured a shocking amount of physical affection. But after reaching the utter pinnacle of drama skinship with the epic hand-holding scene in episode ten, things have gotten pretty stale. We’ve watched plenty of dimly lit kisses from a distance, and seen lots of meaningful cuts that were vaguely suggestive of sex. But there’s been no waking up together, no lazing around in bed, and no post-coital bliss. Even relatively tame dramas show this sort of thing. So why not Secret Love Affair?

I theorize that the production team is trying to keep at least some sense of distance between Sun Jae and Hye Won. Just like every other kdrama romance, one of the most central questions here is here is whether they’ll end up together. Instead of inventing lots of silly obstacles to always keep them apart, the show is letting them be together, but it’s selectively keeping certain details of their relationship from us. That’s one of the ways it’s trying to manufacture tension. We have only limited insight into the characters’ feelings, and we’re left guessing by the way telling scenes are edited (Just what did Sun Jae tell Professor Jo in episode 11? Was the mini vacation in episode 12 Hye Won’s idea, or Sun Jae’s?).

Still, SLA has come too far to abandon its pathbreaking skinship. Before the finale, we need to see more lots more kissing, cuddling, and canoodling.

Don’t let Young Woo go to waste. Secret Love Affair has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to interesting characters. Young Woo is a good foil for Hye Won’s. They’re the same age and are both stuck in empty marriages, but they approach life in different ways. Where Hye Won is wily and hardworking, Young Woo is flighty and careless.

We know Young Woo bribes her younger boyfriend to be with her. He mostly seems to treat her with casual disinterest—is that as good as it gets between them? Does he see other rich women in his spare time? Does Young Woo know? When it comes to her interactions with Hye Won, Young Woo’s primary motivation is consolidating her power at Seohan. But is she also jealous that her “friend” has found real love in a place she’s been denied it again and again? Will she lash out at Hye Won because of it?

And now that Young Woo’s husband has apparently decided to work against her dad, does that mean divorce is in her future? With a disgraced father, a broken marriage, and kids she barely knows, what will Young Woo’s life be like?

I hope Young Woo and Hye Won will eventually have a moment of mutual understanding, even if the dangerous waters of Seohan mean they’ll never really trust each other. But mostly I just want Young Woo to be treated with respect and have her own place in the show’s big finale.

Bring on the epic ending. One of the great things about SLA is how intense its emotions are: everything is heightened to the point that watching an episode can feel like a roller-coaster ride in a building devoid of oxygen. As far as I’m concerned, Secret Love Affair is already a Kdrama classic. But to make it a true masterpiece, the finale has to grab viewers by the guts and twist. If that means it has to be bittersweet, then so be it. Maybe Hye Won and Sun Jae won’t stay together. Maybe one of them will die, in the grand, moralistic tradition of Korean dramas. I don’t really care what actually happens—but I want it to be something I’ll never forget.


  1. I haven't watched episode 14 yet, but it seems like it will be hard to wrap up neatly and without much frustration in just 1 more week. There are so many other stories that haven't been fully told. (I did check the station's website, and the new show is indeed scheduled to begin on the 19th.)

  2. Yes, I'm not the only one who thought of calling their duets, "piano sex!"
    Also, I was thinking the same thing in terms of the team including a bit more of Seon Jae's storyline. Yoo Ah In is doing an admirable job, but unless you look at his social progression outside of his relationship with Hye Won, there's not much there.
    Thirdly, I agree with the anonymous comment ^^^ to an extent. It'll be difficult to end in one week without it ending like other dramas that have that race to the finish in the last few episodes, but we'll just have to see. However, if the new show didn't begin on the 19th, at the speed Secret Love Affair is going, it would be difficult to fill three more weeks. (Oops, mini-ramble...)

    1. They might not want to wrap things up properly. It's one of those shows that I wouldn't be at all surprised if it just ended and we had no idea what actually happened between the two leads, or to Hye Won and the court case, and everything, lol

  3. I usually don't want a drama to be extended because they just add fillers that don't add to the story. However, In SLA's case, I believe the opposite. There are so many scenes that felt edited out, such as when Hye Won and Sun Jae met at the friend's shop. I would've liked to know what they discussed for him to be wiping away tears. As you also mentioned previously, it would've been interesting to see how they decided to go on that trip. Why do I get the feeling that they actually filmed this for a 20-ep show and reduced it down to 16 at the last moment?

    1. It was meant to be a 16-ep show from the beginning. That's the initial notification Viki received from the entity that supplies the show.

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