THE SHORT VERDICT:
A drama that is a lot more measured and contemplative than its title – or its poster – might suggest.
To my knowledge, a good number of viewers hesitate over this show for one or several of these reasons: it’s about adultery; it probably condones adultery; it’s probably salacious, titillating audiences with an affair between a much older woman and a much younger man.
Secret Love Affair is not at all the cheap watch that some might assume it to be.
Thoughtfully written, expertly directed & executed and excellently acted, Secret Love Affair is an absorbing, immersive watch that is at once the story of a man, the journey of a woman, and an uncompromising study of human nature and what it means to really live.
Substantial, poetic and thought-provoking, and well worth your time.
THE LONG VERDICT:
In a drama landscape driven by so many conflicting forces – supply & demand, PPL, fan response and the limitations of the live-shoot system, to name just a few – it’s a rare and amazing thing to encounter a drama that retains its narrative coherence and its creative integrity.
Even rarer, is the drama that retains its narrative coherence and its creative integrity, and combines it with masterful, careful execution and nuanced, holistic character delivery.
Secret Love Affair does all of that, and does it with a classy, elegant restraint that is only fitting of its caliber.
A masterpiece, truly.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, so that you can soak in its loveliness as you read the review.
THE DRAMA’S CONSTRUCT
Tone & Sensibility
In line with its artistic sensibilities, Secret Love Affair possesses the ambience of an art film rather than a drama.
Production values are very high, and the world presented to us is carefully constructed, so that it doesn’t look as manufactured as most drama worlds.
The world that Sun Jae (Yoo Ah In) comes from is introduced with gritty, chaotic street sounds, and the world that Hye Won (Kim Hee Ae) comes from, is presented with mood lighting, its quiet, sophisticated atmosphere lightly scored with classical music.
From beginning to end, the drama infuses our experience of its world with skillful touches that serve to heighten our senses. Sound levels are turned up such that many sounds that would usually go unnoticed become magnified and brought to our attention.
Sharp intakes of breath, nervous gulps, the sound of skin on skin as Sun Jae nervously rubs his face when he’s near Hye Won, combined with mood-intensifying music swelling and swirling to fill the silences in each scene, take us into a state of hyper-awareness of the senses.
In that state of hyper-awareness, the varying degrees of every ragged breath, every turn of the eye, and every pause take on magnified levels of meaning.
It’s hyper-real to the extent of feeling surreal; at once immersive, absorbing and completely compelling.
Everything about the cinematography in Secret Love Affair is careful, detailed, and deliberate.
Lighting, color palettes and camera angles are specifically chosen for the messages that they convey, and combined, they tell a silent meta-story, adding layers to the story unfolding on our screens.
Compare the harsher lighting when we see Sun Jae’s world:
…to the more refined, softer lighting when we see Hye Won’s world:
The difference in lighting alone speaks volumes about the plebeian nature of Sun Jae’s world, versus the aristocratic quality of Hye Won’s world.
Simple, thoughtful visual cues like these are inserted throughout the drama, and effectively articulate some of the unspoken truths about the two very different worlds co-existing in this drama’s universe.
Another one of the cinematography’s defining characteristics, is the way the shots are often framed in a deliberately partial manner, giving us a subtle but clear sense that we are like voyeurs peeping into a world of which we are not a part.
Our point-of-view is frequently discreet, gracefully panning out from behind a protective screen, like so:
Or around a furtive corner, like so:
Even the pivotal scene of Sun Jae playing the piano in Hye Won’s home in episode 2, is framed such that we are watching most of it from behind the piano. The grand piano’s lid prop is squarely in our line of vision, like so:
Notably, the partial frame is only used when we are encountering Hye Won’s world.
Sun Jae’s world – which represents the regular world – does not get the voyeur treatment.
Combined, it is an effective metaphor of this show allowing us a peek into the privileged world in which Hye Won exists, in a manner that’s not all that different from how Sun Jae is peeking into it too, as an outsider.
So meticulously conceived, and so precisely, profoundly rendered.
The music in the show is such a constant presence in the show that it becomes a bona fide character in its own right.
When the music is played directly by the show’s characters, the music becomes their translator; every nuance in their feelings and emotions conveyed in their music’s overtones, as they pour their hearts into their playing.
As we listen to the music flowing forth from their hands, we begin to understand the detailed landscape of their deepest emotions.
When the music is a separate being in the background, it becomes our characters’ narrator, bringing additional life and dimension to their actions and expressions. It ebbs and swells with our characters’ journeys, heightening the highs, and deepening the lows.
At all times, the music is controlled, strong, robust, restrained, and completely masterful, not only in its execution, but also in its application. It’s the kind of music that will absorb you unto itself, and sweep you away, if you would surrender to it.
Beautiful. Gorgeous. Evocative. And completely immersive.
For a fascinating look at how Director Ahn Pan Seok’s team managed to achieve 100% synchronicity between the performances we hear in the drama, and the performances we see onscreen, check out this interview.
The Story & The Storytelling
Unlike most dramas that depend on convenient exposition fairies, Secret Love Affair thrusts us directly into its narrative.
We get a sense that we just happened to arrive on the cusp of this world in time to witness key events in our characters’ lives, rather than that the events are unfolding for our benefit.
The introductions we get are piecemeal, and the characters and their worlds slowly come together in a continually shifting kaleidoscope of fragments that inform us, from alternating points of view, who these people are, and who they are to one another.
The points of view flux among our main characters; we see things from Sun Jae’s, Hye Won’s, Da Mi’s (Kyung Soo Jin) and Joon Hyung’s (Park Hyuk Kwon) point of view. Interspersed with all these, we also get to see secondary characters’ points of view.
The effect of this, is that there is an ongoing sense that layers of truth are peeling away as we journey deeper into the drama, and that these will ultimately reveal a central, core truth.
Our characters’ normalcy at the beginning of the drama gives way to the introduction of the affair, and as we journey beyond that, the affair gives way to a deeper, fundamental search for meaning.
In the end, the textured, thoughtful storytelling creates a textured, thoughtful story that is so much more than a torrid love affair between a much older woman and a much younger man.
The Moral Issue
Before I watched Secret Love Affair, I encountered some viewer resistance, on the principle that the show is about an extra-marital affair.
While I understand that this can potentially touch a raw nerve for those whose lives have been affected by such an event, in the show’s defense, it doesn’t condone adultery.
Instead of portraying the affair as acceptable because of various reasons – common ones used by other dramas include:
- The spouse is a terrible person
- The spouse is physically &/or emotionally abusive, and the marriage relationship is an abusive one
- The marriage was never a love match to begin with
- There is no longer any love left in the marriage
– Secret Love Affair chooses not to take a moral stance on the subject, and instead poses a question.
In the beginning of the drama, more than once, we see Hye Won telling Young Woo (Kim Hye Eun) to break up with her boyfriend and quit men, since she’s married.
Hye Won is very clear on where she stands when it’s not her life, not her marriage, and not her much younger man. But when Sun Jae shows up in her life, in spite of herself and her heretofore clearly held principles, things just aren’t so clear anymore.
Rather than make a moral statement, Secret Love Affair shows us that it’s easy to cast the first stone – easy to make that judgment – when you’re not in the situation yourself.
In the end, the drama is a thought-provoking study on human nature and the murky waters of gray when black and white are no longer so clear and distinct.
THE WORLD OF THE DRAMA [SPOILERS]
Other Characters, Their Relationships & The World That They Live In
Beyond the elegant sheen, we learn that Hye Won’s world revolves on a bitter, calculating, rotting axis, where relationships between people are mere contracts built on mutually beneficial conditions to its parties, and are terminated coldly and preferably without fuss once those conditions change.
From Hye Won’s marriage to Joon Hyung, to her job at Seo Han Arts Foundation, and even to her friendship with her college friends, everything boils down to contractual terms, whether explicit or implicit, and it’s no wonder that Hye Won literally sees everything – even going home – as work.
It’s an exhausting world, where people use and abuse one another, and adopt vulture-like stances, each watching and waiting for someone else to fail, preferably to their benefit.
The people who surround Hye Won are mostly toxic, and on more than one occasion, I felt literally nauseated by their behavior.
Here are just a few of the more extreme lowlights:
E14. When the law comes knocking on their door for Hye Won’s involvement in corrupt practices at Seo Han, Joon Hyung exclaims to Hye Won, “You should sacrifice yourself a hundred times for me!”
Not an iota of sympathy, despite the fact that Hye Won has always been the one supporting him, in his career and in his finances. In E15, Joon Hyung, completely rattled by the search by the prosecution, shouts, “I have nothing to do with that woman’s corruption!”
Well. He’s certainly quick to look for ways to save himself.
E14. Chairman Han and the rest of his world being so matter-of-fact about letting Hye Won take the fall for all the shady dealings within the Arts Foundation, and with false evidence too.
It’s cold, detached, and completely revolting, particularly after they’d each angled to obtain her loyalty all series long.
E13. Secretary Wang (Baek Ji Won), hearing everything that is being put in place to corner Hye Won, smiling triumphantly to herself. Which is terrible, coz she’s supposed to be Hye Won’s friend.
It’s a world where the haves think nothing of trampling on the have-nots. Think Da Mi getting chewed gum stuck on her forehead by a bratty rich girl in episode 5. Think also, Hye Won being screamed at and slapped by her boss Young Woo on a regular basis.
It’s also a world where corruption is rationalized, and places in the College of Music get purchased by rich sponsors instead of being allocated by talent.
It’s a world comprised of fractured, typically self-serving business partnerships disguised as relationships, with few exceptions.
Over its 16 episodes, the show raises a key question: can someone who is not native to this world enter it, sink roots in it, and thrive?
This is the context and setting of our story.
THE MAIN CHARACTERS
Despite the fairly extensive cast, Secret Love Affair really is the story of just two characters: Hye Won and Sun Jae. In the interest of focus, these are the only two characters that I will explore in this review.
Kim Hee Ae as Oh Hye Won
Kim Hee Ae delivers a seamlessly believable, organic rendition of Hye Won, inhabiting the character so convincingly that she became Hye Won for me.
Everything about her performance is nuanced, faceted and restrained, and offers us such a layered representation of Hye Won as a character, that a more meticulous lens would only find details that support her characterization, rather than detract from it.
Every flick of her gaze, every absent-minded, fluid touch of her hand to the crook beneath her ear, and every slight intake of breath, adds to the depth and richness of Hye Won as a character.
I particularly love how classy, beautiful and sensuous Kim Hee Ae comes across as Hye Won. In the way that she moves, and even in the very air about her, Hye Won is elegant and graceful.
I actually like Hye Won as a character. Beyond the elegance, she’s a sharp thinker who’s quick on her feet and extremely resourceful; she has skill, talent and wisdom, and she does her work with admirable efficiency.
Most of all, I like that through it all, Hye Won possesses a warmth that, even at its most muted, is always present. At her most disheartened, and even at her coldest, Hye Won’s warmth and relatability are never far beneath the surface.
It is this warmth that reminded me, all series long, of Hye Won’s humanity.
The Mask & The Motivation
The fact that Hye Won isn’t organic to the world in which she lives, but a transplant, is not made immediately clear to us, but it’s hinted at, and alluded to by the people around her, until we finally piece it together.
Which begs the question: Who is Hye Won, and why does she want to be in this world?
Before we are acquainted with her motivation, we come to know the mask that she wears in this world in order to survive in it.
From the very beginning of the drama, we learn that Hye Won has to wheel and deal in the thick of business politics, and do battle to navigate basically every part of her life; not only her work, which is a political minefield that she must gingerly navigate and mitigate, but also her husband at home, who is far from being her safe haven.
In episode 1, we see that Hye Won needs to recover her energy with a beer – which turns into 2 beers – before she feels ready to see her husband.
As she drinks her beers, Hye Won says to the ahjumma, “Nothing is easy.”
Later in the episode, Hye Won, hiding behind her online moniker, says to Sun Jae, “Even my real name is fake.”
How telling, that the self that Hye Won puts forward in her world, is not her true self, but a persona. It’s no wonder that every part of her life is effortful, even going home to her husband.
Another thing that we soon learn, is that Hye Won may not have overt power, but she is a master at utilizing covert power.
In episode 4, when Sun Jae lands himself in jail, Hye Won wastes no time putting her husband to work to get Sun Jae out of trouble.
That she does it in a manner so that she doesn’t get involved directly, but still gets Sun Jae out, is masterful. Especially considering that it makes Joon Hyung think that in doing so, she is caring for him, finally.
While Joon Hyung does all the leg-work getting Sun Jae out of jail and back home, Hye Won waits at home, allowing her husband to think that he’s being Sun Jae’s rescuer and benefactor. Very impressive indeed.
Thereafter, in episode 5, Hye Won does struggle to keep up the charade and the chess game going, but in terms of setting up the chess pieces, she’s masterful.
Not only is Joon Hyung pleased and placated at having the opportunity to bring Sun Jae back and put up in the house, Sun Jae is now positioned as an important piece in the admissions cover-up, so that Madam Han (Shim Hye Jin) will approve of him.
Madam Han even tells Hye Won to now take care of Sun Jae and not lose him again. Plus, Joon Hyung keeps urging Hye Won to help Sun Jae too, and listen to him play.
Which means that everyone now actually wants Hye Won to spend time with Sun Jae. Hye Won is a consummate strategist indeed.
Despite the regular headaches and flat-out abuse that Hye Won has to suffer in her position, wedged among all the power players at Seo Han, she continues to endeavor to balance the intricacies of this political web with her own personal agenda.
The fact that Hye Won is such a master at mahjong is a reflection of her being a masterful strategist who is able to deduce the cards her opponents are holding and anticipate their next moves, all while looking to make her own move.
We hear Hye Won articulate this early in the series. In episode 1, Young Woo, after having her face flushed in the toilet by Madam Han, demands to know, “Whose side are you on?”
Hye Won’s answer is more on-point and honest than we know at the time, “I’m always on my side.”
It’s only in episode 13 that we hear Hye Won articulate the goal itself: “I want to belong to the upper class.”
And so it is, that to serve her quest of rooting herself in the upper class, Hye Won wears her exhausting mask in her exhausting world.
Looking Behind the Mask
One of the key layers that get peeled away in the course of the drama, is Hye Won’s mask.
Scene by scene, we slowly get to see the real Hye Won that resides behind the mask. Oftentimes, it feels like it is a discovery not only for us, but also for Hye Won herself, as she gets reacquianted with the self – both the artist and the woman – that she thought she’d left behind.
In the midst of her challenging world where she’s always putting up a front, we get a first peek into Hye Won just being herself while chatting online with Sun Jae in episode 1; ironically, where she hides behind a screen handle and a fake identity.
That concept, of anonymity allowing more freedom than our real lives, is nothing new to us in the blogosphere, and it is this anonymity that allows Hye Won to shed her mask momentarily, to just be herself.
In episode 3, after discovering that it is Sun Jae that she’s been chatting with online, and hearing from him how he thinks she has pretty feet, we see Hye Won experimentally prettying her feet with nail polish; evidence that what Sun Jae said has gotten to her.
It’s one of the first cracks that we see in her unruffled, elegant armor.
It is also the first time we observe evidence of Hye Won’s inner struggle. That she gets up out of bed to clean off the nail polish indicates that prettying her feet did mean something, and it’s a something that makes her uncomfortable.
Beyond Sun Jae’s feelings for her, I believe that Hye Won is moved by his talent; it speaks to the artist in her, the part of her that’s been muted, silenced and close to exile, in order to defer to the political strategist persona that she wears for work.
I believe that at the heart of it, that’s why she wants to help Sun Jae to begin with. Not to feed her vanity over his obvious crush on her, but to help him direct and further his talent.
In interacting with Sun Jae, though, Hye Won can’t help but be moved by him, and we see that eventually, thoughts of Sun Jae keep haunting her, even to the point of tears.
In episode 4, when Hye Won pieces together the fact that Da Mi is referring to Sun Jae when talking about her boyfriend, we can practically see the pieces coming together in Hye Won’s mind.
We also soon see that this realization affects Hye Won more than she expects or is comfortable with. In episode 5, we see Hye Won imagining Da Mi in bed with Sun Jae, the hot ‘n heavy visual coming to her mind unbidden, relentless and invasive.
Hye Won’s struggle to shake it off is clear, and we sense that her mind – and perhaps her heart, too – is taking her to unexpected, surprising, unforeseen places.
Even after Hye Won allows herself to act on her feelings for Sun Jae, and after they establish a romantic connection, we see that beneath her confident exterior, Hye Won is wary and suspicious.
In episode 7, when Sun Jae goes to look for a motel room for her to rest in, away from the stress that she associates with home, Hye Won gets angry with him and misreads his intentions. She leaves him stranded in an unfamiliar area while she drives off, furious.
Even after Sun Jae explains his intention of simply letting her rest comfortably, Hye Won is disbelieving.
This incident is such a clear indication that Hye Won continually feels that people want something from her.
Seo Han wants something from her. Joon Hyung wants something from her. It’s always some kind of trade. She’s not used to someone wanting to give her something, and not expecting anything in return.
Her inner struggle to reconcile her desire to allow herself to be vulnerable, and her long-established instincts to calculate everything, plays a key role in her personal journey.
Hye Won’s journey is arguably the most fascinating and thought-provoking one in the drama.
As the drama’s events unfold, Hye Won learns several important lessons. She learns that trading her loyalty to the privileged doesn’t necessarily buy her peace of mind nor security.
She learns that even someone with a humble financial background has the right to personal agency and self respect. She learns that the choices that she makes have consequences.
Most important of all, she realizes that the life that she’s chosen isn’t really what she wants.
Hye Won’s journey towards discovering the path to freedom, and girding herself to pay the price for that freedom, is one of the harder things to watch in this drama, but also one of the most gratifying and liberating.
We see the first cracks in Hye Won’s armor in episode 6. After Young Woo throws mahjong tiles at Hye Won, bruising her in several places, and even leaving a cut on her forehead, the weight of the crazy, abusive world that she lives in begins to finally take its toll on Hye Won.
Her recent interactions with Sun Jae serve as a catalyst, awakening something within Hye Won that wants more than just to survive in that world.
Hye Won begins to compare herself to Da Mi, and tears up that her body is sagging and her heart’s turned into a bag of sand. The new desires creeping into her heart cause Hye Won’s armor to crack, bit by bit.
It doesn’t help that when Hye Won runs away from Sun Jae in episode 7, she is met with only scorn from Joon Hyung. All he cares about is what other people might think if they saw her bruises.
I suppose part of this is coz he’s furious about the affair.
At the same time, I don’t think Joon Hyung would have been particularly warm towards her even before Sun Jae came along. There isn’t even a drop of sympathy towards Hye Won from Joon Hyung, that she got hit by Young Woo. Not a single hint.
It’s little wonder, then, that Hye Won is drawn to Sun Jae.
Sun Jae represents an escape from her world. Plus, he sees value in her and practically worships the ground she walks on, whereas in her world, even the people who acknowledge her value end up stepping all over her.
In the same episode, Hye Won’s encounter with Chairman Han’s “other woman” also serves as a wake-up call and an eye-opener to her.
The woman is blunt, matter-of-fact and forthright, and tells Hye Won plainly,
“I don’t know what you think of me. But I actually went to one of the best schools in China. And I was taught that all people are equal and that I was the ruler of myself. If I liked it so much, then I’d even pay to have it. I can’t pretend to like a guy just because he’s got money.”
Her words seem to hit Hye Won even harder than the drink that she tosses at Hye Won’s face when Hye Won presses her to accept the money envelope.
The fact is, Hye Won is married to a man she doesn’t like, for the sake of money. And Hye Won is anything but the ruler of herself, particularly at this point in her life.
All these distinct-but-not-so-different threads culminate in Hye Won sobbing alone on the couch in her office, so drained and weakened by it all, that she is unable to even stagger to her feet, and falls back down again, still in tears.
Soon after, in episode 8, Hye Won finally gives in to her desire to love Sun Jae freely. And loving him waters her emotional desert in a way that brings the dry bones of her heart back to life.
It doesn’t take much time, however, for prying vultures seeking a scapegoat to catch up with her. As the consequences of her actions close in on her, Hye Won’s struggle and pain are palpable.
In episode 11, Hye Won breaks down in heaving sobs in the car while talking to Ji Soo (Yoon Bok In). As her world threatens to fall apart, the thing that hurts her the most and is the hardest for her, is that she still misses Sun Jae.
I believe this is the point at which Hye Won begins to understand that she cannot easily detach herself from Sun Jae, as much as she tries.
It’s a prolonged struggle for Hye Won, as she grapples with the growing realization that she is not ready to give up Sun Jae, nor her quest for power within Seo Han.
It is a struggle that is hard to watch, as Hye Won teeters on the brink of losing everything, while trying to have it all. When she finally makes the choice that will give her freedom, it is not only a gratifying moment to witness, but an enormous character milestone.
An interesting question to consider, is whether Hye Won would have started to crack if Sun Jae hadn’t appeared in her world to shake her up.
My thought is that she would’ve probably managed to continue to keep step with the world in which she chose to live, but that eventually, something would have triggered the first crack anyway.
Hye Won was clearly not in happy circumstances, and her heart was really in neither her work nor her home lives, both of which were headache-inducing challenges. Rising to those challenges day after day would have eventually become a back-breaking burden.
I believe that even if Sun Jae had never appeared in her life, that Hye Won would have eventually cracked, either from some other catalyst, or simply from prolonged weariness.
Yoo Ah In as Lee Sun Jae
Yoo Ah In is simply outstanding as Lee Sun Jae. I honestly think that he was the choice to play Sun Jae; that literally, no one else would’ve done.
In terms of appearance, Yoo Ah In seems stockier than I remember in his other roles, and I think the stockier build suits the role.
It makes him appear heftier and less boyish, and adds to the very masculine aura that Yoo Ah In manages to carry into the role, despite his boyish haircut and clean shaven face. He makes Sun Jae youthful yet manly, and it’s such an ideal combination, for the character.
The stand-out, though, is Yoo Ah In’s delivery of Sun Jae. It’s so faceted, intricate, attentive, and so very believable.
I just love how Yoo Ah In plays Sun Jae, full of nervous twitching, stuttering, sweaty palms and bashful shifty eyes.
It’s absolutely pitch perfect (hur), and it makes him come across as young and full of wonder, with a lot of repressed energy, ready to discover the world that he’s about to be thrust into.
As circumstances evolve and as the stress levels increase, Yoo Ah In kills it; Sun Jae’s nervous swallowing and other ticks intensify, and every inflection of his facial muscles conveys a different shade of emotion.
Confused, frustrated, suffocated, angry; it only takes a second for each shade of raw emotion to flicker across Sun Jae’s face.
It reflects the impressive degree of control Yoo Ah In has, yet is so natural that it’s easy to completely forget that this is Yoo Ah In in character. He is Sun Jae, tortured and in pain.
It’s nothing short of masterful, and it – he – is completely mesmerizing.
On a related tangent, I just want to give major, major props to Yoo Ah In for managing the piano-playing scenes so amazingly well.
For someone who entered this drama without any prior experience with the piano, it is just mind-blowing that he personally played various snippets of the extremely challenging pieces, that even trained pianists would find difficult.
Talk about dedication. Talk about impressive. Talk about flat-out stunning.
For more details on the hows, check out this translated interview from Secret Love Affair’s press conference.
As a character, I really, really liked Sun Jae.
He represents all that is decent, innocent, and unsullied in a corrupt world. Sun Jae’s intentions are consistently pure, never mind what anyone says to try to influence him otherwise.
And perhaps most endearing of all, is how he seems completely unaware of the magnitude of his talent.
Just seeing the way Sun Jae plays music, we can tell that he is an all-in kind of guy when it comes to his emotions. He pours his whole heart into music, without holding anything back. It’s not hard to make the connection to see him pouring his whole heart into loving Hye Won too.
That wholehearted, pure-hearted earnestness in Sun Jae moved me all series long.
Sun Jae’s Context
When we meet Sun Jae, he’s never had any sort of proper guidance before in the area of music. He’s clearly hungry for any sort of solid guidance, and we see that in how he cleaves to “Mak Ki hyung” online, and then to Hye Won when he meets her.
While it might be easy to dismiss Sun Jae’s preoccupation with Hye Won as that of a young man infatuated with an attractive older woman, I believe that Sun Jae has a very sound instinct for what constitutes solid guidance.
For one thing, we see him rejecting Joon Hyung as a teacher very quickly.
And while that could arguably be attributed to his own preference for Hye Won, and his jealousy that Joon Hyung is married to such an amazing woman, it’s notable that Sun Jae doesn’t warm up to most other teachers at the College when he gets there, except for Professor Jo In Seo (Park Jong Hoon).
And we know that Professor Jo is possibly the only non-corrupt professor in attendance at the College, and the only one who demonstrates any true artistic integrity in the drama.
It’s my conclusion that Sun Jae’s hunger – and instinct – for guidance is very sound, and under Hye Won’s instruction, we see him bloom.
After the sudden and very tragic death of his mother, Sun Jae wrestles with his decision to give up music, and it literally nearly drives him crazy.
When he finally finds his way back to music, more so than ever, he seems to crave Hye Won’s approval and acceptance.
Music is pretty much all he has left, and Hye Won is the one person whom he trusts to help him fortify that lifeline.
Simmering Sincerity – He Just Wants to Love Her
It begins with adoration
Beyond – but not separate from – the realm of music, Sun Jae is very quickly captivated by Hye Won, from the moment that they meet.
We see it expressed unmistakably in his nervous, awed gaze, and in his self-conscious stuttering, and all the little twitches in his body language.
We see it, too, in the way he treats her and all that is hers.
In episode 2, when Hye Won’s foot gets stuck in a mouse trap, Sun Jae doesn’t hesitate to scoop her up off her feet, to rush her to the safety of the washroom.
It’s a pretty epic response from Sun Jae, and it’s clearly not him trying to be a romantic hero. It’s his knee-jerk response, to keep something – someone – as precious as Hye Won from harm.
He’s the same way with Hye Won’s shoes, arranging them so carefully and attentively, as if they are the most valuable things in the world. This is such a clear reflection of how he sees her; she is precious, a treasure, a goddess.
When Sun Jae tells Hye Won that he regards her as his teacher, he says, “That day my soul was born again.” And when Hye Won asks if his toes aren’t curling from saying all that cheesy-sounding stuff, he says no. He’s sincere.
Sun Jae is so intense about his conviction, that it’s absolutely riveting.
As Sun Jae relates to “Mak Ki hyung” later, he sees Hye Won as amazingly charismatic; scary, feisty, fun, and graceful. He is clearly intoxicated by Hye Won, revealing, “My soul has been captured.”
And he adds that that includes his body and heart too; everything. She’s captured his everything.
Sun Jae is disarmingly frank, telling “Mak Ki hyung” that he “literally climaxed,” and that he gave everything to the goddess.
Sun Jae’s confession is so candid and matter-of-fact, and his adoration of Hye Won is so ardent, so strong and so potent, that it’s hard not to feel a little intoxicated too.
Notably, Sun Jae doesn’t set out meaning to act on his feelings.
The knowledge that Hye Won is married to Joon Hyung seems to tear Sun Jae apart every time he is faced with that fact, but he doesn’t actually articulate wanting to have her for himself.
Aside from his frank confession to “Mak Ki hyung,” Sun Jae attempts – but fails – to conceal his feelings from Hye Won.
It’s interesting that in episode 5, Sun Jae tells Hye Won that he doesn’t ever want to get caught by Da Mi or by Joon Hyung. While that could be interpreted as selective honesty, I think Sun Jae’s just coming from a place of simply wanting to love her.
His Protective Instinct
As their relationship grows deeper, we see Sun Jae’s protective instincts emerge more and more. Even though he has no power to speak of, we see that he earnestly, deeply wants to protect her.
When he first realizes that Hye Won is treated poorly at Seo Han, it bothers him a great deal, and he struggles to find a way to make things better for her.
Along with the protective instinct, we also see Sun Jae’s deep desire to be able to acknowledge Hye Won as “his girl.”
We see it in episode 12, during their weekend getaway, when Sun Jae tells the restaurant ahjumma that he and Hye Won are a couple.
We see it, too, in episode 15, where Sun Jae is eager to introduce Hye Won to his quintet friends. As he introduces her, finally, he beams with pride for her; as a teacher, and as his (unspoken) girl.
Along with his desire to protect Hye Won, we also see Sun Jae assert himself in their relationship, more and more.
It’s in the smallish beats, like in episode 15, when Sun Jae hands Hye Won the keys to his house and tells her to stay there until he gets home.
Or during the bust by Joon Hyung and the police. Through it all, Sun Jae does his best to protect Hye Won, in every way possible.
Like how he tells her to stay still, offering to talk to the police. And when all else fails, at least, to exchange seats with her so that she wouldn’t have to sit next to Joon Hyung at the police station.
Although Sun Jae is frustrated by his limited capacity to protect Hye Won, I find his deep desire to shield her and keep her safe extremely touching.
He consistently searches for any little way that he can protect Hye Won, with no thought for his own well-being. That selflessness, and that earnestness, to not give up even when the odds are stacked against him, is completely moving.
Sun Jae’s Substance – His effect on other people
One of the things I really appreciate about Sun Jae is his positive effect on other people.
It’s not something that the show dwells on too much, but in episode 9, Da Mi makes mention of it. She credits Sun Jae with getting her to quit the gang that she used to be in, and changing her as a person, for the better.
Sun Jae tries to do the same, for Hye Won.
We see him reason with Hye Won more than once, asking her to leave her world to come to his, trying to convince her that she has a choice.
And Sun Jae’s not all talk, either. He puts effort into finding a teacher somewhere, who will take him and his girlfriend.
Even though Hye Won consistently resists, Sun Jae does all he can to help Hye Won make a choice that will remove her from the toxic world that she is in, as well as give them and their relationship a chance.
In the end, I do believe that it is Sun Jae’s influence that helps Hye Won make her choice; not so much because of what he says or does, but more because of the kind of person he is.
Sun Jae’s Pain
As ardent and passionate are Sun Jae’s feelings of love and devotion, so is his pain equally acute and potent. And Yoo Ah In embodies Sun Jae’s pain is such a believably heartbreaking manner, that one can’t help but feel sorry for Sun Jae.
Whether he’s groaning from the extent of the inner pain, or sobbing it out, Sun Jae’s pain is completely heart-rending to witness.
Perhaps even more eloquently than the tears, is how Sun Jae expresses his pain through his music.
Arguably the most memorable scene where this happens, is in episode 14, where Joon Hyung insists on the awful charade of happy family at the party, with Sun Jae having to act the part of the dutiful student.
When Joon Hyung drunkenly insists that Sun Jae show everyone how Twinkle Twinkle should really be done, Sun Jae takes to the keys, pouring all of his wretchedness and frustration into his rendition of the piece.
Sun Jae’s agony is evident not only on his face, but also in the music that flows from his hands. Outside, without even needing to look at his face, Hye Won weeps at Sun Jae’s suffering, voiced so clearly by the music that he plays.
Afterwards, outside the house, Sun Jae barely manages to hold it in. The sobs break forth in heaving, wheezing waves that overcome him, and he crumples to the ground as he lets the tears overtake him.
Whether he is smitten and in the throes of first love, or writhing from the pain of it all, Sun Jae is heartbreakingly, bone-achingly wonderful to watch.
His earnestness as a character, in possession of so much genuine heart, and so much poetic soul, moved me deeply.
THE KEY RELATIONSHIP: SUN JAE & HYE WON
Despite the real-life age difference of 19 years, Yoo Ah In and Kim Hee Ae are completely convincing as our lovers, caught up in an unexpected, intoxicating, life-changing love affair.
Their chemistry simmers, smolders and sizzles onscreen, adding depth and dimension to all of their characters’ interactions, so much so that the relationship literally comes to life.
The relationship between Hye Won and Sun Jae feels complex, raw, organic, and completely believable.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
The Core of Their Love
At its core, the relationship that Hye Won and Sun Jae share is a meeting of souls.
To Sun Jae and Hye Won, the musical realm is even more real to them than this world in which they live. That’s why Sun Jae considered that duet with Hye Won in episode 2, where he gave her everything, equivalent to him losing his virginity.
In that other realm, where they both come truly alive, is where he connected with her in a way that felt like their very souls were interwoven as one.
They both feel so nourished by the time together in the musical realm, that they both don’t feel the need for physical food. Another indication that to both of them, the musical realm is even more real and tangible than this world.
Sun Jae describes it as his soul being born again that day, awakened and brought to life by her interest in him as a person.
I actually think they brought each others’ souls to life that day. He by watering her dried out soul with the life flowing through his music, and her by caring for him as a person, and acknowledging his genius and talent in the one area that mattered most to him: music.
In its execution, the duet really feels like it’s a metaphor for a love scene; the enthralled looks, the breath caught in their throats; the bodily swaying and responding to each other in the rhythm.
The finish of the song and the release that comes with, as well as their ragged breathing, feels so much like a metaphor for the, er, climax of the love scene. And the air about it definitely feels charged.
Afterwards, Hye Won’s air is exactly that of a woman recently undone. She’s relaxed, glowing, curling up in bed thinking about how beautiful he is.
And then there’s how Sun Jae obsesses over various moments they shared, squeeing silently to himself on the bridge, reliving them over and over.
The body language is all about love and infatuation, showing us in no uncertain terms that the piano-playing is a deeply emotional experience for them both.
So much so that neither of them feels the need to eat after playing without food for an entire day. They feel filled, literally, from sharing the music.
Sun Jae doesn’t even feel the need to go home or sleep, he stays on the bridge till dawn, playing music on the railing, with a vision of Hye Won by his side.
In episode 8, when they’re playing their pianos on their own, separately, at the same time, it feels like that’s how they’re connecting to each other, in some virtual place, tied together by the same music.
Over time, we get a stronger and stronger sense that Hye Won and Sun Jae share a connection that transcends the physical; their souls meet in a realm where only music can transport them to, and that is where they truly express and consummate their love.
Their Effect On Each Other
From the very moment that they meet, Hye Won and Sun Jae affect one another in profound ways, each changing the other, and often without realizing it.
In episode 2, the time that they spend together in the piano studio, when Sun Jae plays for Hye Won, is a deeply affecting experience for them both.
For Hye Won, who’s working and surviving in such a harsh, dog-eat-dog world where she doesn’t even get to touch the piano, but instead has to walk on eggshells around political time-bombs that hate each other, her time with Sun Jae is a balm for her very soul.
It feels like his pure, raw talent, untainted by the world in which she exists, brings back to life a part of her that used to feel dead.
She comes alive and is moved to tears, just listening to him play, just being in the same room as he, as he unleashes that emotion and passion onto the keys. She drinks of it, and draws life from it.
He is the oasis to her desert, and she is the sunshine that nourishes him, as she appreciates his music.
With Sun Jae’s adoring crush on Hye Won in full bloom, it’s clear that Hye Won’s literally awakened something in Sun Jae.
At the same time, Sun Jae’s also awakening something within her; the way he regards her as a goddess is making her see herself with new eyes. It’s making her inner goddess awaken, the sexual being part of her that her husband doesn’t see.
Over time, that awakening seems to give Hye Won new strength. Sun Jae’s adoration and respect seems to empower Hye Won to also love herself, a little. For example, in episode 8, she stands up to Young Woo’s bullying, something that she never did in the past.
Bit by bit, Hye Won also begins to stick out her hands to grab what she really desires.
In the same episode, it’s out of character, yet liberating, to see her throw caution to the wind and just go to Sun Jae’s place to wait for him.
That she’d change into his clothes and let down her hair and wait for him on his bed is a huge step, considering how Hye Won had struggled to keep Sun Jae at arm’s length prior. It’s no wonder that Sun Jae is completely blown away and thinks she’s downright sexy.
As their passion and hunger for each other grows, we see Hye Won and Sun Jae begin to act in increasingly rash ways in order to spend more time together.
Like the time in episode 9 when Sun Jae shows up late at night at Hye Won’s place, and Hye Won decides to put aside her reservations and agrees to a ride.
Then Hye Won even suggesting that they go back to his place, where, after a brief moment of hesitation, they fall into a hungry, passionate embrace:
Their burning desire to spend time together literally drives them to act in increasingly reckless ways.
In episode 12, Hye Won goes to the eatery under Sun Jae’s place, in spite of the risks, and in spite of her better judgment.
Later in the same episode, Hye Won takes off in the midst of Chairman Han’s indictment to see Sun Jae. That’s definitely out of her previously controlled character, and very reckless.
Sun Jae, too, takes risks in order to see Hye Won. In episode 14, he shows up outside Hye Won’s house. It’s a scarily dangerous move, considering how the prosecution is watching them 24/7.
Both Hye Won and Sun Jae seem like moths drawn to a flame. They are so intensely drawn to each other, that they are literally unable to breathe without the other.
The dynamic between Hye Won and Sun Jae undergoes a change trajectory over time, as their relationship evolves and as circumstances shift.
In the beginning of the relationship, Hye Won asserts her power over Sun Jae. The power dynamic between them is that of a teacher and her student, even though their relationship has turned romantic.
In episode 7, we see Hye Won using harsh tones on Sun Jae, and adopting a colder attitude. Mostly I think it’s how she’s dealing with her fear.
At the same time, Sun Jae seems extremely confused.
He’s clear on what he feels for Hye Won, but she’s not being very transparent with him. On top of that, he’s also confused at the world in which she lives, and why people in that world treat her so.
When Hye Won confronts him about his intentions for booking a motel room, Sun Jae is honest and forthright, “I love you! So I want to sleep with you someday. But not back there… you said that you were tired.”
In the face of Hye Won’s evasiveness and lack of transparency, Sun Jae chooses to be truthful and straightforward.
He is consistently the standard and example of emotional honesty, and I like that very much.
In episode 8, when Hye Won’s jealousy has grown to a degree where she can’t control it, and she lashes out at Sun Jae, Sun Jae doesn’t take her anger at face value.
Instead, he sees past the lashing out and latches onto the dual facts that 1, she came by to his place like he asked, and 2, she was jealous.
That’s actually very emotionally perceptive of him.
It is Sun Jae’s emotional integrity that eventually turns the dynamic around between them.
In the process of trying to import Sun Jae into her world, Hye Won repeatedly tries to educate him on how he can live off his talent by using the money of the rich to get whatever he wants. But Sun Jae is consistently unwilling.
Eventually, Hye Won is the one who cracks.
In her long text to Sun Jae in episode 9, when she leaves in a taxi without saying goodbye. it’s the most honest and transparent she’s been all drama long, to anyone.
That she now feels safe enough with Sun Jae to articulate so much to him, and show him her vulnerability, is a huge character milestone.
Hye Won giving Sun Jae access to her personal mobile, versus her previous instruction not to call or text, is another big step. It’s becoming 2-way now, because she’s finally allowing him to reach out to her.
Slowly, as their relationship grows, and as Sun Jae takes on more and more of the protector persona, their dynamic shifts too.
I love the moment Sun Jae sees Hye Won again for the first time after they first sleep together. Sun Jae’s bashful gaze is so endearing as he asks, “Are you ok?” So protective, while asserting himself gently as the man in the relationship.
In little things, we begin to see Sun Jae taking more of the protector role. Like the time when Sun Jae gets the CCTV turned off in the practice room, so that he and Hye Won don’t have to deal with the filth. It’s sweet and rather ballsy.
Notably, they maintain decorum even though the cameras are switched off.
In episode 10, after Sun Jae’s concert, as they sit together watching the recording in her office, there’s this moment when Sun Jae takes Hye Won’s hand, and then places her hand on his leg.
It’s in that moment that the dynamic between them shifts. In the matters of piano and everything related, Hye Won is the one who calls the shots. But Sun Jae asserts himself romantically.
Sun Jae doesn’t do it in a pushy way, but in a way that shows that he’s still the man in the relationship.
It echoes how he’d responded to her when she’d first offered him a hug, many episodes earlier. He’d responded then, “I’ll.. give you a hug.”
We see this again, when Sun Jae shows Hye Won where he’d caught his first glimpse of her, in his courier days.
Now, he’s the one who holds her and guides her with his hands on her body. Now, he’s the one who leans in to kiss her. And now, he’s the one who is clearly quite intent on taking it further too.
Outside of their romantic skinship, Sun Jae submits to Hye Won’s authority and looks up to her. But in his mind, she’s still his girl, and he still wants to protect her. And he asserts himself as a man in the area where she admittedly has little experience: love.
By the time we arrive at our later episodes, the shift in dynamic goes a step further.
In episode 12, as they sit at the villa, Hye Won jokes that Sun Jae’s been teaching her all along. Sun Jae jokes in response, “Then why don’t you learn?”
At a deeper level, their conversation resonates with another layer of meaning.
Sun Jae keeps trying to teach her and show her that she has a choice, that she doesn’t need to live that terrible world and that she can leave.
It’s Hye Won who takes a long time to learn the lesson that he so earnestly tries to teach her.
Ultimately, though, Hye Won does learn it, and by the end of our story, the dynamic shift between them is complete.
Here, I give a quick spotlight to some of the key scenes between Sun Jae and Hye Won.
The First Kiss
In episode 3, Hye Won and Sun Jae share their first kiss.
Hye Won has been drinking, and Sun Jae has been trying to deal with the overwhelming guilt and misery over his mother’s death. As Sun Jae walks towards her, in the dark of her garage, we can see that he’s on the brink of losing it.
He admits to Hye Won that it’s all hell now, and Hye Won, moved by his pain, reaches to touch his face.
Unable to bear it, Sun Jae trembles before reaching to draw her to himself and kiss her.
The kiss is desperate, intense and overflowing with raw passion.
The First Embrace
In episode 5, Hye Won, who’s been holding Sun Jae at arm’s length, and pretending not to remember the kiss, finally cracks at Sun Jae’s repeated pleas to talk things out.
When Sun Jae indicates his wandering thoughts around the fact that Hye Won shares a room with Joon Hyung, Hye Won acts out by kissing Sun Jae.
She frames it as a reprimand, even though the kiss clearly feels more driven by passion and desperation.
She turns to leave, curtly instructing Sun Jae to reflect on his actions, but Sun Jae reaches out to her in a desperate backhug.
He implores, “I just want to play [piano]; please listen.” And Hye Won caves into his arms.
We literally see the moment that Hye Won gives in to the wave of emotion that Sun Jae brings out in her, as she exhales and allows him to hold her.
Afterwards, as Hye Won and Sun Jae spend time together at the piano playing duets, it feels like they’re on a date.
It’s sweet and absolutely heartening to witness, coz they look like they’re having such a breezy, innocent, fun time.
The Love Scene
In episode 8, when Hye Won waits for Sun Jae in his home, the couple finally consummate their love.
The treatment of the love scene is discreet and subtle, and we hear only Sun Jae’s and Hye Won’s voices as the camera pans over various mundane household objects.
The voice-over of the love scene is tasteful yet very intimate; the lowered, gentle tones, Sun Jae’s voice sometimes taking on the rough lower registers, Hye Won’s tearful gasps. It feels almost voyeuristic to listen.
As far as the audience goes, we see their love scene in their music. This is consistent through the drama, and this scene is no different.
After their lovemaking, we see Hye Won and Sun Jae chat and joke and play. And perhaps most intimate of all, is the moment we see Sun Jae play for her, while she lies back and allows herself to sink into his music.
The First Date
In episode 15, Sun Jae takes Hye Won on a date, and they walk hand in hand along the streets, just enjoying the normalcy of the moment.
As they walk, Hye Won muses, “You must really like me… You must madly love me… That must be why you’re not even scared.” Sun Jae answers in the affirmative, and draws her close to himself in a tight embrace.
He tells her, “It’s going to be fine. Just stay as my girl.” And then he kisses her, deeply, passionately and without self-consciousness or restraint.
That Sun Jae still readily confirms his love for Hye Won, in spite of everything, is sweet. That they enjoy holding hands so much, is sweet. That he kisses her deeply and openly, is sweet. And disarmingly, stomach-flippingly sexy.
I genuinely like the ending. It’s hopeful, clean, and warm.
Hye Won finally does leave the world of dirt and filth, and not by running away like Sun Jae had suggested before. She lays out her crimes and agrees to pay for them all, regardless of the sentence.
To appease her conscience. Just being able to have a clear conscience gives her the freedom to sleep soundly at night. And the way she gazes out through the fence to the world; her face is no longer guarded, but her eyes are clear and her smiles full of freedom and hope.
It’s rather ironic that it’s behind literal bars that Hye Won finds her freedom, where before, her lavish lifestyle had been a suffocating prison.
That Hye Won offers Sun Jae the option to leave and forget about her is so poignant. It shows that Hye Won truly cares more for him than for herself. It shows, too, that her actions were never about trying to stay with Sun Jae, but were more about satisfying her conscience.
On the other hand, that Sun Jae decides that they should give their relationship a chance, that he refuses to quit without even trying, is so earnest, and so sweet, in such a down-to-earth sort of way.
And I find it so lovely, that he refers to her as his home now, after she’d christened him hers before.
I love that they can laugh amid the tears.
I love too, that in the end, he seeks his solace in music everyday, just like she once told him to, as Mak Ki hyung. And it’s through playing that music, that he connects with her everyday, in that virtual soulful space where they first found each other.
I believe they’ll make a new and meaningful life together when she gets out of jail. And I believe Sun Jae won’t have to wait too long either, since there are hints that the prosecution will go easy on Hye Won because she’s bringing them bigger fish.
I like to think that the future they build together post-prison won’t be too far from Sun Jae’s version of their lives, that he’d imagined while they walked the streets holding hands. Down-to-earth, together, and contented.
METAPHORS, SYMBOLISM, MOTIFS
The entire drama is so rich with metaphors, symbolism and motifs, that it’s impossible to discuss them all. Here, I highlight some of the key ones.
1. Who is Hye Won?
In episode 9, Sun Jae saves Hye Won’s name as her initials backwards: WHO.
That’s also the underlying question of this drama. Who is Oh Hye Won? What is she really about? What does she really want? What would truly make her happy? And those are questions to Hye Won herself too. She’s discovering the answers, one interaction with Sun Jae at a time.
In episode 11, Hye Won’s got Sun Jae saved as “home” on her cellphone. He’s where she feels safe and truly at home.
And by episode 16, Sun Jae is also referring to Hye Won as his home.
3. Duets as Love Scenes
I’ve mentioned it before in this review, that Sun Jae’s and Hye Won’s duets function more like love scenes, on a symbolic level.
This takes an uncomfortably weird turn in episode 10, when Joon Hyung stands watching Hye Won practice with Sun Jae.
Given that playing duets together is one of the intimate things that Hye Won and Sun Jae share, to the point of it being practically orgasmic, it feels like Joon Hyung is literally watching his wife cheat on him with Sun Jae. Very weird indeed.
There are several themes that surface throughout the drama, and I’d just like to highlight the main ones.
It’s not your environment that gives you freedom. We see that ordinary folks like Da Mi may not have true freedom – in beating up the privileged girl at work, she could lose her job – and we also see that Hye Won, even in her upper class world, doesn’t have freedom.
The idea that freedom is a choice. That one can learn to live freely and truly relax.
Hot as fire, cold as ice
In episode 7, there’s the repeated concept of hot as fire, cold as ice.
In Sun Jae’s audition piece, Hye Won tells him to remain cold in order to interpret the piece, which is hot. And Chairman Han refers to his new woman similarly: hot as fire, then cold as ice. And it is precisely this quality that intrigues him about her.
Hye Won goes through that too. Sometimes, when she’s thinking of Sun Jae, or when she’s with him, she gets as hot as fire.
I think in her efforts to tamp down that fire, which her brain clearly tells her is wrong, she becomes as cold as ice. Even her friends and co-workers feel the iciness from her. The ice is her shield.
But the fire eventually burns through the ice.
Journey from the dark towards the light
This happens on several levels.
Hye Won’s dark deeds for Seo Han, finally coming to light.
Hye Won’s dark world, finally filled with Sun Jae’s light. In episode 9, Hye Won describes walking up the slippery stairs and through the scary dark hallway, motivated by the thought that at the end of the dark hallway was Sun Jae’s apartment, his place.
On a metaphorical level, she’s now in a dark place, and Sun Jae, representing warmth and light and a warm, honest, human heart is the light at the end of her tunnel.
Hye Won’s and Sun Jae’s relationship, from having to stay in the shadows, out of sight, finally coming out into the light. In episode 15, the open display of affection between Hye Won and Sun Jae, in front of everyone else, feels bold and the open display is like being out in the light, finally.
What does it mean to love?
This question comes up all series long.
Da Mi, in her version of love, desires to possess Sun Jae. Even when Sun Jae clarifies with her that he doesn’t see her as a woman, she states that she’d be upset if Sun Jae got involved with some other girl. That isn’t love. Hye Won’s marriage of convenience to Joon Hyung is not love.
Hye Won finally learns to love Sun Jae by offering to let him go. Sun Jae learns to love Hye Won by staying with her anyway, even when he can’t be with her in person.
What does it mean to live?
All series long, there’s a repeated theme of breathing and suffocating.
By episode 12, Hye Won begins to use a repeated excuse, that she needs to get some air, when she’s going to meet Sun Jae.
That turns out to be quite literal, because she’s suffocating in the world in which she lives, and Sun Jae is her fresh air. It’s becoming a need for her, to see Sun Jae, so that she feels that she can breathe.
In episode 14, Sun Jae is literally unable to breathe while wearing the clothes that represent Hye Won’s world.
The idea that to find what it means to live, you need to find a way to breathe.
In the end, Secret Love Affair is not about judging what’s right and what’s wrong. It doesn’t seek to make a moral judgment about adultery. The thing is, in life, people make mistakes. What really matters is what you do, in order to set things right, in order to continue living.
And that’s Hye Won’s story. That’s what she does. She finds a way to set things right, in order to satisfy her conscience, in order to breathe freely, in order to live freely.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
This drama will suck you in with its intensity. Beautiful, evocative and soulful. Not for the faint of heart.
FINAL GRADE: A++
For those who haven’t seen the show, here’s the official trailer:
WHERE TO WATCH:
Available for free on Viki.
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I gotta admit I was definitely one of those people who gave this one a wide berth at first, partly because I was (at first) mostly only interested in sageuks but also because of the premise of an extramarital affair. However, because of your other insightful reviews and my trust of your taste, I eventually decided to give it a shot (and thanks to me being slightly smitten with Yoo Ah In…that definitely played a large factor in this
And shock of shocks, I’m very glad I checked it out! I’m still a few episodes shy of the ending (I expect I’ll finish it within the next few days), but I’ve been so pleased with it as a story and romance so far. I must admit I was a little leery and hesitant too over how Hye Won’s and Seon Jae’s relationship would be handled given the disparities between them from wealth, authority, and maturity. But ultimately I needn’t have worried at all since the drama handled the progression of their relationship in such a satisfying way (I pretty much cheered when Hye Won started confiding in Seon Jae and he started standing up to her more ha). Basically I wasn’t sure if i would be convinced they were actually in love and…well, i’ve been shown the error of my ways. Plus the tension of the plot overall and their individual lives and how their relationship connects with that has me on the edge of my metaphorical seat.
also (at risk of being too long-winded) this drama made me super nostalgic for my own (extremely mundane) piano days lolol
Simply beautiful. Thank you for recommending this show, Kfangirl, and for naming everything that’s so right about it.
Thank you for taking the time and effort to write, beautifully, your precise and tender analysis of this gorgeous film. I have been able to enjoy it so much more deeply after having read your analysis. I had missed so much until you pointed them out–use of lighting, color palette, breath/air and ice/fire as themes and metaphors. I also appreciate the imbedded links to interviews and music. (And I’m writing this 7 years after your initial post–your work is still alive and influential) 🙏🏽
Thank you for the kind words, Solange! <3 I'm so glad to know that this review has increased your appreciation for this masterpiece of a drama! 🙂 (Wow, I can hardly believe it's been 7 years already! 😱)
Merij1…. I knew if you’d just stay with this drama y’all would be rewarded. It’s not at all a cut and dried predictable type of drama. For me the characters showed us their failings and immaturity…which are all
part of our human condition. Looking forward to your ‘review’.
Ok, here I go. First, my thoughts on the the meta-story:
We haven’t see Parasite yet and probably never will. But as an indictment of the uber-rich 1%, Secret Love Affair says it all.
Specifically, in Episode 8. That’s when young Sun Jae asks whether the person who purposefully humiliated his older lover right in front of him is the woman “at the very top” of the vile food chain she serves.
Hye Won replies, with her own rapidly growing awareness: “No, at the top is not that woman, but money. . . But that’s not it, either. What’s really at the top is something that endlessly whispers, ‘you can money anything with money.’ A demon.”
Seeing her world through the eyes of this young man and his girlfriend Da Mi – plus an angry waitress she’s (needlessly) tasked to bribe to end an illicit relationship – our deeply compromised heroine learns that all her sacrifices to make it to the upper class were for naught. Because there’s neither safety nor happiness at the top. No self-respect. Just a demon and its enthralled slaves.
As to the love story, I mostly loved it. Kim Hee Ae’s portrayal of Hye Won is simply incredible. Another noona actress for me to crush on, for sure. Or as KFG put it:
“Every flick of her gaze, every absent-minded, fluid touch of her hand to the crook beneath her ear, and every slight intake of breath, adds to the depth and richness of Hye Won as a character.”
Yes, all that.
Yoo Ah In was equally solid as Sun Jae, though evidently I’d appreciate his acting transformation more if I’d seen him in anything else. (I guess it doesn’t count that we ALMOST watching Burning a few times?)
At times I found his character deeply annoying, being all emotions and impulse. But it was certainly credible. And as I mentioned in response to Beez further below, it certainly shook Hye Won into the final actions that saved her soul.
One of my favorite moments was when they openly embraced in front of her enemies outside the police station. Her longtime friend/abuser (the chairman’s daughter, Young Woo) is stunned to see it, realizing that this is not the cheap lust nor desperate neediness she experiences with her gigolo/boy toys. Rather, these are two people who truly care about each other.
Burning – don’t believe the hype. IMO. If anything, I found Yoo Ah in directed to be underwhelming. Which maybe that fit that character. I don’t know because I didn’t liked the movie but maybe it is a good movie just not my taste.
If you want to see Yoo Ah in demonstrate what he’s been lauded for, two movies – The Throne based on a true historical event. And The Veteran, in which he’s the bad guy.
And, of course the drama, Six Flying Dragons that I’m always going on about.
We finally watched Burning, btw. As a commentary on class divides, it was very good.
But we hated Yoo Ah In’s character. Honestly, it felt like a caricature of his role in SLA, only without the talent!
I’m so glad we finally listened to those of you who suggested we watch Sungkungkwan Scandal, so could appreciate that he’s not always like this.
@ beez: Having seen him in a number of things, the best I have seen has been Secret Love Affair. But then acting across from Kim Hee Ae probably lifted his game considerably. In just about everything else I am more aware of Yoo Ah In the actor than the character he is playing. In this one he became that nineteen year old genius prodigy. The problem with Burning was that it simply shouted: ART! Yoo Ah In already has a slight problem with pretentious acting and Burning exacerbated that.
I also liked that they didn’t feel a need to bring closure to the legal fate of Hye Won’s antagonists. As she herself explains in her courtroom soliloquy, it doesn’t really concern us. Because, at the end of the day, they don’t matter. Only she and Sun Jaw matter.
How long will her sentence be and will these two end up together years later? We don’t even know that. Will the school truly be handed over to the horrible sister-in-law, who doesn’t appear to care about music at all, much less non-wealthy students attempting to learn it? Sounds like it. But that’s not our story either.
All we know is that due to her love of this pure young man, Hye Won re-found herself — the self she had been years ago, before starting that slow descent to the outer gates of hell.
All that said, at times we hated this show. We hate-loved it.
Usually when we watch K-romance, we spend our entire work day looking forward to our free time in the evening, so we can fit in two more episodes. Then, afterwards, we go to bed feeling more in love with each another.
But during the middle third of this show, we were dreading the evening’s watch; and then went to bed in a foul mood, needing to be very careful not to get into idiotic arguments with each other.
Not because it wasn’t good. To the contrary, it’s really, really well done in so many ways. It’s just that the mid-stretch was so incredibly stressful to watch. Or at least it was for us. (I won’t repeat my detailed complaints on this here, so look for them in my older “mid-show” comments further below if you’re curious why we found it so stressful.)
Maybe the consequences feel more real to us, as an older couple who’ve seen events like this play out IRL?
Just watching her husband deal with becoming a cuckold was stressful. It’s not like either of us liked the guy.
He was a thoughtless, mediocre man at best, and then was revealed by the end to be far worse than that. But it was still awkward seeing him often be the ONLY person in the room who didn’t realize how pathetic he was, believing himself to be Sun Jae’s benevolent mentor/savior. Cringeworthy!
Lastly, I will repeat myself: what an incredibly satisfying final episode!
In terms of how these shows bring things to a close, we’ve experienced a wide spectrum, from weak to awesome. To my surprise, even the best shows sometimes end weakly. (Totally aside from whether they drive into a ditch in a failed attempt to rec-create tension around episode 11-13.)
This show ended by ringing the awesome bell, super loud and clear. I’m always grateful for that, so thanks, writers-nim, PDs and everyone else involved!
Ahh!! I’m really glad you ended up enjoying this one, MeriJ!!! 😀 I know this show isn’t for everyone, but I really found this a satisfying watch, and I agree with you, this show ended strong. It may not have been everyone’s ideal ending, but I liked it. I felt it was realistic enough, but mixed in with enough idealism and hope, to make it feel liberating and even uplifting. 🙂 I’m glad you found the journey worthwhile, even though there were times when you wondered whether to continue. I guess that’s the mark of a good show – it knows how to bring the angst so well, that we become a little bit afraid..? Granted, some shows wouldn’t be able to pull off a satisfying ending, after taking liberties with our hearts, but I found this a thought-provoking and powerful watch, and I’m glad you don’t regret the journey. 🙂
Thanks to the three of you for encouraging us to finish!
“No, at the top is not that woman, but money. . . But that’s not it, either. What’s really at the top is something that endlessly whispers, ‘you can buy anything with money.’ A demon.”
merij1!!! This drama is totally doing to y’all what it does best! Y’all are sucked it! And y’all are loving it, right?
Ha. Love-hate is more like it. I think about it constantly, so yes on the sucked-in part.
It works well as Parasite-like commentary on the 1% vs. the precariat. (New vocabulary word for you there, if you don’t already know it!)
The way all the 1%ers in the show live lives of manipulation and game-playing deceit vs. the guilelessness of the precariat. Which is not to underestimate the girlfriend, but only to note that like Sun Jae she is direct and open, whereas even Hye Won has become almost incapable of such transparency.
We finished it. What an incredibly great final episode that was! Just perfect.
I’ll read KFG’s review tomorrow and comment if I have anything else to say.
merij1…..I couldn’t agree with you more over your comments about SLA!!! It was quite a ride..wasn’t it? I knew if you could only get to the end….y’all would feel satisfied with writernim’s story. And, yes, it is hard to watch someone come to the realization that their life’s pursuits reaped only emptiness. I too am an older viewer of these dramas and are all too aware of consequences IRL. This is something the KDrama writers do so well… it must be the ‘Han’ in their souls.
As for Parasite. Do watch it. Exceptional movie. So compact and done with such detail. So much like this drama. I will see if I can find the articles I’ve read that speak to these details and the metaphors used. The one I remember the most was in the first episode….after hearing the piano….SunJae is watching her from behind the curtains….she is dressed in black and white…the black and white of the piano keys he has such passion for….so easily that passion is transferred to her! I also particularly liked there ‘time away’ and how they talked so intimately with one another. I believe this was where they confirmed the fact they were soul mates for certain. The Billy Joel song was good too!
If you’re not up for YAI in Burning…try The Throne. And yes..the king really did what the movie says he did. Or perhaps…Tough As Iron, Punch, or the drama Chicago Typewriter….which is a very well told…great, great love story. YAI had shaved his head in prep for military service and appears in this drama with a no hair. He’d gone for his final physical and was rejected because of a non malignant tumor in his shoulder. Seems it is also inoperable…as I recall.
The addition to KDrama is real…but I choose to call it a hobby! 🤣🤣🤣. Oh, have I suggested Money Flower? Best revenge (Boksu) drama ever. Again, two exceptional actors…Jang Hyuk and Lee MiSook!
Have any of you tried World of the Married yet? We’ll need a break from “heavy” for a while, but I see now that it’s another show led by Kim Hee Ae.
Our next one needs to be a mostly happy romance that ends well. Maybe one of these:
I Hear Your Voice (Lee Jong Suk)
Personal Taste (from 2010, with Son Ye Jin)
Merij1….and wifey….there are so many really funny light ones. Sungkungkwan Scandal. Shopping King Louie. When The Camilla Blooms. Master’s Sun. One Percent Of Something. Kill Me, Heal Me. It’s Okay, That’s Love. Fight My Way.
Many of these are older dramas that I thought you might not be familiar with. Mr. Google them and see what might appeal. My favorite amount these…Sungkungkwan and IO, TL. Of course, each has its angst. And look for Yoo AhIn in Sung’ Scandal…it put him on everyone’s radar.
Of these, the only one we’ve seen is Kill Me, Heal Me, which was quite creative in its use of multiple personality disorder. We liked that one a lot.
merij1, the Ji Sung dramas that I’ve seen are good watches. He has a great screen presence…for me. The Innocent Defendant was an excellent drama. A character actor by the name of Um KiJoon really stole the show with his portrayal of twins. The classic good twin/evil twin! I trend toward the more serious dramas, but do find korean humor so very entertaining. It reminds me of the Lucy and Ethel humor that we Americans have lost to the ‘let’s only make sex jokes’ of today. And it amazes me how a drama will
…at one point…be light hearted and then turn to serious. So much like life..one minute you have a flower path…then it turns to thorns.
@merij1 All of the ones Georgia Peach recommended are very good. But I have to give a special shout out to Master’s Sun. I HATE the horror genre and the first episode (or two?) had me huddled under the covers spooked out but this show has an OTP with great chemistry. The horror segments seem to have been done with a pretty big budget (or they wouldn’t have scared me 😆). And then the ghost stories themselves seem to pack a punch with heart warming and/or relevant messages.
I just think that if it can make me like it in spite of the spookiness, then it has to be petty good
A horror genre OTP? Now that’s got to be awesome, right?
No, no…our heroine sees ghost…except when she is with our hero. She becomes very clingy…much to his dismay….good story! These are veteran actors who can really ‘sell’ you on the OTP!
@merij1 @GeorgiaPeach – haha! I thought merij1 just meant the OTP were in a horror genre setting. But now that GeorgiaPeach answered, I’m picturing an OTP made up of a zombie and a vampire. I would totally watch that! 😆 😆 😂
Absolutely! It is!
Beez…ditto the ghost stories that were heart warming. And, certainly, ditto the chemistry between the OTP. Came to this drama after seeing Gong HyoJin in That’s Okay… Fell really hard for So JiSub as a consequence. To say nothing about Seo InGuk who does such a grand job in Shopping King Louie. Think Merij1 and his wife would love that one. The outdoor stairs kiss was to die for. I think SIG likes kissing women!…he does great Kkisses! In my humble opinion ..😔😘😘😘
Merij1….I’m watching WOTM right now….you should definitely WAIT! What a train wreck these characters are. But in a great way! And KHA is her usual best. IHYV is good. Not seen Personal Taste. Did love LMH in City Hunter.
I enjoyed Personal Taste but be aware that Son Ye jin is purposely unglamorized. It works for her character. I just didn’t want you shocked.
I need some well-considered spoiler assistance. My wife and I just finished episode 7 and love the quality of this show. But she is not likely to keep watching it with me due to how painful it has become and how tragic it feels like it will end. (I have not read KFG’s review, in case we do stick with it.)
As a guileless 20-year old, Sun Jae seems completely incapable of curbing his behavior to keep this woman safe. He’s like a bull in a china shop, doing and saying whatever his emotions advise, based on the youthful conceit that if it’s authentic, it’s also appropriate. And we fear Hye Won will soon catch the same bug and will allow it to quickly destroy her life.
Perhaps in a different era we could enjoy watching a person inexorably implode their life, but the context is that there’s already so much sadness and anxiety in our lives from Covid-19. It’s just too much.
So my question is this: are we wrong about how it will play out? This feels like a woman so desperately unhappy with her current life — caught in a war between three awful, awful people with total power over her, combined with a mediocre spouse — that she’s about to commit career/social suicide just to end it all. If that’s the storyline, I don’t think we can bear it right now.
Hi MeriJ, first of all, let me say that I’m pleased you and your wife decided to check this show out. 🙂 As you’ve noted, it’s mature storytelling, and very well done, and so well acted too! 🙂 As to your question about the ending.. without being too spoilery, I’ll say that the OTP ending is an open-ended one that tends positive, and also, I personally liked Hye Won’s personal trajectory, which is Show’s emphasis, especially towards the end. There are major things that happen, but in the end, it brings Hye Won a sense of liberty and peace. Does that help? Let me know if you’d like more specific spoilers, or if there’s anything you’d like to clarify, before you decide! 🙂
I’m not really worried about spoilers. With a mystery box show like Lost or Westworld or a film like The Sixth Sense, spoilers are indeed a terrible thing.
With Shakespeare’s plays, on the other hand, does it really matter that you already know how it will end? You watch to observe how they execute a great work of human drama and language.
merij1….you and your wife Must match to the end!!!! You will not be disappointed. I totally understand the roller coaster of emotions y’all are experiencing, but being at the half way point…things are about to start to wind down to the conclusion. This just tells me writernim and actors are so doing their jobs if y’all feel you ‘can’t take anymore’. Finish, finish, finish!!!!!
Well, then let me say that [SPOILER!] Hye Won does commit career suicide in a manner of speaking, but she does it in a manner that feels satisfying, and even though she has to pay the price for her own misdeeds, it’s a course of action that ultimately eases her conscience and gives her true liberty. 🙂 Her relationship with Sun Jae is left open-ended, but I took that to mean a highly possible reconciliation. [END SPOILER]
I hope that helps? 🙂
Perfect. Thank you!
@kfangurl – I’m curious, as a viewer we get invested in characters – is that what you would hope – that these two are able to eventually be together?
Personally, I would rather see Seon jae appreciate the life experience but move on to eventually have his own family. As for Teacher, I’d rather see her come out with her new outlook (realizing trying to break the 1% barrier (aka running with the big dawgs) is unrewarding) to open a small teaching conservatory and just enjoying music and life. Maybe meet a widower or something but, imo, she needs to let Seon jae soar in his own direction. There’s a reason why these May-Drcember romances usually don’t work out – at age 20 (especially Korean age/mentality; he’s 20, where Koreans aren’t really considered adults within the family until about age 27) – 20 years old he has no idea what he’s going to want later. He may think that she is all he needs, but what if in 10 years he begins to want kids? It’s heartbreak all around for both of them. Some people may think I’m wrong but I predicted this exact outcome for a few celebrities that we saw go through this very public heartbreak.
We’re only through 9 episodes, but I think you’re right, Beez. In the real world, at least. Fortunately, this is fiction, so when offered ambiguity, we can indulge in happy endings if we choose.
Twenty years is not too great a spread. My first wife, with whom we are both still close, is 8 years older than I am, and I never noticed any difference at all.
As you point out, the problem is that he’s only 20. Even a ten-year spread would be problematic when the one person is that young and hasn’t had a chance to fully morph into their new adult self.
It gets into that whole fuzzy area of when consent can be accepted as such. Can I truly commit my future self to a series of obligations, when that future person will not actually be “me?” (I’ve actually tried to be less sanguine about presuming to do so, avoiding blanket statements to the effect that I would never do such and such.)
This is true for all of us, but for a 20-year old, it’s a hundred-times more true.
That said, some people do succeed at making their May-December romance last a lifetime. I have friends who’ve passed the test.
I’ll give you that Sunjae is past the age of consent to a sexual relationship. And even more, emotionally, with a peer. But, in my option, what’s-her-name is too much for him to handle – her career status, the circles she runs in, which, she can’t even handle herself. Don’t get me wrong, she’s pretty impressive but she’s still dealing with things she doesn’t have the power to compete with and be protected.
Yes, but on the other hand that youngster’s innocence is a huge factor in her (maybe) finding her way home. She’s been lost at sea for so long she’d come to mistake her chosen port — making it to the 1% — for the only port that ultimately matters:
Are you happy and and do you respect yourself?
She’s miserable and hates whom she’s become. It just happened too gradually for her to fully notice. (Insert “boiling frog” metaphor here.)
@merij1 – I tried to like your comment but I think we broke this thread or something. First, I tried to like it through the email notification which didn’t work. Then I looked for your comment because most of your comments on SLA have been near the top of the thread but right now, they’re not. Vanished. Poof! I tried using the “search on this page” feature but that couldn’t find your posts under your name. So then I thought I’ll be clever and search for the words “boiling frog”. That came up zilch as well. So I’ll chalk it up to my ongoing war with WordPress. 🤷
Now to finally respond – I agree but she needs to be unselfish enough not to pull the young man into her deviant circle. Even if she didn’t realize the water was hot at first, she’s intelligent enough to know it’s not a wholesome, or even healthy atmosphere. Look at her two best friends – the Professor (Jo?) and his wife. They’re well respected in their field but don’t have to debase themselves by kowtowing to those other toads! *poor pun intended* lol
This is a glitch with how KFG’s site is constructed. If there are three pages worth of comments, the site starts you with the older ones first. You have to scroll to the very bottom of that page and click on “Newer Comments” to see the most recent set. Which is particularly annoying on posts like “Watching,” which have many pages of comments to pass through to get to this year.
I hear what you’re saying about Hye Won risking his innocence by allowing this young man to get involved with her and her messed-up world. But their attraction is mutual. and love, after all, is not terribly smart. You can layer that on, but love itself comes from a different place in the brain.
Bear in mind, we still have two episodes to go. In a few hours I might feel differently.
Since I only read and answer on my phone, the site doesn’t look that way to me. And it doesn’t explain how your post was the first one on the SLA review for a few days but then moved today. In fact, I thought it was strange that your post was the first one as that’s not how later posts usually appear. I’ve been coming here for years and it’s never acted that way before, even on the blogs/threads that have high traffic. Oh well. Interesting.
Hi Beez, so sorry I’m late to reply to your question! I do think your take is the more realistic one, and your points ring very true, about Sun Jae being very young and therefore not fully matured and not having a real idea of what he’s going to want later. I think I’m just attracted to the idea that Sun Jae and Hye Won appear to be soul mates, where they seem to connect where their souls are freest and happiest – in the music. So the romantic in me would like to believe that despite the circumstances and the age difference, that there’s a chance that they’ll find each other again, and be drawn together again, because the essence of what drew them together doesn’t change.
That said, I do think you make a very solid point, and I think that Show is wise to leave the ending open, so that as viewers, we can choose to believe whichever ending resonates more strongly with us. The more realistic among us would prefer your ending, while those who want to indulge their romantic sides, would be happy to think that these two are soulmates and will therefore find each other again. 🙂
I will say, as someone who went back to school and got a degree in fashion in my spare time, Teacher’s wardrobe was classically beautiful.
Argh. We’ve made it to the middle of episode 9 but had to walk away in frustration. That young man is a selfish, thoughtless disaster. He claims to love her, so why is he going to such great lengths to get her fired and humiliated? How is that love?
We walked away when he asked the CCTV operator to turn off the camera he’s supposed to monitor in the practice room they are sharing. Seriously? What is he, a 12-year old? He really assumes that guy might not turn it back on at some point and that he can therefore hug or kiss her AT HER PLACE OF WORK? In a room that is carefully monitored?
Right now I feel the way I did during episode 14 of Something In The Rain. It’s just too stressful to watch people be this inconsiderate of each other. With most shows we look forward to the evening so we can watch a couple episodes. We’re starting to dread watching this show.
Hopefully we’ll calm down and finish the episode. But if Hey Won wants to leave her job — and clearly she should leave it — she just should quit. Getting fired in a scandal is lame.
We finished that episode. No hugging or kissing in the practice room, thank god, but it did lead to the security guard calling for permission and thus giving the Chairman’s wife another clue that something illicit is in the air.
We really like the production values and the lead character. But it’s just so stressful.
I can’t quite tell what the illegal financial maneuvers are with the so-called stock market psychic and the new company our lead is starting to attract foreign investors. Insider trading + Russian money laundering?
I hate that our protagonist is setting herself up to be the fall guy for that at the same moment she’s exposing herself to blackmail and life-crisis driven stupidity. Didn’t she use one of her family’s dormant bank accounts for some of these transactions? Even by Ep 9, it’s so clear the chairman’s daughter is too out of control to be trusted with this knowledge. But that only our gal will take the fall.
Ugh. I hate it. She seems so intelligent and competent. But suddenly she’s caught the late-bloomer-teenager flu. This is shaping up to be the midlife crisis of all midlife crises.
@merij1 – I felt the exact same way! EXCEPT she seemed to think it was a good idea \_(ツ)_/¯
So that had me putting the blame for everything back squarely on her mature shoulders.
Two more episodes to go! We’ll finish tonight.
You have to finish it (and I didn’t like it but…) there are some surprises in store. It’s not a happy ending but it’s not unhappy either. She is not who you think she is personality wise. I could say more but then you may as eel read kfangirl’s review of I did. But then, kfangurl never saw the heroine the way that I do.