It’s rare that one comes across a TV show that is a work of art. Artsy movies abound, as do some many series, but hours and hours of a TV show? Well, it’s just not that common. In fact, I don’t really know that I’ve ever watched a TV show I would consider a work of art–up until now, that is.
Something about affairs, whether it’s the illicitness or the adventure, something about affairs is often involved in the art of story. This is something you can find right across history, from The Bridges of Madison County to the Illiad and that whole thing with Helen of Troy. Maybe it’s just the fact that in an affair there are likely to be high emotions and also retributions from the injured or cuckolded party–plenty of dynamics and fireworks possible.
Although publicly society generally doesn’t condone affairs, in our entertainment and art, they are everywhere. Sadly, few of the fictional stories about affairs truly touch how wrong it is to break one’s vows of marriage. The Korean drama Secret Love Affair is no different in this, and that’s because the sin it focuses on is not the affair itself, but the reason for it: The main character is living in an awful environment and denying her true self any agency.
A trend in K-dramas in recent years has been pairing older women with younger men. I’m sure real young men would be a bit horrified at this, but it’s just a reversal of the standard in visual storytelling, which for decades has been older men with much younger women. In real life one sees age gap pairings, but they are not nearly as common as TV and movies would lead us to believe. In my own experience, couples, married or not are two people of roughly the same age or within a few years of each other. The older I get, I realize that age doesn’t really matter that much when it comes to a relationship, but biologically, it can. Older women, for example, have less childbearing years ahead of them. That in itself may give a young man who wants a lot of biological kids pause. In Secret Love Affair, this aspect is not even a consideration, though the age gap is 20 years.
As a women who is in her 40s, I can’t even fathom dating a man of twenty or even early twenties. That aspect of this story grated on me throughout, for the young man was way too much of a boy still. He hasn’t even had time to think if he wants kids in his future or not. He was, essentially, a way for the female lead to change her life, and she also helped him change his life, but beyond that, it was a bit creepy. I don’t know how big an age gap has to be to be creepy–everyone probably has a different threshold–but for me, 20 years is too much. So, why did I continue watching? Hands down, for the music and the sort-of redemption story.
Secret Love Affair (aka Secret Affair) stars Kim Hee Ae (Mrs. Cop) as Oh Hye Won, a director/personal assistant to the Seohan Arts Foundation. In her job she is wedded deeply and dangerously to the family who owns the foundation. These are not nice people. Her husband, played well by Park Hyuk Kwan (Six Flying Dragons) is a do-nothing hanger on who has no music or teaching whatsoever, but somehow got a spot at the music school the foundation owns. Their marriage is one of convenience, both wanted to be a part of the foundation and saw that they could if they were together. This was the biggest sin Hye Won made in her life, for it led to her entanglement with the foundation and a life of walking on glass. When we are first introduced to her, we see that Hye Won has great talent at her job, that she has tact and guile and has helped the foundation succeed. It seems unlikely that she herself has musical talent, but we soon discover she does.
During preparation for a big concert, a young, lowly delivery guy happens upon the scene. Lee Sun Jae, played very well by Yoo Ah In (Chicago Typewriter) is a quiet, hesitant man in his early twenties. He quickly gets into trouble stealing some piano time on the schools expensive grand. The kicker is, that his performance is recorded and immediately Hye Won’s husband sees the young man as his ticket to greatness at the school and beyond. He pesters his wife to give the kid a listen and declare him someone who should be admitted to the school right away.
The couple’s real first meeting is at this audition at Hye Won’s home, and as a first meeting, it’s amazing. Few couples get to spend this much time together, ever. Ok, I exaggerate, but it’s unusual one gets to spend so much time with a person upon first meeting them. Hye Won listens to Sun Jae play and is immediately hypnotized. You see, she has musical talent at the piano. Back in the day, she could have been a star, but she was convinced to work in administration instead. She listens to him for hours and then starts to play along with him. The two immediately connect emotionally, spiritually, and physically through playing together. Their style of playing is very similar, their appreciation of music, as if they are one heart. It’s instalove, but spread over a few hours.
Inevitably, they do have an affair, but though they sort of attempt to hide it, it’s really not a secret to anyone. Hye Won is really the only one surprised, but it’s hard to see oneself and how one changes and flowers under real love and real passion and emotion. That takes an outside view. Everyone else could see how obviously she was changing except herself. Through her relationship with Sun Jae, Hye Won starts to realize what a truly toxic environment she’s been living in. Her life isn’t really her own; her husband’s life is barely his own. To save herself and also Sun Jae’s future, Hye Won embarks on a path of intrigue in order to take down the family and the foundation.
This show is a great, intense watch. All of the actors are spot on, especially Park as the irritating husband. He is so perfectly loathsome, he brings Hye Won down with him. What kind of women is she really to have entered into a marriage of convenience with him? The writing and directing are also top notch. Each episode feels like a film, and it reminded me most in style to Heartless City (also a great watch, but hard to finish). The music is all consuming and nearly ever present in the background. This is classical music, but stepped up to ten in its emotional impact. Contrast that with the awful school and the owning family, and the parts where the characters experience real joy in their practice and performances become jewels to be treasured.
One aspect that was almost too much to handle, was the supporting cast of women in the show. Many of these characters were prone to scary violence, and it’s quite possible that Hye Won herself could’ve one day become like that had she not turned almost all her emotion off.
It’s interesting at the end how Sun Jae keeps calling Hye Won to be good, but she knows she has to callously take down the family first or neither of them will ever be free. In some ways, Sun Jae is content to stay as he is with Hye Won almost as a stand-in mother figure to him (yeah, creepy), but she nudges him, gets him to spread his wings, and soon he’s making new friends all on his own and leading secret jam sessions. By this point we barely miss the cuckolded husband, though we are maybe shocked at how upset about the affair he actually is, as they seem to have had a loveless, sexless marriage. More likely, he finally realizes just how much of a loser he is on all levels. So Hye Won gets her redemption story and Sun Jae has hope for a future. Will they stay together? By the end, it doesn’t really matter, for they’ve fulfilled whatever was needed for the other by the end of the show.
Sad the story revolves around an affair, but I suppose these types of plots are signs that at least some of modern society still takes marriage vows seriously. And that’s a really good thing. It was shocking to see how isolating a loveless marriage can be. If Hye Won hadn’t had a couple of good friends, she would likely have had a total breakdown at some point. Your spouse should be your best friend and lover, someone you can confide in and be yourself with. She found that with Sun Jae and he with her. The piano music sort of packaged everything together.
Secret Love Affair is a worthwhile watch, and there are moral lessons in the story, though probably not the ones you’d expect. This show is a work of art on all levels.