Review. Secret Love Affair is a 16 episode 2014 Korean drama that focuses on a romance between an older woman, Hye Won, and a younger man, Sun Jae. Hye Won works as the director of planning for an Arts Foundation. She is married, elegant and excels at managing her employers and their money. Hye Won becomes the teacher to Sun Jae, a piano prodigy, and they are instantly drawn to each other in spite of the 20 year age gap.
In a nutshell: The romance worked in this drama. The couple was compelling, likable and watchable. Most of the other characters were unlikable and not enjoyable to watch.
What I liked about Secret Love Affair:
* Our leading lady, Hye Won (played by Kim Hee Ae), was a complex character requiring a nuanced performance. The actress Hee Ae excelled at playing the controlled Hye Won, the persona the character had 80% of the time. Hye Won was not idealistic or naive or soft. When Hye Won interacted Sun Jae it was like a light bulb inside her clicked on. When they connected, I connected with Hye Won. The calculating controlled Hye Won I respected but did not really like. In quiet moments with Sun Jae, she let go of the persona and became authentic. Through Sun Jae, Hye Won was reborn, able to reemerge after years of living a lifestyle that cost more than it gave.
* Our leading man, Sun Jae (played by Yoo Ah In), had a challenging role. He started shy and awkward. His love of music was pure. He was straightforward and did what he felt was right. Hye Won’s beauty and piano expertise were the initial attractors. Actor Ah In sold me that Hye Won was worth the pursuit, that Sun Jae saw beyond the persona of Hye Won. Ah In also managed NOT to look like a complete love addled fool. Was he devoted? Absolutely. Was he without a voice? No (though she ignored his opinion for a considerable time). For Hye Won, Sun Jae’s devotion, inner strength and piano genius were magnetic. She had been married to a wimpy whiny man with no skills for too many years. Sun Jae was water to Hye Won’s parched life.
*Their romance. Hye Won and Sun Jae quietly grew on you. Their initial attractors were love of music and physical beauty. Hye Won felt alive with him. She’d been trapped in a loveless marriage for so long, it was delicious and illicit to have a man be attracted to her. Sun Jae felt a jolt from Hye Won at their initial meeting. Couple this with Hye Won piano expertise (one must say their initial duets were foreplay) and Sun Jae was hers body and soul.
Devotion: Sun Jae was devoted to Hye Won. He was solicitous to her needs and attuned to her. She was devoted to him in her own way; she refurbished his piano, she got him out of jail, she protected him from testifying, etc. Yet many times she engaged him on HER terms not his. She had the power in the relationship. This was frustrating to watch and unfair to him.
Slave to a Lifestyle: Sun Jae saw Hye Won’s life for what it was, servitude to people who did not care about her, pursuit of power / money / status, which did not make Hye Won happy. And Sun Jae told her so. Hye Won, to her credit, did recognize that she was an “elegant slave” but it was a comfortable rut and she did not want to leave it.
When Sun Jae queried Hye Won, what are you going to do for the rest of your life, she saw unsatisfying days stretched in front of her. Still she didn’t want to give up the power and status. She hoped she could have it all and worked to achieve that.
Choose or Lose: Sun Jae wouldn’t accept Hye Won trying to keep her life and him. Sun Jae saw if he allowed this to continue, they did not have a chance together. He was right, how could she continue her life AND fit him in? No way. Clarity of the situation finally came to her and she knew she had to choose – her current life OR a new life with him. She ratcheted the drama up by turning herself in to the prosecutor, throwing herself on the court’s mercy, and providing damming evidence against the Evil Quartet. That redemption gamble paid off.
Freedom Achieved: Hye Won freed herself from the “elegant slave” lifestyle, though she ends up in jail. Sun Jae pursues his dream of being a great pianist. We end the show with the knowledge that when she has served her time, he’ll be back for her, and they will live as a couple. The final scene when Sun Jae visited Hye Won in jail summed it up perfectly as Sun Jae tells Hye Won: His home is with her. They should live together. They will fight, they will love, like couples do. If they breakup without trying to make it work, then it was all a waste.
* Couple of the side characters won a spot in my heart though they didn’t start out on my good side:
Secretary Wang: She wanted everything that Hye Won had. During Hye Won’s downfall she gleefully prepared to take over her job and her place. But somewhere along the way, besides the comic relief, I saw a glimmer of a decent human being that made her more palatable.
Da Mi: Sun Jae’s girlfriend (more friend as there seemed to be no romance there anymore) had her own moral code. She was willing to stand up to anyone no matter what status they held. She was initially not a fan of Hye Won, rightfully so because she could only see her friend Sun Jae hurt by involvement with Hye Won. In the end, because Sun Jae respected Hye Won, and Hye Won’s actions finally put Sun Jae first, she respected Hye Won too.
* The music. I wasn’t sure I’d like a series with all classical music, and I like classical music. What a pleasant surprise the music choices were. The pieces were listenable and able to touch you. I didn’t feel like I was getting schooled in classical music. I felt like I was enjoying classical music.
What I did not like about Secret Love Affair:
* The Evil Quartet (EQ), Hye Won’s employers, were pitiful excuses for human beings.
EQ1: The chairman was a womanizing rich old man. There is nothing positive to say about him.
EQ2: The chairman’s wife was a leech on her husband and disingenuous in every aspect of her life. She was totally willing to throw Hye Won under the bus, multiple times.
EQ3: The chairman’s daughter was volatile, selfish, and flat-out mean. The ONLY thing that veered this character into some kind of likability was she so forthright and had some great lines. Also she did recognize Hye Won and Sun Jae were truly in love, something she desperately lacked in her own life.
EQ4: The chairman’s son-in-law. He managed his wife with disdain and was solicitous to his father-in-law for the money and power it brought him. His willingness to two-time the others only lowered my opinion of him further.
* The majority of side characters were leeches, liars, or losers. From the dean, to the sister-in-law, to the Hye Won’s husband, none of them were decent people. In Episode 15 Hye Won’s husband was so absurd in his bumbling accusation of adultery that he veered into amusing.
* Production choices that bugged me EVERY episode.
Poor Lighting: This show was poorly lit. It was either too dark and you could barely make out the characters OR it was back-lit so the characters were put in shadow by the light source behind them.
Obstructed views: Many scenes were shot so the characters were obstructed by something. The camera shot had a fence, a laptop, a lamp, a headrest, a book, so that you couldn’t fully see the character’s face.
Abrupt Episode Endings:Several episodes (3,6, etc.) seemed to end mid-scene. It came off as hasty several times.
Limited physical contact: You didn’t see much of the physical side of this love affair. The production team was shy (scared?) about showing physical love between Hye Won and Sun Jae. A relationship between a 40-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man is described as boundary-pushing and scandalous. Why? Was the age gap the issue? When 40-year-old men have relationships with 20-year-old women there is no negativity. Was the issue that Hye Won was married? Or was it a combination of these 2 factors? The promised steamy affair was only hinted at. Physical contact was either off camera (e.g. their first time making love was) or very brief.
Promotional image only, nothing like this in the show