Korean Movie 'Love Affair (Tv Series), Secret Love Affair 밀회


Original Release Date: May 17, 2014.

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Genres: Romance, Drama.Broadcast dates: May 17, 2014 to May 13, 2014.Episodes: 16.Director: Ahn Pan-Suk.Writer: Jung Sung-joo.Lead Roles: Yoo Ah In as Lee Sun Jae, Kim Hee Ae as Oh Hye Won.

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Company Information: JTBC.


Paeksang Arts Award for Best TV Director (Ahn Pan-Suk) 2007 & 2014 CARI K Drama Award for Best TV Director (Ahn Pan-Suk) 2015Paeksang Arts Award for Best TV Screenplay (Jung Sung-joo) 2014

A Descent into Hell: Secret Love Affair (밀회) and the Social Divides of South Korea

A review by Seri I. Luangphinith, Ph.D.

The study of dramatic remakes offers enthusiasts a prime opportunity to understand the psyche at work in the production of different versions, especially when the reproduction crosses national boundaries. A good example of this is the contrast between the U.K. original of Being Human (2009-2013) and its American counterpart, which ran for only one season in 2014; in this particular instance, one could argue that much of the cultural and social commentary offered by the BBC production didn’t translate quite well with a plot and set of characters that were re-planted in a completely different scenario. South Korea’s remake of Tokyo Tower (2005) into the television drama Secret Love Affair (2014) proved that re-adaptations can succeed even when jumping ponds; in fact, jTBC’s version takes the socio-political and economic divides found within the original to an all new level by excruciatingly laying bare the rotten state of “Hell Joseon.”

Many commentaries and reviews of Secret Love Affair gravitate to the “Noona Love” element, often overlooking the socio-economic criticism that lies at the heart of the drama. “Outside Seoul: Korean Drama from the Outside In” offers a series of in-depth critiques on the drama, including an impressive discussion on sound and pacing in what it sees as a “series that uses the best of indie-movie realism to disguise a big, beautiful Kdrama heart.” The same reviewer provides a compare-contrast critique : “I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the movie. Its narrative was choppy and disjointed, and it lacked anything like a fully imagined world. This might be a side effect of being condensed from a novel, but the ultimate result was a movie that overlooked the humanity of its characters in the interest of cramming in as many eventful scenes as possible.” The fact that the film lso told from the perspective of the male character encourages Outside Seoul’s reviewer to see Secret Love Affair as a “noona romance on steroids” that challenges the more patriarchal conventions of K-Drama by featuring a female lead who is anything but innocent and passive. The Korea Joongang Daily goes further as to tote the series as “the cougar and the pianist” while K-Drama Today focused on the use of music as “both … metaphor and as the centerpiece for profoundemotional scenes”: it is clear that the latter two views are drawn to the intricacies of the taboo linking an older woman with a younger man.

 According to the blogpost, “k-drama-report,” the attention to women and sexuality within K-drama is important in that “we cannot be so naïve as to think these mediums cannot be used to undergird the prevailing social order” which often leads to tragic narratives that restrict sexually aggressive women who break the Confucian order of female virtue.” However, it is equally important to see dramas like Secret Love Affair within their current socio-political context. That context implies that the sexual relationship between Oh Hye Won and Lee Sun Jae symbolizes a larger generational struggle that is currently at the heart of an emerging dystopic sensibility in South Korea. In 2015, blogger Koo Se Woong commented on the recent scandals involving members of the political establishment finding jobs for their offspring, who were generally unqualified: “Politicians turn blind eyes to the plight of the people from the luxury of their throne afar. ‘Golden Spoons’ — euphemism for those born into wealth and power — simply skirt the whole system by drawing on resources provided to them by their families. For commoners, however, failing to enter the corporate world means having to wallow in the Pool of Joblessness, though some take refuge in the Fortress of Bureaucrats by taking the civil servant examination.” Such antics could not come at a worst time. With the Korean economy showing signs of a slow-down, the 10.1% jobless rate for the 15 to 29 age group is startling, especially when two-thirds of young adults who did find employment in 2015 were classified as “irregular workers ” who may put in regular hours but who do so for minimal wage and little if no benefits. So while critics such as Joo Jeongsuk have lauded the Korean Wave as “helping enhance images of Korea as refined and sophisticated,” a closer look at dramas like Secret Love Affair reveals a scathing criticism of the current social status quo that leaves many of the un-privileged locked out of opportunities to showcase their talent and hard work.

Episode One gives us an long, unflinching peek into Joseon Hell’s intimate and dysfunctional realm of money. The first glimpse is from behind the “curtain” (what appears to be a wooden trellis-partition of sorts) as the camera captures the image of two women in a luxurious spa going over the opening number of a music festival. The chief director, Han Sung Sook, is lying down and receiving a back massage while Oh Hye Won goes over the reasoning for choosing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the discussion is cut short with Director Han’s quip: “That’s enough. I can’t remember it anyway. Just jot it down for me.” Their talk then descends into a petty debate over who will conduct the piece, with Director Han noting how Oh Hye Won’s husband won’t like that arrangement as “His juniors are talking the entire spotlight.” Welcome to the world of the Seo Han College of Music and its “parent company,” the Seo Han Arts Foundation—this is not the place for intellectual debates over the production of classical works or the talents of conductors; instead, music has become the hollow venue for expressing petty ambitions. The irony of the situation could not be more evident given that Beethoven’s Fifth was penned during the growing disillusionment with Napoleon, who was seen as having forsaken the ideals—liberty, equality, and fraternity—that led to the toppling of the aristocracy. This piece also symbolically foreshadows the fall of the heroine to come. Soon after Director Han falls asleep, Oh Hye Won goes for her regular hair and scalp massage; she will lose her tresses in the last episode (Episode Sixteen) when her jail-mates give her a buzz cut for “messing around with a young boy.”

The descent into dystopia continues as Oh Hye Won rushes off in a white BMW to find Seo Young Woo, the step-daughter of Director Han. We find ourselves in the Gangbuk district, the heart of Seoul’s diplomatic and financial sector. It is here at the Sommerset Palace Seoul that we see, literally laid bare, Seo Young Woo’s method for emotionally coping with this world—it appears she regularly engages in extra-marital dalliances with younger male models while Oh Hye Won is forced to track her down and keep her on a timely schedule of photo shoots for the Foundation.


 Their encounter in Episode One exposes both as being locked in loveless situations: Seo Young Woo’s husband entertains a “student” at a recently purchased apartment in Vienna; Oh Hye Won is apparently married to a “loser,” Professor Kang Joon Hyung. Soon after this scene, we find Oh Hye Won back at her office, ton the phone with her husband who proceeds to nag his wife over why Professor Jo in Seo has more students featured in the Foundation’s report. Quickly, the camera takes us to another room, where we see Professor Kang greet his students as “pieces of trash” for not tuning their instruments ahead of class. Then in Episode Two, we find the Professor colluding with the Chancellor of the School and other faculty on how to dole out scholarships to needy, talented prodigies so as to obscure their practice of admitting the rather untalented and uninspired children of Korea’s monetary elite. Sensing a loss in face and prestige, Professor Kang desperately grabs onto the uneducated, self-taught piano virtuoso, Lee Sun Jae, who will become Oh Hye Won’s pupil. Their meeting sets the story on a course of action that will unravel this world of interfamilial schemings (that pit the Chairman, his daughter, and his second wife into a three-way battle for power and resources), mahjong parlors night between people who neither like the game nor each other, and the constant battle to lacquer over shady motives and even shadier actions that include buying paintings to hide wealth and using paper companies to funnel cash—all in the name of “art and culture.”


That unravelling begins from the very beginning. The murky adult clashes that are marked by many confrontational shot-reverse shot sequences give way to the scenes that feature Lee Sun Jae and Oh Hye Won. Their more intimate moments are often captured with the two of them included in the frame, side by side. Their hands, their upper torsos, and their faces are often shown in softer, diffuse lighting (some with color saturation) in both physical and emotional tandem. When they do physically consummate their taboo relationship in Episode Eight , the camera finally slows down and produces a sequence of ordinary objects that define Lee Sun Jae’s world—the world of the “irregular” working class, of delivery boys and shampooists , who eke their existence amid rusty fluorescent, duct-tape patched floors, and mottled bottles of kitchen condiments. The piano is no longer restricted to the boardrooms and mansions of the powerful; its sounds are now a part of a different class environment. One blogger-critic calls the scene a “lover’s haven” in that it is “far from the luxurious chaos of her life, she is safe with him.” But “chaos” of another kind is beginning to enter into the picture, which is foreshadowed in the note she leaves for him as she parts the next morning: “I walked up the stairs and got through the dark and narrow corridor. It was nice to know that I would be at your place once I got through.” That narrowed hallway, filled with unseen steps and coils of wire, symbolize the perilous journey that they, Oh Hye Won in particular, will have to undertake as they rethink their identifies now that key social principle that uphold the status quo—from the moral ideals of a “wife” to the roles of “teacher” and “student”—are being called into question.

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The chaos unfurls soon after Lee Sun Jae’s first major concert. Oh Hye Won’s absence when Seohan Goup Chairman Seo is arrested sets off a frenzy of gossip mongering, “fact-finding,” and legal maneuvering as the Seo family (including Prosecutor Kim In Joo) and her husband more to scapegoat her for their collective corruption. She will have no choice but to fully dismantle the entire façade, including the one created by her husband to enhance his image. Ever resistant to the “filth” that surrounds Oh Hye Won, Lee Sun Jae befriends some of the Seohan College “losers”—the poorer, un-connected kids who cannot find a proper mentor/advisor among the faulty—and begins channeling his music talents into supporting their growth as musicians—to the point they outgrow the fakeness of their school by playing music for the sole sake of playing it, not for the value of either the instrument or the investment it has come to symbolize. They play a finale and leave, but not before plastering large letters of their complaints on the walls of the school. 

It would be naïve to think that the revolution here is as simple as the clichés Love/Music conquers all. If it were, then the drama could have simply ended with Oh Hye Won continuing her dirty business to maintain Lee Sun Jae’s musical career or with the two flying off to a foreign haven to live happily ever after as was depicted in the original Japanese film. But the “touching illusion,” to speak along the lines of film critic Jean Baudrillard, that wealth “would be naturally good if it were not misdirected toward evil,” has already been tried by Oh Hye Won and her husband. It is nothing more than a false hope of a lesser crime, so to speak. The separation of Lee Sun Jae and Oh Hye Won gives us a more realistic picture of the consequences of violating taboos that Gayle Rubin shows as defining roles for (older) women and (younger) men, taboos that lock individuals within set roles of family (i.e. “husband” and “wife”) while also guaranteeing divisions of labor that entail class standing for such identities. And if we expand our understanding of this drama, by seeing Seohan Music College as a microcosmic parallel to the social schemata of Korea, then the real act of rebellion is revealed—the refusal to take any part of this corrupt system. Oh Hye Won has been fully liberated from her life and seems quite content in the women”s prison; Lee Sun Jae goes overseas using funds from an alternative foundation. Thus the closing of the drama with Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor is appropriate: it is a solo piece that was neither commissioned by a wealthy sponsor nor written for anyone famous in particular. It symbolizes insurrection on the individual level. 

 Whether the production of such messages in media will spur greater protes t and acts of defiance against “Hell Joseon” remains to be seen. The audience of Korea is certainly listening, with the drama capturing upwards of 8.8% of total viewership , garnering it the number one drama among cable broadcasts in 2014. But open-ended endings, like the one for Secret Love Affair, remind us of the unfinished work of the 1848 German socialists—while it is easy to criticize capitalism and wealth, conceptualizing a feasible alternative has proven elusive to this day. The closing of this drama makes clear that a new narrative still awaits to be written. So stay tuned.

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