Secret Love Affair

Reviewed by: Anpa1

May 04, 2015

Rating: four-point-five

Secret Love Affair
(Viewed Once)

A young man sits at the piano playing classical music with raw abandon. He is not well-trained in his art, but his technique, passion and sheer savage energy are undeniable. Sitting nearby in utter amazement at what she is hearing is the Managing Director of the Seohan Arts Foundation, a former concert pianist who was forced to give up her career after a severe bout of tenosynovitis, an inflammation of the joints of the hands and wrists. Her husband, a professor of piano at the affiliated university has told his wife to listen to the young man and give him her opinion. The boy reveals to her that he only took a few lessons as a child, but is otherwise self-taught. She leaves the room and comes back with the music to the Schubert Fantasy for piano four hands in F minor (two players at one piano keyboard, one person playing predominately below middle C and the other person predominantly above middle C). It is the crown jewel of the four hand piano literature, a brilliantly conceived, at times impassioned tour-de-force. As the two of them dig down into the piece, their playing intensifies and rises to the level of its magnificent composition, and we realize that this has unintentionally become sex at the piano, each one pushing the other to the max, until they are both swaying, breathing hard, and glistening with sweat. The piece ends and they each sit back, almost gasping for air; the tension is palpable. She is embarrassed, and her departure from the room is awkward. He leaves to go home, practically dancing with joy.

Secret Love Affair is a 2014 K-Drama which reunited director An Pan-Seok, writer Jung Sung-Joo, and actress Kim Hee-ae. This trio had enjoyed tremendous success just two years earlier with the intense “A Wife’s Credentials”. That show was probably the best K-Drama this viewer has ever seen and so expectations for this one were high. While not quite as profound as that previous effort, this 16 episode drama is well worth the investment by the viewer, if for no other reason than the performance of Kim Hee-ae.

SLA was marketed as a love affair between a 20 year old innocent boy and a 40 year old far from innocent woman. Titling it “Secret Love Affair” certainly was intended to pull in the viewers, particularly female viewers, many of whom probably lost the ability to speak trying to describe the many beauties of the youthful Yoo Ah-in, the male side of our lovers. But that love affair is merely the engine to the real story about a woman who sold her soul for the luxury of class status. The heart of this story is how she regains it, of course at a terrible price.

It is impossible to describe this show without spoilers, so please be forewarned.

The administration at the Seohan Arts Foundation is totally corrupt. There is a confusing mish-mash of scenes involving various people that are thrown at us very quickly at the start of episode one. The bickering and backstabbing is not unlike that seen in royalty between members of the king or queen’s court. Each member of the administration has their own little fiefdom carved out, and people are constantly at each other’s throats. It is virtually impossible to follow every thread of corruption that is going on here, but suffice it to say that this is a moral cesspool. In fact, the foundation is being investigated for mismanagement of funds (as it has been before), and our female protagonist, Oh Hye-won is part and parcel of the ugliness. However, something inside her has connected with the young piano prodigy, Lee Sun-jae and her life is about to undergo a decisive change.

To the outsider, the classical music world may seem strange. It is frequently populated by egocentric individuals whose quirks have made them outcasts to much of society. However, those outcasts are many times the seed bed of great genius. What is plain is that our 20 year old pianist is absolutely passionate in his love for the music that he performs with a skill that rivals most pianists who have studied for many years. That youthful, naive musical passion is most likely the first thing that connects with the 40 year old Hye-won. At one point, they are playing a four hand Mozart Sonata, hardly a profound composition, but one that can be easily played with great zest and joy by those with the requisite skill. And this joy is in abundance as they laugh their way through the piece. At the end they practically leap up from the piano bench and embrace each other, laughing with total abandonment at the same time. It is a striking change from the cold, controlled image we have of Hye-won while working as the Managing Director for the arts foundation; and it has sparked in her something she thought was long dead as she begins to remember the reasons she went into music in the first place, the great all absorbing love and passion that classical music was for her.

So while their relationship eventually becomes sexual, the first attraction, or connection if you prefer, is through the music. In episode 8, our protagonists have obviously gotten into bed together (tactfully off screen) for the first time, and in the dark we can hear one of the most humorous moments in the entire show.

She: Is this really your first time? He: Come to think of it, I don’t think it is. (Long pause) She: You have to think to know that?

This is followed almost immediately by the most touching moment. What at first sounds like a sexual gasp is followed by what are clearly sobs; not of sadness, but of joy. The joy not even so much of sex, but of intimacy; for her, this is probably the first time in many, many, years that she has been held and loved. Love really is the great equalizer.

As the investigation of the foundation is revving up, so is the intrigue amongst the administrators as they each try to find some way to push the blame on one of the others, even if they are family. Eventually it is clear that Hye-won is going to become their scapegoat, and they hope to use her adulterous affair to smear her image before the investigation is revealed to the public. She has been playing this game too long, however, and turns the tables on them by copying onto a flash drive and hiding the documents that will clearly implicate the highest ranking members of the administration. The two sides in her life present a moral conundrum that she must answer. She can probably win in court, but that means that she will continue on in the manner she has at the school, and face a life that will be just as loveless as it was before she met Lee Sun-jae. Or come clean. Lee Sun-jae has already made it abundantly clear that if she wants to continue with her present life, it will be without him. He wants no part of it.

The most powerful moment in the entire show comes in episode 16 in the courtroom. Hye-won has given the state the evidence that will probably send the other administrators to jail, and also allow her to escape with perhaps just a slap on the wrist. Instead, she takes full responsibility for all the things she has done and confesses her culpability in the crimes. She has probably just consigned herself to a much longer prison sentence with her confession. Even so, as she leaves the court, she turns and smiles at Sun-jae. Why? Because she has come clean. He knows why she smiles. The monkey is finally off her back and she will take whatever society says she has to take in order to regain her soul.

The ending is sad. The two lovers say they will try to make it work after she gets out of jail. But her sentence has not been handed down yet and it could be anywhere from a year and a half to ten years. That is a long time, and a lot can happen. But that sadness is tempered by the fact that Hye-won has finally bought back her own life, and she can begin to live with a free conscience that is open to the thought of giving and receiving love.

Special mention must be made of the camera work in this production. We are frequently peering through openings between objects or moving from one side of a partition to the other to peer around at the goings on in the administration. While this can be annoying, the reason is clear. These people talk softly and hatch their plots in private; and we have become the proverbial fly on the wall, listening in on things that no one is supposed to hear but the people who are present.

Special mention must also be made of the almost seamless integration of camera work and editing between real piano players and the principals. Only rarely does it seem that it is not really the protagonists playing the piano. Enjoy the music. In addition to the aforementioned Schubert there’s some really great suff here including the Dvorak Piano Quintet, the Beethoven Appasionata Sonata (No. 23) and the fiendishly difficult Rhapsody on a Theme of Pagannini by Rachmaninoff. The gloriously romantic 18th variation is a very fitting piece for the two lovers to be playing, but it is also a shout out to countless American movies and television shows that used it for that very purpose.

This review would not be complete without a special mention regarding Kim Hee-ae. Is there any other Korean actress out there who is even in the same league with her? I’ve only seen her in “A Woman’s Credentials” and this show, and in both, her performances are simply stunning. Really, does she have any competition at all in Korea?

Secret Love Affair has a little bit of everything. This leisurely paced drama has great music, great acting, a great noona (and adulterous) romance, intrigue, beautiful photography and a very well written script. But most of all, it is the story of a woman who through her re-connection with great classical music and the love of a young man, rediscovers and regains her soul. It comes at a terrible price, but it is one that she willingly pays in order to save herself. Very highly recommended.


Anpa (04/05/2015)

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