I’ve written too many recaps to count but it all starts from one common impetus – a drama that hooks my heart snugly in its entertaining embrace. Be it a rom-com with potential for romantic swooning, an action thriller that launches with rollicking tension, or a melodrama that promises tears and catharsis aplenty, I have to really connect to want to recap it. So it’s with a raised eyebrow and a “what the heck” adventurous spirit that I’m tackling recapping the currently airing jTBC drama Secret Love Affair. This one is purely a conscious effort to pay homage to what feels like a work of dramatic art, an appreciation of sorts that speaks less of an emotional hitch and more of a recognition of artistic excellence. Yoo Ah In and Kim Hee Ae dip a toe into the current popular pool of noona-dongsaeng romances and engages in a secret love affair between a forty-something successful careerwoman and a twenty year old piano genius from a poor family.
This drama is expected to be all furtive glances and sexual innuendo with a subject matter that dabbles in an extramarital affair with gender reversal of a huge age discrepancy, but before getting there episode 1 first sets the stage in dark and intense tones of musical competition and wealthy power plays. There are already secrets aplenty and one affair is conducted so matter-of-factly this drama world comes across as dense and dirty and a little bit dangerous. Yoo Ah In has always been hit-or-miss for me, stealing the show in Sungkyunkwan Scandal but bombing spectacularly in Fashion King, and his last performance in Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love fluctuated as wildly as the script’s narrative integrity. From the moment he shows up in Secret Love Affair, he’s commanding and restrained, owning the camera with his little boy meets sexy man charisma, and creating a strong counterpart to Kim Hee Ae’s beautifully effortless performance. Together they are like the piano that is a central plot device for this drama, the inkling that we’re watching the future coming together of an finely tuned instrument meeting a kindred spirit musician, except it’s not clear who will be the player and who will be played.
Episode 1 recap:
It’s nighttime and we meet Lee Sun Jae, a twenty-something delivery boy in the bustling metropolis of Seoul. He takes a delivery and hops on his motorcycle and is off.
Oh Hye Won is delivering an update for the upcoming concert at the Saehan Arts Center where she works as a project manager, but instead of the meeting taking place in an office, Hye Won is sitting in a massage treatment room while talking to Director Seo Young Woo as she gets a massage. Hye Won is all business with providing the details but Young Woo brushes her efforts aside since she can’t remember it now anyways and tells her to submit it as a written report. When Hye Won says that Professor Jo is in headline this concert, Young Woo snarks that Hye Won’s husband isn’t going to be happy about this great showcase opportunity going to a hoobae. Hye Won says it can’t be helped though envy can be a driving force. Young Woo doesn’t think that’ll placate her husband and then promptly falls asleep. Hye Won then exchanges a glance with the masseuse to confirm Young Woo is asleep.
Young beauty salon assistant Park Dal Mi gets a text from boyfriend Sun Jae that he’s almost there. She’s called in to shampoo Hye Won’s hair as Hye Won sneaks in a quick treatment while Young Woo is sleeping during her massage. Hye Won is very polite and thanks Dal Mi for working so late, and then compliments her on doing such a good job as Dal Mi’s strong fingers gets ride of her persistent headache after a scalp massage.
As Dal Mi is finishing up with Hye Won she accidentally catches Hye Won’s necklace and the clasp breaks. Dal Mi worriedly fishes the necklace out of the wash basin but Hye Won smiles and assures her it was a cheap street item and Dal Mi can throw it away.
After she gets off work, Dal Mi and Sun Jae grab a ramyun at the convenience store. Dal Mi fiddles with the necklace and can’t believe it’s paste when it looks so beautiful and real. Sun Jae wants her to just throw it away since she’s not a beggar but Dal Mi won’t since it’s pretty. After they eat Sun Jae moves his delivery box out of the way in the back of his motorcycle so Dal Mi can get on. He takes her home and as they pass through a bridge Dal Mi yells out for Sun Jae to stop the bike so they can go cuddle and kiss to the side but he just keeps on riding.
Hye Won arrives at work at the Seohan Arts Center and walks into her office. She takes off her coat and her assistance gasps because she’s forgotten to put on her skirt this morning in her haste. Hye Won asks her assistant to buy her a skirt today and then smartly takes her pashmina and wraps it around her waist like a wrap skirt and secures it with a safety pin.
Hye Won hears that Director Seo hasn’t taken her picture yet for the concert brochure and the driver is waiting for her outside her condo but she’s not coming out. Hye Won puts her coat back on and heads out to bring Young Woo in line. Hye Won calls her repeatedly and leaves voicemails that she will walk in if Young Woo doesn’t answer the phone. She doesn’t care who Young Woo is with and if she’s embarrassed then to hide him in the closet.
Hye Won uses the key to enter a condo and walks through the living room before entering a darkened bedroom and stepping over strewn lingerie on the ground and pulling open the curtains. She tells Young Woo to wake up and even snaps a pictures of the two naked bodies on the bed and snarks that she’ll use this instead as the promotional picture.
Hye Won heads out to the kitchen to brew a cup of coffee while Young Woo sends her boy toy off. Young Woo demands to know how Hye Won can just barge in like this, what if she was with Hye Won’s husband? Hye Won doesn’t care since Young Woo wouldn’t answer her phone, and she’s not doing her job by pushing off all her engagements for the day.
Hye Won gets coffee ready and will send Young Woo off before leaving and hands her a juice. Young Woo declines the juice and wants something more soothing for her upset stomach so Hye Won gets her a bowl of yogurt. Young Woo sneers at Hye Woo for being a project manager and making lots of money but really she’s following her boss around. Hye Won isn’t embarrassed since she’s working for Young Woo and is also her friend, and neither is an easy job. She tells Young Woo to stop this messing around before she’s caught. A thief will eventually be caught and a person needs to stay within the lanes to avoid future problems.
Young Woo doesn’t want to listen to Hye Won’s lecture and calls her annoying. Hye Won’s patronizing suggestion that Young Woo find true love then to avoid all this sneaking around earns her a resounding slap from Young Woo. Ouch. Young Woo calls bullshit on Hye Won and scoffs at the implication that Hye Won and her husband don’t cheat because they got married out of true love? Hye Won doesn’t answer and tells Young Woo to get dressed and come out. Young Woo harangues Hye Won for marrying a useless man and that is why she has to work so hard. But it’s not all hers anyways.
Hye Won deposits a surly and hung over Young Woo in the car to send her off to take pictures for the promotional brochure. She reminds Young Woo that tonight is the mahjong game at the Chairman’s residence and Young Woo confirms that Hye Won will cover for her and lie that they were together last night. Hye Won heads back to work and meets with her boss Madam Han to go over the copy for the upcoming concert brochure. Madam Han notices the slap imprint on Hye Won’s face and mutters that Young Woo needs to change her penchant to resort to violence. She sees that only Young Woo’s picture is missing and wants Hye Won to use an old one but Hye Won says it should be nice for this happy occasion. Madam Han knows that Hye Won bought a car for her new boy toy, while her husband bought a condo for his new flight attendant girlfriend, sighing that they are two peas in a pod.
Young Woo is at the photo studio and is on the phone with her husband who is overseas and they carry on a very fake conversation. Young Woo lies that she was out with a friend to discuss the concert plans and slept late, and tonight she’s playing mahjong with her dad. She tells her husband not to call due to the time difference and then ends the call to go take pictures. She wants the picture to look good without a lot of touching up.
Hye Won and Madam Han discuss the mahjong game tonight and Madam Han teases that she’ll lose to Hye Won tonight and to consider it gratitude for Hye Won cleaning up after Young Woo all the time. Their family is so embarrassing and legally she’s Young Woo’s mother and she doesn’t want the Chairman to get upset. Madam Han asks if Hye Won isn’t angling for Young Woo job, because Madam Han isn’t going to rest easy until she gets Young Woo’s shares.
Hye Won goes back to her office and her assistant has answered a call from Hye Won’s husband Kang Joon Hyung. He’s calling to complain about why his hoobae Professor Jo and his protege gets the solo while Joon Hyung is stick in a group piece. He asks Hye Won if they are a married couple and on the same side? Hye Won tries to placate him and explains how it was their sunbae Professor Min who highly recommended Professor Jo and his protege Ji Min Woo. She apologizes and asks to talk to him about this when she gets home, she’s so tired from this morning’s running around.
Joon Hyung goes to talk with Professor Min about pushing Professor Jo and his group of students. Professor Jo calls Joon Hyung so naive and says that as long as Professor Jo is kept happy that is how they have the freedom to do what they want at this school. They have a lot more to do and Professor Min is looking at the bigger picture. He suggests Joon Hyung come play mahjong tonight since his wife is a permanent fixture there. Joon Hyung can’t join that circle yet and doesn’t want to. Professor Min tells Joon Hyung to leave and not to worry too much.
Joon Hyung has his assistant do a nationwide search for piano talent and compile a review list for him. He’s going to find the next piano prodigy. As he’s walking down the hallway, he runs into Professor Jo and his protege Ji Min Woo. Joon Hyung warmly greets them and wishes them well on the upcoming solo performance. He walks into his class and chides his students for not preparing earlier and calling them a bunch of trash.
Joon Hyung’s assistant delivers a pile of recordings of the latest piano performances and he takes it home to watch. Hye Won is taking off her pashmina temporary skirt and puts on the new one her assistant just bought.
The mahjong game starts at the home of the Chairman and there are two tables of four going at the same time. The Chairman asks Hye Won for good tiles and Hye Won teases that she’s gunning for the Chairman’s money. Madam Han cheers her on teasingly and Young Woo snidely asks if Madam Han is aligned with her subordinate to take the Seo family money. The Chairman tells his two favorite ladies to pipe down and all they need to do is sit docilely like lambs beside him.
Joon Hyung sits at home and watches video after video of piano performances but nothing catches his interest.
The mahjong game winnows down to one table with the Chairman, Hye Won, Young Woo, and Professor Min. The Chairman asks what Young Woo has been doing lately and Madam Han says Young Woo has been hard at work planning the concert and staying up late. Hye Won wins by self-selecting her winning tile.
Madam Han goes to prepare snacks for everyone and Young Woo also steps away from the table. They two women meet in the bathroom and Young Woo immediately asks if Madam Han said Young Woo was working late and not sleeping much because Madam Han has something on Young Woo. Madam Han smoothly claims to be merely trying to allay the Chairman’s concern for Young Woo but tells Young Woo to clean up her life now, a woman’s allure past forty is her sterling character.
Young Woo smirks and asks Madam Han what her relationship is with Professor Min? Former clients? Currently lovers? Madam Han grabs Young Woo by the hair and drags her into the bathroom to shove her head in a toilet. OMO. Hye Won arrives just in time to see this and quickly pulls Madam Han off Young Woo. Madam Han heads out to see her husband the Chairman while Hye Won helps clean up Young Woo who asks which side Hye Won is on? Hye Won is looking out for herself. She tells Young Woo to act like nothing happened and go back out.
Hye Won comes home and sits in her car for a few moments to catch her breath. She walks into her beautiful house and the housekeeper hands her a beer. Hye Won downs it and asks for another, admitting that this doesn’t make problems go away but helps a little.
Joon Hyung is still watching piano videos and he finds one posted at a classical music forum site that catches his interest. He watches it which is when Hye Won walks in and peers over his shoulder. Her interest is piqued by the video which just shows a young man playing the piano from shoulder down. His performance is very frenetic which Joon Hyung attributes to the youngsters these days all wanting to show off. Hye Won instead notices that his fingers are oddly positioned not for a showy performance but because he has tendonitis.
Joon Hyung leaves the room and Hye Won logs on to chat with the pianist and asks if his fingers hurt? He needs to go see a doctor for it. The pianist assumes she’s an older man and calls her “hyung” and asks how she knows his fingers hurt? Hye Won knows because she gave up piano playing for this very reason and then recommends a good doctor for him. The pianist reveals he’s born in 1994 and asks how old Hye Won is? Hye Won casually makes up a twenty-something jobless identity. When Joon Hyung comes in and asks what she’s doing, Hye Jon admits to chatting online with a fake identity probably because she’s a little buzzed.
Hye Won tells the pianist to enjoy music for now because eventually he’ll have to earn a living. The pianist asks what she thinks of his playing and Hye Won says that there are plenty of good pianists out there so he needs to go see a doctor. The pianists asks for her real name to give the doctor but Hye Won says that even her fake name is fake. She tells him again to see the doctor and he thanks her before they log off. We see the pianist is Sun Jae and he’s at a PC bang with Dal Mi and another young man.
Hye Won gets ready for bed while Joon Hyung is already asleep. She remembers all of Young Won’s insults today as she’s getting ready for bed and sighs.
Sun Jae goes to the doctor Hye Won recommended and logs on afterwards to thanks “hyung” for the referral and asks to meet in person. Hye Won has to ask her assistant for explanation as to the slang Sun Jae used asking to meet. Hye Won writes back that she’s at her part time job and Sun Jae reveals he is as well.
Young Woo is at the VIP room at the beauty salon and as she’s finishing is when Madam Han walks in. Young Woo chews out the salon ladies for the poor VIP service having another client come in before she’s done. Young Woo warns the salon ladies to be careful of Madam Han who goes after the hair, and then informs Madam Han that she’s the main character today since this is an art center event while the chaebol group just provides the funds.
Joon Hyung’s assistant is driving him to the concert and he wants more videos to look for his prodigy. He left his bow tie behind so a delivery service is called to bring it to the arts center. He arrives at the rehearsal and finds Professor Jo already onstage and asks him to finish up in an hour so he can rehearse for his second half performance. He then goes to yell at Hye Won for running the rehearsal for Professor Jo and his protege, why does she have to do even this? Hye Won is too busy to deal him and heads off.
Joon Hyung runs into Young Woo walking out with her sister-in-law who is a cellist and performing today as well as a cello player. Young Woo brings up how Hye Won always helps out Professor Jo and Joon Hyung says he asked her to. Young Woo notes that Joon Hyung doesn’t have a protege to develop and he shouldn’t rely on Hye Won and needs to find a way to raise his own profile even if he has to change sides to align with.
Sun Jae arrives at the arts center to make a delivery and he delivers the item to Joon Hyung’s assistant. The guy doesn’t have enough money and asks for a discount but Sun Jae stares at him until he digs out money from his own wallet and pays him. As Sun Jae walks out, he passes through a corridor with portraits of past famed pianists and he takes his time to take it all in.
His attention is caught by music coming from a room and he walks in and peers through the performance curtains to see Hye Won, Professor Jo, and his protege rehearsing at a piano for their upcoming duet performance. They sit down and start to play as Hye Won listens. The door to the auditorium opens and Joon Hyung walks in to observe the rehearsal. Hye Won notices the sound is off and they fish out a hammer left in the piano affecting the keys. Hye Won is complimented for her great ear and the two pianists resuming playing.
Sun Jae stares and stares in awe and his attention is caught by Hye Won listening to the performance. The pianists finish and Hye Won gives them the thumbs up. As they are walking out, the protege is shocked about the hammer being in the piano and Professor Jo says that even worse sabotage happens during competitions. Hye Won radios the security guard to tighten the security and make sure no one is touching the musical instruments.
Sun Jae stares at the piano on stage wistfully.
Joon Hyung changes into his tuxedo and his assistance asks if he needs anything else. As he’s reapplying make up for Joon Hyung, they can hear someone playing the piano and assume it’s the protege Min Woo because the playing is so good. They discuss how Joon Hyung doesn’t have someone like that to mentor. Suddenly Min Woo comes in and Joon Hyung realizes he’s not the one playing. Joon Hyung runs into the auditorium and finds it empty. He hears a full search is going on for someone who played the piano without permission, Hye Won wants the search to be done low key as to not alert the arriving guests.
Sun Jae is hiding in the toilet when Joon Hyung walks in and is on the phone with his assistant who has checked the CCTV feeds and says the person playing the piano was wearing a jacket with a delivery company logo on it. Sun Jae hears that there is a search going on for him and he tries to get his phone but drops it and the noise catches Joon Hyung’s attention. He walks over and sees the phone outside the bathroom stall and picks it up. The phone is open to the text message sending Sun Jae to deliver the bow tie and Joon Hyung reads it. Sun Jae reaches out under the stall to grab his phone back and then takes off his delivery vest and puts it back on backwards and adding a beanie on his head.
Sun Jae slowly opens the bathroom stall to leave and Joon Hyung is there waiting for him. He asks if Sun Jae delivered the bow tie and caused the ruckus right now? Someone is coming in so Joon Hyung grabs Sun Jae and they get back in the stall together. It’s a security guard and he knocks on the stall door and Joon Hyung gives his name as a performer and diverts the guy.
Young Woo is berating Hye Won for not running the show better and having someone sneak in to play the piano. Madam Han walks in and has Hye Won leave to get the final preparations done while Young Woo continues to think Madam Han is always covering for Hye Won. Joon Hyung sneaks Sun Jae out claiming he’s doing this so the event can go on today without any blips.
The concert begins with Professor Jo at the piano for a solo. We see the Chairman in the audience with his wife and daughter beside him, and his daughter Young Woo has her head on his shoulder.
Sun Jae goes home and his mom prepares a dinner for him and tries to talk with Sun Jae who ignores her. Mom calls Dal Mi to ask if they fought and if Sun Jae is giving her attitude since he’s paying off the debt Mom incurred. Dal Mi promises to deal with him and offers to give Mom a free perm tomorrow since she’s off duty.
Sun Jae is worried because Joon Hyung asked for his contact information should anything happen. Joon Hyung is currently playing the piano for Young Won’s sister in law and another string player in a performance piece that ends in applause.
The last performer is Professor Jo and his protege Min Woo and Joon Hyung listen from the waiting room. The performance ends in wild applause and the two pianists get up for a bow. Hye Won claps from the back as she watches.
Hye Won brews some coffee and brings it up to Joon Hyung with two apples for their breakfast. She’s off for today and plans to spend it just resting. Joon Hyung has class but asks if Hye Won wants to meet a pianist. She’s not interested in his students but he piques her interest when he mentions it’s the kid who caused a ruckus yesterday. He managed to play a piece meant for four hands using just two hands, leading Joon Hyung to wrongly assume he was listening to Professor Jo and Min Woo play. The low and the high notes were in perfect harmony. Joon Hyung wonders if he’s a talent that can be developed and wants Hye Won’s input.
Joon Hyung goes to the address Sun Jae left to talk with him and asks him to come outside. He drives Sun Jae to his condo with Hye Won and drops him off. Hye Won gets dressed and heads downstairs as Sun Jae is brought inside. Sun Jae looks around the lovely home and Hye Won comes down the stairs and tells him to follow her.
Thoughts of Mine:
Different forms call for different methods of analysis, a novel is read with the words forming an action but poetry takes the same words and requires parsing it for further meaning. I write drama recaps as a summary of what happened in an episode, who said what and who did what. Secret Love Affair requires a much different approach to consuming this drama. It’s not popcorn entertainment, at times difficult to watch and requires a stomach for something less entertaining as it is thought provoking. To recap it requires balancing both what is happening onscreen as well as the nuances of how its presented as well as what is not said. It’s a challenging endeavor and I’m not feeling all that confident I can do it justice. I’m also not a musician, unless you count my junior high stint in the marching band where I personally gave clarinet playing a bad name. This drama is fully immersed in music and bathed in a secondary layer of auditory meaning, making what we are watching sync expertly with the understanding that music is a further extension of the heart and soul. If I miss out on how a certain scene fits with the classical score being played, forgive this Koala for being a music dummy and feel free to correct me and add the missing deeper analysis.
It’s quite difficult to make sense of the world of Secret Love Affair as we encounter it in episode 1. There is Oh Hye Won, all cool, calm, and collected, but with a subtle undercurrent of longing in her. The piano-playing she gave up, her husband who plays but clearly isn’t as accomplished or capable as her, and her job working behind the scenes in the world that she participates in not as the main character. It’s not easy to read Hye Won other than she’s good at what she does and working around a mostly horrid bunch of rich folks. Her frenemy relationship with Director Seo Young Woo reeks of the uneven power plays that the rich play with those beneath them, and even worse is seeing Hye Won stuck in the middle between Young Woo and her step-mother the even more badass Madam Han. This story doesn’t have heroes and villains, nor does it seem to have a challenge to be solved or an obstacle to be overcome. We are simply dropped into a world of rich people immersed in a world of music that seems to both define them and contain them. Into the world comes Lee Sun Jae, the outsider in more ways than one. He’s not classically trained, he’s poor and rather unsophisticated, and all he has are the innate talent in his hands that will gain him entree into Hye Won’s circle.
This story comes across as a sensory experience with the piano as a central metaphor. The pianist feels the keys, hears the notes, senses the rhythm, the act of playing the piano is often used as a descriptive reference to love making. There isn’t any yet hint of Hye Won and Sun Jae as future illicit lovers, but it’s very clear that each is captivated by the piano. My favorite scene in episode 1 was when Hye Won was listening to the duet rehearsal and Sun Jae was peeking at her through the stage curtains. I think this drama will stage a lot of scenes with the camera in a surreptitious position, sometimes the moment is tense and others feel so mundane. There is a lot of hinting at this drama of the power dynamics and I wonder how Hye Won and Sun Jae will grow attracted to each other. Will he feel attracted to her piano talent and life experience with music? Is she going to be captivated by his raw talent and smoldering intensity? I’m excited to recap such a dense and meaty drama, and in a first for the blog, joining me in recapping (and the mastermind behind tackling this drama) will be the fabulous jomo who will alternate with me starting in episode 2. This really is a bona fide quality drama, and the fast-rising ratings despite residing on a cable channel is a testament to an audience being out there with an appetite for good heady stuff. I hope plenty of folks will join us in not so secretly having a loving affair with a daring drama.
Click here to watch Secret Love Affair.