Secret Love Affair begins and ends with Oh Hye-won. She is the head of the Planning Department for the Seohan Arts Foundation, but we quickly realize that her job extends far beyond that as she controls and manipulates the lives of everyone around her that might affect or diminish her firm grasp of power. Her husband, Kang Joon-hyung (played by Park Hyuk-kwon), is a music professor at Seohan Music University, and when he takes on music prodigy Lee Seon-jae as his new student, the superior Hye-won quickly steps in to the fill the role as his real teacher and their affair begins.
While this affair is the vehicle upon which the drama rides, it is neither the most important story nor the most interesting. The affair serves to temporarily disrupt the lives of Hye-won, Joon-hyung, and their new student Seon-jae, but its larger purpose is seemingly to show us how a woman who can control everything and everyone around her must still be forced to make huge concessions for her life at the top. The story of the affair is largely slow and unexciting. Part of that must be due to Yoo Ah-in, whose performance is lacking in many ways as he strains to play the poor, innocent, and naive college student. His expressions are forced and it never feels natural. But more than that, the story of the affair is simply unimportant to the larger thrust of the drama as it seeks to question the lives of the family's that run Korea's largest conglomerates while at the same asking how much can one person sacrifice to live the Korean dream.
Chaebol family dynamics
This drama is greatest when focused on the lives of the Seo family and those connected to it. At all moments, and in all parts of their lives, they are constantly conspiring against one another in desperate attempts to maintain or gain power. I have no direct experience with chaebol families and their culture, but I have always imagined them to be more akin to monarchic struggles for the crown as the children of the king fight one another for power while also contending against new stepmothers, stepmothers' families, in-laws, nieces, and nephews.
Every character in this drama uses what they have to manage their own claims, property, and money, but none more so than Hye-won. As the master manipulator she makes herself invaluable to everyone in the family and ultimately outplays them all.
More than any other film or drama I can think of, Secret Love Affair shows this culture at what I would imagine is face value. Nothing is pretty, there are no friends, no allies, and no rest. And in all fairness, it just fun watching a woman from outside this family control and manipulate everyone who should by all rights have much more power than she does.
The Korean dream
Within these struggles for power, the writers also ask us to see the sacrifices made for this lifestyle. These are not altruistic sacrifices that should be admired, but instead decisions that are quite easily admonished. Hye-won sits in a powerful position, but it comes at a great cost. She must babysit her husband, her workers, and the Seo family. She is physically beaten and emotionally abused. And before Seon-jae, she seems to truly care for nothing except power.
But she is fully aware that her decision to follow this path has costs and consequences. In her college days she made the decision to be indebted to the Seo family and she continues to pay this debt. She strives to be the Korean dream in working for a large conglomerate, maintaining a suitable marriage, and acquiring more and more power and money. Throughout the drama we see her do this comparably better than anyone else around her. Even when we might doubt her abilities to survive another crisis, she does. Hye-won has mastered the system.
By the conclusion, Hye-won has somehow managed to use her own crisis and the crises of those around her to amass even more power and money. The only person who could stop her is herself, and she does. She gives up this Korean dream for a type of love she never felt before.
While the ending is a bit hackneyed, I must applaud the writers for at least leaving it open ended and on Hye-won's terms. Also, while Hye-won's transformation from a power-hungry businesswoman to a lovestruck do-gooder seems implausible, it is done with finesse and finely written. Ultimately, within the inner turmoil of Hye-won the drama is finally able to connect with us, normal folk. It is fun to watch, but it is hard to empathize or feel for those at the upper echelons of power. However, within Hye-won's choices there is a mirror for us all. One's path in Korea is oftentimes more clearly marked than those in America and when we try to deviate from that path, it can often have negative consequences. Knowing when to follow the path and when to follow your own heart is the question I find most difficult to answer in Korea.
This is by far the best Korean drama I have ever seen. While I did not love Yoo Ah-in's performance in this role, to be fair it is most likely only highlighted by the fact that everyone around him was simply perfect. Kim Hee-ae is simply brilliant as is Shim Hye-jin as the stepmother and Kim Hye-eun as the inept and childish adult daughter of the chaebol owner. Writer Jeong Seong-joo should be given the most respect for writing a believable, lovely, and painful story that is able to connect the lives of those we will never see with life questions we must all ask ourselves.