[The New York Asian Film Festival has teamed up with Korean Movie Night for the international premiere of Secret Love. First-come first-serve tickets will be free for the screening, which will be at 7:00 PM on Tuesday, July 10th at Tribeca cinemas. More information can be found here.]
I’m not sure how, but I kind of forgot that there were dramatic romance films. I expected Secret Love to be a romantic comedy, because all of the romantic movies I have seen at NYAFF have been funny, and because I don’t make a point of seeing serious romantic films. It doesn’t help that the title “Secret Love” is very vague, and could apply to either a dramatic or a comedic story. Well, I’m here to tell you that Secret Love is not a comedy. Not even a little bit. I don’t think there’s a single joke in the 111 minute runtime.
Or maybe there were some, and they just weren’t funny.
Secret Love (Bimilae | 비밀애)
Directors: Kwon Ji-Yeon and Ryu Hoon
Country: South Korea
Secret Love tells the story of Yeon-Yi (Yoon Jin-Seo). Her husband, Jin-woo (Yoo Ji-Tae), falls into a coma for some reason I don’t remember, and his twin bother Jin-ho (also Yoo Ji-Tae) shows up to see him. Yeon-Yi, who didn’t know her husband had a twin brother, is understandably upset to have a man who looks identical to her husband walking around her house, and it causes her a fair amount of stress. But fortunately for her, sex is a stress relief of some kind, so she starts having all kinds of sex. First with Jin-ho, because of the mountains or something, and then with Jin-woo, because he’s her husband and/or looks like Jin-ho… maybe.
Warning. This paragraph contains spoilers for Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. The casting of Yoon Jin-seo and Yoo Ji-Tae as lovers is a really interesting one. For those of you who don’t know, Yoon Jin-seo was in many ways the catalyst for the events of Oldboy. She played the antagonist’s sister, who was present only in flashbacks. The antagonist in the present day of the film, however, was played by Yoo Ji-Tae. Given that it was a secret incestuous relationship that led to both of their characters’s downfalls in Oldboy, their casting together here as secret, verging-on-incestuous (do in-laws count? Kinda, right?) lovers has an interesting context. I wonder if the Korean film industry is trying to tell them something. They are both good looking people. End of spoilers.
The whole thing is really quite confusing, and the fact that the twins are played by the same actor doesn’t help things. At first, Jin-woo and Jin-ho have different hair styles, and that made it relatively simple to tell which was which, but Jin-woo gets a haircut to match Jin-ho’s post-coma, and then things got really disorienting. I could usually tell by the darkness of the hair (and which one was using the cane), but there were times when that wasn’t enough. The fact that I wasn’t sure which character Yeon-Yi actually wanted to be having sex with at any given time didn’t help matters. Her feelings toward both of them seem to have started with a thing that happened in the mountains long before the start of the film, but that’s not ever really explained, and is actually a point of confusion amongst the characters themselves. Yeon-Yi thought that Jin-woo was the guy who saved her (from something), but Jin-ho says he did it, but Jin-woo has no idea, because he knows Jin-ho saved someone else, but he’s not sure about Yeon-Yi.
It’s all really convoluted and bothersome, but it boiled down to me not really understanding the motivations of anybody. There was way too little backstory for all of the emotional turmoil that Secret Love seems desperate to present. Part of the problem is that at the end there is a big moment that seems like a twist (and with presented with montages and someone making an “Oh my god!” face), but it only served to confuse me further. I thought I had understood the nature of a relationship, but I no longer have any idea if I did. I have no clue what that montage was supposed to reveal, but hopefully it made more sense to the character than it did to me.
I feel compelled to elaborate on the sex that I mentioned before, because it plays a pretty significant role in the film. There are four separate scenes of pretty intense passion between Yeon-Yi and some version of Yoo Ji-Tae, and there’s one other, shorter scene where only one of the parties is capable of acting, although it’s not quite as creepy as that makes it sound. Nonetheless, the sex isn’t pornographic, but I think it’s a bit excessive. All four-and-a-half scenes are important narratively, which is rare and appreciated, but that doesn’t mean they needed to be so drawn out. It was pretty clear that Yeon-Yi was never really going to fight it, so having her make wimpy little protestations doesn’t really do anything. It certainly doesn’t clear her of any wrong-doing, because by the end she always seemed even more ready and willing that her lover.
I may sound like I’m being all negative and whatnot, but I actually liked Secret Love. The characters are pretty interesting and I was honestly surprised by where the story went. I had a series of beats I expected it to hit, and it hit a few of them at first, and then went somewhere completely different. The end in particular is completely different than anything I could have imagined. It almost ended with something that could best be described as “Ballsy” (even if it was hurt by some terrible green screen work), but it didn’t end up doing so. Regardless, where it did end was still somewhere very different and far more interesting than it could have/I expected it would.
If you hate romance and romantic films, Secret Love has nothing to offer you, but if romance is your cup of tea, I think you’ll find a lot to like. Hell, maybe all serious romantic films are like this, and I’m just not used to the confusing plots they attempt to tell. If that is the case, though, Secret Love certainly isn’t the film that will convince me to the genre another shot.