Her Private Life: Episodes 2-8 (Series review)
When I first heard the premise for this show, I was wary of how a story about a fangirl falling in love with her boss might go wrong, but Her Private Life is a delightful, smartly written, and unfailingly squee-worthy rom-com. The leads are wonderful, fully realized and entertainingly quirky, and their chemistry is stratospheric. The drama also gives us a nuanced look at idol fan culture and what it can mean to the people who engage in it, and delves into themes of personal and professional disappointment and hardship—surprisingly thoughtful for a show this pretty. (My God is it pretty.)
THE STORY SO FAR
Sung Deok-mi is a curator at an art gallery by day, and a die-hard idol fangirl by night. Having turned her lifelong passion for making art into an expertise in curating it, she’s devastated to find out that her awful boss has been using the gallery as a slush fund—which soon leads to the director’s resignation, and the arrival of new gallery director Ryan Gold, a genius artist who has mysteriously given up painting.
Ryan and Deok-mi have already met twice: once when Deok-mi tried and failed to outbid Ryan for a piece of art, and once when she fell on top of Ryan while trying to get pictures of her “Oppa” at the airport—though in the latter instance, she was in covert fangirl mode.
Deok-mi’s secret life revolves around idol Cha Shi-an, whom she has been following (and photographing) since his debut. Her partner in fangirling is her best friend Sun-joo, a married mom and coffee shop owner who lives vicariously through Deok-mi. Their trio is rounded out by Eun-gi, who was raised with Deok-mi and to all intents and purposes is her brother—except for his obvious crush on her.
Sun-joo and Ryan have their own run-in when she and Deok-mi go on a “fan pilgrimage” to the hotel where Shi-an once stayed, except that Ryan has booked that suite. Sun-joo begs him to let her use the room due to her “unspeakable situation” with a person she likes but can’t easily meet, but he turns her down flat. Later he sees Sun-joo and Deok-mi in he hotel bar, draws the conclusion that they’re secret lovers, and feeling terrible, immediately gives Sun-joo his room key. (The talking-to he gives himself in the mirror of the bathroom here is too adorable.)
Ryan and Deok-mi really don’t get off on the right foot, and not only because of their earlier run-ins. He fires her soon after he arrives due to a misunderstanding; when he apologizes and asks her to come back, she refuses, until she almost kills him by putting coffee in his drink to get back at him, not realizing he’s allergic and not just health-conscious.
She spends the night nursing him out of guilt—and holding his hand when he grabs it and won’t let go.
Deok-mi’s two worlds collide when Ryan announces that he wants Shi-an to display his art collection at their gallery. She nearly collapses from shock and joy when she finds out they will be going to Shi-an’s house, and spends the visit trying to cover her excitement with a (very thin) mask of professionalism. But she loses her cool when she goes into his bathroom, and accidentally sprays herself with his shower head while she’s adoring its holy status.
Ryan lends her his jacket, but this leads to her being photographed by sasaeng (stalker) fan Cindy on her way out. The jacket just so happens to be exactly the same as the limited edition one Cindy got Shi-an for his birthday, leading to rumors that Shi-an has a girlfriend, Before long, Deok-mi’s identity is exposed and she’s pelted by eggs outside her workplace. Eun-gi comes to her defense, but she’s injured and shaken, although she stops short of pressing charges when she sees how young the girls are, and how hurt they are by Shi-an’s “betrayal.”
Ryan feels increasingly bad for Deok-mi, and somewhat responsible for creating the situation, especially knowing (or thinking that he knows) that she can’t publicize the person that she’s actually dating. Worried, he offers to pretend to be her boyfriend to quell the rumors; he messages the owner of Shi-an’s most prominent fan blog—which unbeknownst to Ryan, is Deok-mi—and arranges for her to post some photos of the two of them.
Cue Sun-joo as their paparazzo, following them around as they go on their pretend date and encouraging them to get closer and look more intimate—which shocks poor Ryan to the core and even makes him defensive on Deok-mi’s behalf, although he reminds himself not to be judgmental.
The pretend date leads to some adorable moments, including one where Deok-mi asks him about his discomfort with shaking hands, which she’s noticed on multiple occasions. He confesses that it’s not holding people’s hands he dislikes, but the moment of letting go, which makes him feel as though he’s become alone in the world. Deok-mi offers hers for free, anytime he wants.
Soon after, Cindy joins the gallery as an intern; she’s still suspicious of Deok-mi and Ryan’s relationship and has created a blog to track their every move, forcing them to continue the charade.
Eun-gi has a jealous fit over the pictures, and confronts Deok-mi at work, threatening to “out” her scheme to her family and colleagues. Ryan overhears this and thinks they’re talking about a very different kind of outing, and confronts Eun-gi—and then is utterly embarrassed to find out how completely he’s misunderstood the situation. Deok-mi, on the other hand, is disappointed to find out that Ryan has been helping out of pity rather than romantic interest.
To counter Cindy’s rising suspicions, Deok-mi insists on joining him for what turns into an overnight business trip due to bad weather. This results in many heart-pounding moments caused by wet clothes and close proximity (I know I’m not the only one who stopped breathing when Ryan was untangling that scarf from Deok-mi’s hair). Deok-mi thanks him for his fake dating scheme, although he assures her it wasn’t out of pity.
They discuss the collection they’ve come here to ask permission to display—she posits that the artist’s final portrait is a “Hello,” to the person he loves, who is standing by the camera. “Hello,” repeats Ryan, looking into her face intensely. (Was that a confession of love?!) They nervously return to their own beds—but by the morning, he’s made his way across the floor and is lying next to her when she wakes up. By the next day, both of them are clearly in the throes of a full-blown crush.
Meanwhile, the clues have begun to pile up, and since Ryan is a smart cookie, he figures out Deok-mi’s secret identity. Instead of being disgusted, however, he finds it adorable, and signs up to be a member of her fan blog. At work he sends messages to her fangirl alter ego and enjoys her flustered reactions, and looks at her with obvious affection as she moons over Shi-an.
Even more delightful (for us), the gallery staff have a dinner outing in which their co-workers grill them about their relationship, and they hilariously rewrite their history into a rom-com of epic proportions. Deok-mi ends up taking a drunk Ryan home. On their way he grabs her hand tightly, and she lets him hold it until she has him settled in bed; even then she has a hard time untangling herself.
When Ryan wakes up he’s hit with a reel of embarrassing memories from the night before, including his refusal to tell Deok-mi his door password until she sang him a song, and the way he hung on to her hand for dear life.
But then she goes to his house to help with a possible water leak when he can’t be reached, and when he finds her in his private art room (and the sight of his failure to begin painting again), he loses his temper and tells her to get out, asking hurtfully if she’d mistaken them to be dating for real.
He regrets it as soon as she leaves, and chases her all over town to apologize—and then he kisses her.
Except that it’s a fake-out for the benefit of Cindy, who’s spying on them. They’re also seen by Deok-mi’s parents, who insist on taking Ryan home and overwhelming him with hospitality. Ryan finds out that Deok-mi will be at a fan signing a few days later, and goes to watch; she spots him, and despite herself, takes a bunch of pictures of him. Later as she’s editing her photos, she finds herself doing Ryan’s too—and is struck by her own earlier words to Eun-gi, that editing someone’s photos is an act of love.
At this sudden realization Deok-mi becomes completely flustered and forgets to upload the photos of Shi-an. This worries Ryan, and he goes to her house, eventually ending up on her couch with a blindfold on because she doesn’t want him to see that her walls are plastered with Shi-an’s face. Ryan tries to remove the mask, but Deok-mi bowls him over—and then she accepts her feelings for him, and kisses Ryan. He removes his blindfold and kisses her back…
But the whole thing was just her imagination, and she ushers him out. GOOD LORD, ARE YOU TRYING TO GIVE ME A HEART ATTACK, SHOW.
The next day she tells Sun-joo that she nearly confessed to Ryan, but Sun-joo warns her not to say anything unless she’s sure of his feelings first. At work Ryan calls her aside and Deok-mi’s hopes soar—only for him to tell her that he got Cindy to stop spying on them and they won’t have to keep up the facade much longer.
Add to this that Ryan’s old friend Da-in is not only back in town and clearly hoping to start a romance with him, but they’ll also have to hire her for a project, and Deok-mi is feeling rather deflated.
They stay with Da-in all day to help her set up her workshop. Eun-gi rushes over to help when he realizes they might work all night, and the four of them eat dinner together. Afterwards Da-in warns Eun-gi that he’s being a bit rude to his friend’s boyfriend by acting so close with her, and he spills the beans that it’s fake. (SO many reasons to hate you, Eun-gi.)
The next day Da-in tells Deok-mi that she knows the relationship is fake, and that Ryan wants to end it, devastating Deok-mi. Except that we see in flashback that Da-in pointed out that Ryan was being jealous, and it was a light-bulb moment for him—he realized he needed to make it real.
In the evening Ryan asks Deok-mi to meet him, because he has something to tell her. As she walks toward him she silently confesses how much she likes him, but out loud, she says that she wants to end the act. He tries to stop her, grabbing her hand, but she pulls away and leaves. In the car lies his abandoned bouquet, with the note, “My feelings for you are sincere.”
Da-in, you snake! Leaving aside that this latest development leaves me wanting to throw a temper tantrum worthy of a three-year-old, I really love this show.
It’s such a delight just watching these two fall in love before our eyes, almost simultaneously—they started to catch feelings pretty early and basically in tandem with each other, which is why episode 8 had me feeling both giddy and nervous. No way were they going to confirm their mutual feelings only halfway through the show, even if it’s obvious to the whole world how completely head over heels they are. (The fact that he told her to doll herself up and come with him, and she was disappointed when she found out they were going to meet Shi-an, was like a blaring foghorn saying “I like you.” How could Ryan not pick up on it?! Gah.)
They way these two look at each other is not just romantic beyond words, it’s indicative of their slowly developing affection and respect for each other. I appreciate so much how the two of them, despite their initial tiffs, never crossed the line of basic respect for another human being that we so often see in “meet-cute” situations, especially coming from male leads. Deok-mi and Ryan start out at cross-purposes, and they make mistakes that hurt each other, but they’re both sincere in their interactions, and they never lose their self-respect even when their dignity takes some hits.
I especially love—and clearly so does Deok-mi, since she praises him for it—Ryan’s willingness to apologize immediately and genuinely when he feels he’s made a mistake. And how lovely that his reason is that he doesn’t want to be a coward; he has the kind of pride that makes him want to be a good person, not the type of ego that would prevent him from admitting his mistakes. Kim Jae-wook brilliantly brings this introspective, guarded, and awkwardly sweet hero to life.
And can I just gush about Park Min-young as Deok-mi for a second? Park is genius as this character, with a perfect balance between the professional working woman (a facade which I found a little overdone in What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim) and the crazy fangirl. Deok-mi is really the heart of the show, and everyone else sort of orbits around her very bright presence.
We’re introduced to her rather extreme fangirl ways at the top of the drama, but the writer does a great job of slowly revealing what fandom means to her, the role it’s played in her life and friendships, and the way the fan community has been a support for her in difficult times. In fact, the photographs she lovingly takes and edits of her idol are a way for her to express the creativity that she’s had to suppress after being forced to give up her dream to be an artist—and she’s clearly talented at it, as Shi-an acknowledges.
I also really enjoy that this loss of the ability to paint has become a quiet, nearly unspoken point of empathy between our leads. She initially told him that she gave up on art school because she broke her arm, but once they get closer she reveals to him that she had to sacrifice studying art because of her family’s financial situation—and how deep that wound still is for her. Ryan’s quiet question about how she could stand it when she injured her arm and couldn’t draw is a nod toward his own struggle that Deok-mi clearly understands and has sympathy for. In the same vein, he confessed some pretty deep-seated traumas to her very early on in their relationship, like the fact that he was abandoned by his birth family, and the way that’s made him avoid touching people’s hands. These moments between them are subtly and touchingly executed, and shows a beautiful connection beyond just the fact that they’re two incredibly gorgeous humans in each other’s orbit.
On a lighter note, the humor in this show is delicious. Deok-mi’s rich fantasy life slays me, like when she goes to Shi-an’s house for the first time, Godzilla Deok-mi crashing through an imaginary city out of excitement. Ryan and especially Deok-mi have the most hilarious expressions that tell us exactly what’s going through their minds—both actors are killing it not just with the dramatic acting, but with the comedy. It’s the perfect setup for rom-com hijinks to have leads who are so transparent and yet so hopeless at reading the other’s feelings (and it’s also the only way to get to sixteen episodes, let’s be real).
And then there’s the unfettered delight that Ryan takes in Deok-mi’s fangirl life, how involved he becomes in it purely because he likes her, and everything about their online representations and interactions. His alter ego as Latte is deadly charming and hilarious. It melted my heart when he searched for something to say about a picture of Shi-an, and then thought of a memory of Deok-mi and wrote, “There are two suns in the sky.”
I do have a couple of quibbles with the show, primarily the way that it deals with the fan violence against Deok-mi. It’s troubling that the writing equates their assault on her with the beatdown she gave Eun-gi when they were teenagers for re-gifting the umbrella to her. She should have pressed charges, or at least been very clear that their actions were unacceptable. Instead there’s a rather uncritical acceptance of the narrative that Shi-an is marketed as the fans’ boyfriend/a product, and that this kind of backlash is a natural result. I really hope that the show addresses this properly in its second half.
I also heartily dislike Eun-gi, who’s blessed with the dubious talent of mostly being right but always saying it in the most disrespectful, insensitive manner. He’s right when he tells Deok-mi that a fake relationship with Ryan will most likely end in Deok-mi getting hurt, and that she should find a man that can accept her fangirl lifestyle—but the way he talks to her is rude, he has no sense of the boundaries he’s repeatedly been told not to cross, and he’s motivated more by jealousy that genuine concern for her. I feel similarly about Da-in, another so-called friend with seemingly no respect for boundaries or others’ feelings.
There are some clouds on the horizon, not just for our lead couple’s relationship but also due to the unresolved mysteries that have only been hinted at so far. There’s the mysterious artist Lee Sol whose paintings caused Ryan to freeze up, whom the drama seems to be hinting is the birth mother of both Ryan and Shi-an. I’m also uneasy at Deok-mi’s mom’s sudden flashback to a group of unidentified kids, because I really hope we’re not going to find out about some secret, fateful childhood connection between our leads.
Also, no more fake-outs! My poor heart almost gave out from that last one.
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