Private Lives: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
With its slick tone and fast-paced storytelling, JTBC’s Private Lives is off to a running start. In our opening episodes, we meet our heroine and her con-artist parents, and then learn the backstory that brought her to where she is in the present: a con artist hungry for revenge. As good as she is, our heroine is not invincible, and there’s nothing but tangles and twists ahead as she pursues her goal.
Note: This is an opening week review only.
EPISODES 1-2 REVIEW
Private Lives has a lot going for it, but it was the fact that the screenwriter of Heartless City was on board that made me the most interested. While no one would argue that that drama was perfect, its exploration of loyalties amidst the criminal underbelly stuck with me. Will Private Lives have the same elements, balancing love, lies, and double-crossing? After the premiere week, I’m thinking we have a tentative yes.
We first meet our heroine, CHA JOO-EUN (Seohyun), nine years in the past. She seems like your ordinary high school student — until we learn that her parents are con artists, and that they have absolutely no shame in using her to forward their schemes. Her mother, for instance, pushes her in front of a car to play up the fake injury/lawsuit they’re cooking up. Though Joo-eun plays along and fills her role (and knows how to get what she wants out of it), more than anything, she seems irritated by getting dragged into their plots.
It’s not until she witnesses her father pretending to be a legless beggar, dragging himself on his stomach through the streets of Hongdae, that she finally confronts him about what he and her mother are really up to. “Are you a documentary actor or a con-man?” she demands of her father. But, in the world of Private Lives, those two are pretty synonymous. Or, one is a euphemism for the other.
Joo-eun’s father has a big “documentary” he’s working on, and it turns out to be their family’s undoing. He’s taken his Hongdae beggar role up a notch with the help of JUNG BOK-GI (Kim Hyo-jin), a fellow swindler. Actually, as it turns out, she’s more like the mistress of swindles — Joo-eun’s parents are small fish compared to Bok-gi and her mega fraud schemes.
The documentary is going well (Joo-eun’s father cosplays a pastor and he rakes in donations which they all then pocket) — until it’s clear that Joo-eun’s father is the fall man. Indeed, using a fellow con-artist as a scapegoat seems to be Rule #1 in Bok-gi’s playbook. Joo-eun’s father gets slapped with a huge prison sentence, while Bok-gi whizzes out of the country to wear her negligee and sip wine, as a femme fatale like her is oft to do.
It’s here that we hit a major turning point for our heroine. Joo-eun’s desire for revenge against Bok-gi changes her life’s trajectory, and soon, she’s learning how to be a documentary actor herself. She appeals to HAN-SON (Tae Won-seok), who is something of her parents’ handler and scheme-maker, to teach her.
Though Han-son has said in the past that she has the perfect face for the job, he’s reluctant to take her on. It’s a great moment in the drama — we have still-innocent Joo-eun wanting to do whatever it takes to avenge her father, and we have Han-son trying to express to her that once she makes this decision, her life can never go back to what it was. He urges her to “live a life where you can trust your friends and the world,” but his warnings are ignored. As much as we can feel the gravity of Joo-eun’s decision, I like that she very willfully makes it herself, and chooses her path.
A quick montage takes us through years of training to become an “actor” and we catch glimpses of Joo-eun’s many roles. When we catch up with her again, she’s nothing like the Joo-eun we once knew. Not only did she go from a dorky haircut and a high school uniform to a gorgeous long-haired chameleon of a woman, but there’s something entirely different about how she carries herself.
Seohyun does a nice job here playing almost two different characters, but it’s a fault of the storytelling that we don’t really get to see that transition. Although we see Joo-eun building skills and know-how in her field, we don’t have that much a look inside of her. How was she able to change from an innocent student humiliated by her parents’ work, to a swindler with killer skills and a devil may care attitude? While I wish we got a little deeper look at our heroine, I’ll root for her anyway.
Just when Joo-eun’s ready for a break from her jobs, she randomly spots Bok-gi back in Seoul. Her desire for revenge is a little stronger than her sense of caution, and pretty soon she’s headlong in a plot to scam Bok-gi. Bok-gi’s latest creation is a pyramid scheme, and Joo-eun plays along as a participant, doing a fine job at getting an inside man, and even getting help from her mother to further her revenge plot.
Private Lives is as heavy on twists as a drama about con-artists should be, and we get a huge one here, when we learn that Bok-gi has just been playing along. Soon, Bok-gi out-schemes Joo-eun, and this time it’s Joo-eun’s turn to take the heat — and the prison sentence.
Something I liked about Private Lives is that it isn’t afraid to move fast and skate over the details, which takes a bit of nerve. I might have wanted the details and depth that were skipped over, but it’s kind of understood that what we’re watching is meant to be fast and slick. Because the story doesn’t settle with Joo-eun and keeps buzzing around through time jumps and time skips, it’s clear that there’s still more of this story to tell. And so, we’ve already followed Joo-eun for nine years when we reach her in the summer of 2019, fresh out of prison.
Though we’re finally in the present day (or the closest to it we’ve been), the storytelling stays slick and even somewhat thin. Han-son comes to pick Joo-eun up after she’s released, and sets her up with a rooftop apartment, a credit card, and the expectation that she’s going to start working with him again. But for all her strutting around Seoul and her fashionista skills, Joo-eun seems unhappy. She briefly resists Han-son, and seems interested in pursuing a “normal” life, but soon enough she’s back to her documentaries. It’s here that she crosses paths with our hero LEE JUNG-HWAN (Go Kyung-pyo).
First, Jung-hwan hits on her when she’s at a bar with her friend. Then they’re accidentally each others’ contacts for an information exchange, and Jung-hwan passes a USB to Joo-eun at a lunch meet-up. Finally, they meet up at a restaurant near the fake job Joo-eun’s working, and it’s straight-up flirting after that.
I liked Go Kyung-pyo trying on his dapper, swoony form here, and though we quickly hop through their romance, his earnestness convinced me it was real. After some momentary doubt, Joo-eun accepts his marriage proposal. We’re not told much, but it’s obvious that Joo-eun is searching for security, a home, and a normal life — the way she links arms with Jung-hwan while they’re strolling after a date seems to show us how much she wants something to hold onto.
But can their marriage work when it’s built on lies? Joo-eun has made up a whole story about her life, and Jung-hwan has no idea about her real identity. Still, they make it to their wedding day. Joo-eun sits in her bridal chamber before the ceremony — but the ceremony never happens.
The groom has disappeared, his parents were hired actors, and everything that Joo-eun believed was real is just another scam. It’s quite the twist on which to end our drama’s opening week.
Fool me once, fool me twice… I can’t imagine how Joo-eun is going to deal with the aftermath of her marriage scam. It’s so sad, since it was the first thing that seemed “real” in her life for a long, long time. Getting out-scammed is one thing, but getting your heart played with in the process is another entirely.
Though the premiere week of Private Lives was filled with enough action to fill an entire drama, we’re left with questions, questions, and more questions. I’m expecting the drama to stay true to its form and continue to zip around with time jumps, montages, and flashbacks, and surely after all the groundwork of the first two episodes, we’re in for quite a ride. Our heroine might be good at what she does, but she’s already been played twice, and it will be interesting to see all the pieces fill in when Joo-eun reacts to this scam. My bet is that it’s going to get tangled fast.
What Private Lives lacks in emotional depth it makes up for in style and intrigue, and it definitely suits the sort of story that’s being told. Much like Heartless City, we’re given characters and stories that are compelling, but their inner worlds are mostly left to our imaginations. While it’s not my favorite method of storytelling, it works for what it is, and doesn’t stop me from enjoying a good swindle.