Kim Jae-wook is a work of art, and Her Private Life paid tribute to that.
Sung Deok-mi (Park Min-young) is a talented curator at Cheum Museum of Art, professional and devoted to her work. However, Deok-mi leads a double life as a dedicated fangirl of the singer Cha Shi-an. Deok-mi is happy to keep her work and personal lives separate, but everything changes when Ryan Gold (Kim Jae-wook), a famous painter and the museum’s new director, saunters into her life…
(gif created by the wonderful mahjong 💙)
The key takeaway for anyone watching Her Private Life is awe for Kim Jae-wook’s acting (and his chiselled cheekbones!) and what an excellent human being Ryan Gold is. And also near universal joy that Kim has finally landed a leading role in a rom-com after years of playing supporting characters that inevitably outshone the leads, so that the ignorant masses finally have sight of how talented he is. As a romantic comedy, the drama does not break much new ground, but its attempts to subvert some of the common k-drama tropes make it a bit of a rough gem in the genre.
I. Ryan Gold and Kim Jae-wook improve your welfare
Much ink has been spilled about how Ryan has set new standards for k-drama male leads, and it is refreshing to see just how communicative, open-minded and rational he is in his approach to work and relationships. He also doesn’t hesitate to apologise if he is in the wrong or has made someone feel uncomfortable, which is nothing short of remarkable in k-dramas. He is surprisingly forgiving (bordering on unreal) when it comes to the big events that have affected his life, and in his vulnerable moments, he becomes the wounded lion all of us want to hug and comfort (seeing Ryan sobbing at the start of episode 14 was heartwrenching and simply unforgivable *waves fists à la Deok-mi*). I have enjoyed watching the various facets of Ryan, be it the sharp, decisive boss at work or the gentle, caring boyfriend to Deok-mi, and he is one for the ages. And did I mention that his sensual, decadent kisses are to die for?
What I did somewhat miss was Ryan’s initial cool arrogance and edgy aloofness in the first couple of episodes. I liked all of his New York scenes – that Kim Jae-wook swag! – and I particularly liked how, even as Ryan invited Deok-mi to insult him and then shut her down unceremoniously, he recognised early on she was someone who spoke her mind and did not discourage it. Also, no Korean boss (at least not the kind we see in k-dramas) would ever engage Deok-mi the way Ryan did during his time at Cheum, on a more or less equal basis, much less apologise for overreacting when he fired her. That equality was a subtle but constant factor underpinning their relationship for the rest of the drama, never mind that at work he was still her boss.
Ryan and Deok-mi have one of the healthiest, angst-lite relationships seen on screen – one that is based on love, trust, respect and communication. They don’t keep secrets from each other, talk things out when they hit a road bump, and are each other’s emotional support. Such honesty is virtually unheard of in k-dramas, which tend to thrive on illogical, poorly manufactured angst. What I especially love about their relationship is how open they are about how much they want each other – from the steamy kisses and comforting hugs to sleeping together and sweet domesticity, they are the epitome of a couple very much in love who just can’t keep their hands off each other. It was overall very refreshing to watch and brought a smile to my face every time they bantered or said sweet nothings to each other. That infamous line 갓고싶어요 – which Kim Jae-wook initially cringed at saying – became one of the hallmarks of their relationship and its use at the closing kiss scene felt like it’d come full circle of sorts. I also really liked how the hands motif, which sprang from Ryan’s initial aversion to holding hands, became a symbol of steadfast love in weal and woe – the hand tracing scene in episode 12, simple yet meaningful, is one of my favourites.
It is interesting how Kim Jae-wook’s popularity has risen with this drama, with people finally realising what a gem he is in this industry. Kim had developed a predominantly “indie” vibe from the roles he played, both on screen and on the stage, choosing roles that challenged him instead of going the more mainstream, popular route. Anyone aware of Kim’s filmography, and indeed of Kim’s personality, could see him easily nailing Ryan Gold, but would still not peg him as someone who would now toe the mainstream line (and one certainly hopes he doesn’t). For someone who’d never led a rom-com, Kim was a natural and it showed in his body language, especially in the way he kissed or gazed at Park Min-young (hand in trouser pocket is now a patented Ryan Gold kissing style). Kim was charming, tender and gentle at the right moments; being a generous actor, he never overwhelmed his co-star and allowed her space to do her thing. I love Kim’s nuanced and layered portrayal of Ryan, enhanced by his variety of subtle gestures and micro expressions. This was especially evident in the more emotional scenes – see, for example, episode 13 where Ryan finds out the truth about Shi-an’s mother, which was a brilliant piece of acting by Kim to show the tumultuous warring of emotions in Ryan at the moment of realisation. Kim’s eyes were truly expressive and I loved that bit in episode 10 when Ryan leads Deok-mi away to continue their kiss in the workshop – the longing, that desire… and Kim totally nailed that look in his eyes. He also had great comedic timing and his facial tics and eye roll were always on point. In the earlier episodes when Ryan was more standoffish, Kim had just the right amount of edge, such that Ryan never came off as an asshole despite his acerbic remarks.
A shoutout here to the fantastic chemistry between Kim Jae-wook and Park Min-young, who sold the romance really well, so much so that they were threading the faint line between reel and real for much of the drama. Their comfort level with each other is one of the best I’ve seen in any k-rom-com, and it is easy to see how much Park trusted Kim because she was very responsive to his kisses and was not afraid to initiate physical contact with him. Kim and Park played off each other really well and had great rapport, though it must be said that while Kim was his role, Park was uneven in the beginning and had trouble with the fangirl portions – the disconnect was obvious and distracting. Kim definitely steadied Park and as the drama progressed, the difference in the quality of acting from the earlier episodes was acutely obvious. Another point worth noting is how many ad-libs made the cut – Deok-mi’s quips about Ryan’s American ways, the sujebi-making scene that was well on its way to being a proper makeout session, and Ryan asking Deok-mi to rinse her mouth after coffee so he could kiss her (he is allergic to caffeine) were some of the highlights.
As for the other actors, mention must be had to Park Jin-joo, who played Deok-mi’s best friend and fangirl-in-crime Seon-joo, and Kim Mi-kyung, who played Deok-mi’s mother. Ahn Bo-hyun made the most of a difficult second-lead role that was not well-written – Eun-gi was overshadowed by Ryan (who isn’t?) and Deok-mi never saw her childhood friend as anything more than family. Kim Sun-young was a riot as the classless and conceited Director Eom. Kim Bora had a nice turn as Cindy, who was perhaps the only one to show true growth in the drama.
II. Exploring themes through rose-tinted lenses
The drama had a number of interesting themes, some of which were better fleshed out than others. The fangirling premise was refreshing to a certain extent and adult fangirls were portrayed in a mostly positive light – there was much made of responsible fangirling within boundaries, the sense of community and excitement for fan meetings, and also a glimpse of the inner workings of the fandom. There were also a number of relatable lines, such as “editing photos is an act of love”, which backfired hilariously on Deok-mi when she realises she’s been editing Ryan’s photos instead of Cha Shi-an’s. However, since K-ent is built on fan culture and idol worship, the drama probably couldn’t go too in depth for fear of ruffling some feathers – some of the more violent fan behaviour, unhealthy practices such as wasting money on presents for the idol, and the constant scrutiny of a celebrity’s every move were all excused away, which is a terrible stance to take. The idol himself, Shi-an, remained on his angelic pedestal and was dull as grass (the acting sucked). Cindy, depicted as one of the more extreme fans, does not even scratch the surface of “sasaeng” and was later reformed. One wonders if Park Min-young took on the role as a show of subtle remonstrance of obsessive fan behaviour in relation to her previous drama, but the message about responsible fangirling seems to have been lost on some real-life fans who claim to support her but instead trash-talked her, Kim Jae-wook and this drama.
The art themes were better integrated into the story. Episode 5 had Ryan and Deok-mi discussing photography perspectives in relation to the works of a deceased artist; it was thought-provoking and meaningful, and was one of the more sensitive segments that I enjoyed. Coincidentally, it was also one of Kim Jae-wook’s favourite scenes. I also liked how Deok-mi was shown to be an observant and sensitive person from the way she photographs her subjects. Episode 12 featured a somewhat fulfilling conversation between Deok-mi and Cindy about how art enriches life. Ryan also makes a pertinent point about how art cannot exist in a vacuum – the public needs to see and feel it for its value to be recognised – an unwitting reflection of life and the unequal values ascribed to different human lives.
Ryan and Deok-mi discuss self-worth in relation to art, with Deok-mi saying that during down times she looks at paintings and feels her spirits lift because she is after all a living human being and better than the condescending artworks bearing down on her. Certainly one should not, to the detriment of himself, allow his entire self-worth to be pegged to something that gains value only through the eyes of others. However, her logic seems hollow and reeks of a holier than thou perspective – going by her words, there would be no creative blocks and slumps can be easily cured. For Ryan, whose whole life has been about art, where art is inextricably tied to not only his self-worth, but his identity, career and life, being as detached and on the moral high horse misses the point about an artist being at one with his singular passion, his muse and creativity. Taking a step back and looking at things from a fresh perspective is not the same as showing disdain (in the name of self-comfort) for the very thing that inspires and fuels you.
Much more interesting, but not well explored, is Ryan telling Deok-mi that as a curator, she too is an artist and the exhibition space is her canvas. And out of respect for her artistic and conceptual vision as a curator, he finally makes a comeback in New York. However, it would have given the story more meat to examine the role of the curator as an artist in relation to Deok-mi having greater control and expression of her work – we never really get to see her properly curate an exhibition on her own even if she and Ryan have many fruitful discussions about art during his stint at Cheum. Another idea worth exploring is that of the artist-curator and how he shifts from creating to using objects and space, with the exhibition as a medium, curating according to his artistic visions and ideas. This might have worked better with Ryan himself taking on a more active role in creating new art narratives and breaking boundaries that the traditional curator is limited to. As it is, the drama spent the bulk of its run planning one exhibition that was a bit of a snoozefest. It makes you wonder why Ryan ever left New York to take up the Cheum position.
I did enjoy how the drama handled the LGBTQ issue, which is pretty progressive for k-dramas. Ryan mistakes Deok-mi and Seon-joo for a lesbian couple, and goes all out to protect them – mostly Deok-mi – from being outed. His understanding and non-judgmental take on the situation is commendable. The drama also managed to subvert, albeit in a softer, generally lighthearted way, many of k-dramas’ usual tropes – there are, for example, no wrist grabs, prolonged miscommunication, bitchy second leads or other toxic elements. That said, character growth was not really a thing in this drama, so it is best not to expect it. I did like how all the fish out of water scenes about Ryan’s American side were portrayed in a light, humorous way that highlights how the differences between Deok-mi and Ryan help bring them closer. Some of the humour was also on point – the elevator scenes between Shi-an and Ryan were a hoot, as was Ryan’s teasing of Deok-mi, and Ryan’s constant put-downs of Director Eom, which was a running gag in the drama. A fine bit of trolling was making Eun-gi do a broody shower scene, complete with close-ups of the water trickling down his body – viewers were thirsting for Kim Jae-wook to take off his shirt, but he never did except for a couple of strategically undone buttons, so the drama decided to serve up its own brand of “fanservice”. In truth, Kim sold the appeal of Ryan so well that ripping off shirts wasn’t necessary and would have been out of character.
III. Episodes 13-15 – a farce of facepalming proportions
I was pretty intrigued by Ryan’s backstory – his inability to paint – and was not too fussed when the drama switched its focus midway through. However, it botched the whole thing, leaving me really pissed off. Ryan’s painting block could have been due entirely to artistic reasons, but the drama had to shoehorn childhood trauma of being abandoned – even then, his adoption was not as well-handled as it should have been. It was a missed opportunity to influence a mindset change in a country where adoption is still a touchy issue. Adoption turned out to be the best thing for Ryan and should have been portrayed as a positive thing here, but the drama failed to give due credit to Ryan’s adoptive parents, who seemed like great people and surely put in tons of effort to raise him into the fine man he is today. Instead, it played up the angst of Ryan’s shitty biological mother, who was stupid enough to leave her child in a strange neighbourhood while she went off for a job interview, and her subsequent audacity to waltz back into Ryan’s life demanding his forgiveness with some illogical sob story, completely ignoring the fact that he is now Ryan Gold and no longer goes by the name she insists on calling him with. Shi-an came across as a tad despicable for how he dropped the bombshell on Ryan, whose reaction time was virtually zero and who was then expected to be magnanimous enough to accept all this in his stride. Even Deok-mi, normally so supportive and sensitive to Ryan’s moods, pulled a fast one over him. The entire mother storyline infuriated me and derailed what could have been a really solid drama.
Deok-mi just about redeemed herself by convincing Ryan to return to New York, where he truly belongs and where he eventually makes his comeback as a painter. Fortunately, this bit did make logical sense, for Ryan’s entire life and career are rooted in New York, and it is also a great place for Deok-mi to blossom career-wise. There was a small nod to equality when Deok-mi vows to support Ryan if he becomes unemployed in New York because he would be painting again – he then teases her about how much steak he could eat. I confess I spent much of episode 16 just waiting for them to go back to New York – I’d have smashed some things had the drama made Ryan stay on in Korea.
The drama’s attempt at portraying less traditional family constructs – Eun-gi was practically raised by two women, Ryan was adopted and grew up American, and Cindy was from a dysfunctional family – scored marks for effort, but fell short in execution at key points, especially where Ryan was concerned. Its use of the childhood trope of having all the key characters know each other from time immemorial is k-dramas’ usual default to lazy writing to wring emotion from the audience. The arc about Deok-mi’s dead brother and her coming to terms with it in the space of an episode did not have the requisite emotional pull because it appeared so late in the game and was irrelevant to the central themes of the drama. The bulk of episode 15, in that vein, should be skipped because of its amazing levels of stupidity.
IV. Music and silence
A note on the use of music and lack thereof – the drama chose to go without music for a few key scenes, which I thought was smart as the lack of music heightened the senses and allowed the scene to breathe and stand on its own. Oftentimes we rely too much on music to cue us on how to feel and interpret any given scene, but the lack thereof encourages the viewer to draw his own conclusions. The distance between viewer and scene becomes smaller and more intimate – at times, one feels as though one is intruding on a private moment between the actors. This is evident in the scarf removal scene in episode 5, where both Ryan and Deok-mi feel the faint stirrings of something whimsical between them, and even more acutely so in episode 8, where Deok-mi imagines Ryan kissing her (his gentle seduction – first the fondling of her hair, then a kiss on her cheek, and finally the lips – is an equally sensual assault on the viewer’s senses, heightened by the hushed silence and increased sexual tension).
The OST is delightful and very spring-like. The two ballads are lovely and evocative, but perhaps a tad overused. I prefer the lighter tracks, especially Smile Again by Runy and Floating by Hong Dae-kwang, which just make me feel happy when I listen to them. A lot of the instrumentals were well used and added to the comedic feel (mostly in the first half of the drama) – the piece of music called “Thinking Lion” is very Ryan, ha.
Overall, Her Private Life has been a fun watch – if nothing else, watch it to simply savour the masterpiece that is Kim Jae-wook in his first rom-com leading role. The stylists have been mostly good to him and Park Min-young, for I have liked most of their outfits – his “signature sexiness” (stylist’s words!) comes across better when he’s dressed in more comfortable clothes, especially those in darker colours, while her expensive wardrobe is surely beyond the budget of most working-class women. But then, what is a k-drama if it doesn’t sell you a fantasy romance, complete with good-looking leads and a healthy dose of unrealism? In Ryan Gold and Kim Jae-wook, I’d say it has done its job.
May the kisses in Her Private Life improve your welfare!