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“Coffee Prince” (Series Review)

Why is Coffee Prince responsible for drawing in so many new K-drama fans?

It’s not like this 17-episode series from 2007 is flawless. Nor is it typical. Its character-driven plot and naturalistic style set it apart from most K-dramas. But it has so much quiet charm that it’s a touchstone for overseas fans of Korean television.

The plot sounds absurd: the young woman Go Eun-Chan capitalizes on her androgynous appearance to get a job under the false pretense that she’s a young man, only to fall in love with her arrogant boss, Choi Han-Gyul. The plot blends Shakespeare’s gender-bender comedies, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Japanese shonen ai (“boy’s love” manga, or homosexual love stories written for female audiences). The result is a romance that is sweet and sometimes delightfully corny without veering into pathos.

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For viewers new to K-dramas, Coffee Prince has occasional surprises. The show follows K-drama rules: the main characters might be doing slapstick comedy one moment, and having a touching emotional crisis the next. The show’s production values may also seem lacking to audiences used to American television. Since 2007, K-drama production values have improved dramatically, but Coffee Prince belongs to an older era. We can sometimes hear background street noise and a few scenes take place in the dark because of bad lighting design.

But the show demonstrates a few quintessential strengths of K-dramas.

First, it’s a romance, a genre increasingly neglected in the West during the past two decades.

Secondly, its 17-hour length and strong central performances illustrate that in the right hands, K-drama is great structure for character-driven narratives.

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Lastly, this creative love story stands on its own like any great work of art, despite the show’s seemingly impossible premise. Our rational minds tell us the plot shouldn’t work. Shakespeare told similar cross-dressing stories—Olivia spends Twelfth Night in disguise while falling in love with the Duke of Orsino, for instance—but in today’s world, our more fluid gender roles should make these stories irrelevant.

The fact that the show does work, despite its impossible premise, is a revelation. Not only does the premise work, but it feels relevant to the twenty-first century, rather than an anachronism.

The unusual plot-line sets Coffee Prince apart from the equally beloved 2005 My Name is Kim Samsoon, another show that converts many non-Koreans to K-drama fandom. Though Samsoon holds up relatively well, thanks to the likable heroine and attractive hero, its plot feels very familiar today. Coffee Prince, on the other hand, remains unique.

The gender-bender works in large part because it doesn’t mock anyone or make assumptions about how men and women should act. The script allows its male and female characters to show a wide range of human emotions and behaviors, and acknowledges that it can require effort to act “gender appropriate.”

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Eun-Chan’s mistaken identity initially results not from a deliberate deception, but from the misperceptions of others. One of the most interesting things in the script is that while Eun-Chan’s boss Choi Han-Gyul immediately perceives her as a young man, his cousin Choi Han-Sung just as immediately perceives her as an cute, tomboyish young woman. Han-Sung is incredulous that Han-Gyul doesn’t know she’s a woman.

“Are you sure he’s not just pretending to believe you’re a guy?” he asks. It seems obvious to Han-Sung that she’s a woman, just as it’s obvious to Han-Gyul that someone in those tomboy clothes must be a guy. Coffee Prince isn’t so much about disguise, as it is about the dangers of making assumptions.

Coffee Prince plays with assumptions in other ways that go beyond Eun-Chan’s “disguise.” The women in Han-Gyul’s family range from his sweet mother, who embodies traditional feminine virtues, to a tough, steel-willed CEO grandmother. The male characters include some of the prettiest, most feminine “flower boy” faces ever to appear in K-dramas, but the men also cry at times, showing vulnerability we rarely see in either men or women in American-made shows.

Coffee Prince plays another odd trick, by presenting such strong characters that the gender-bender premise recedes into the background.

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Yoon Eun-Hye is particularly amazing as the heroine Go Eun-Chan. She’s cute and girlish when she’s off work, but when she’s wearing baggy masculine clothes, it’s easy to believe that Choi Han-Gyul mistakes her for a skinny young gay guy. And despite her painful insecurities—which cause so much trouble in the second half of the series—she’s a likable mix of goofiness and enthusiasm.

Choi Han-Gyul, in turn, is the Korean incarnation of Austen’s Mr. Darcy. He’s proud and habitually arrogant, but he has enough brains to reevaluate himself when things don’t go his way. Gong Yoo plays him to perfection. In early episodes, his preening and posing is hilarious, but he reveals real emotional depth as the series proceeds.

Among the other characters, the actor Lee Sun-Gyun particularly stands out in the part of music producer Choi Han-Sung (update: Lee Sun-Gyun won a major prize in 2015, the best actor Baeksang for the thriller A Hard Day, one of the rare Korean films to make it to international film festivals). With his compelling voice and low-key charisma, he makes an excellent foil for Gong Yoo’s quick-tempered Han-Gyul.

Chae Jung-Ahn is also memorable as the second female lead. As an artist with commitment issues, she’s prickly but believable. And Coffee Prince features a great supporting cast, most notably the ubiquitous Kim Young-Ok in the role of CEO Grandma.

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Coffee Prince isn’t perfect. The whimsical sense of humor won’t appeal to everyone. Its slice-of-life style and pacing can feel meandering. And one friend of mine—who is not, it must be noted, a Jane Austen fan—thinks the lead characters argue too much to succeed as a couple.

But whimsy is Coffee Prince‘s trademark, especially in the form of perfectly chosen background music that captures the feeling of a hot summer day with indie vocals and guitar. And the gentle pace sometimes serves as a strength by allowing us to sink fully into the characters’ world.

As for the many arguments, it’s true, the characters argue a lot, vividly showing the emotional intensity that, for some people, goes along with being young and in love. I suspect we could endlessly debate whether a relationship this tumultuous will last in the long term. But it’s a believable relationship.

Notably, though Korean society is generally suspicious of homosexuality, Coffee Prince takes its crazy premise to the logical conclusion of having the hero question his sexuality. For a few episodes, it plays out like a shonen ai manga, one of those romances of illicit gay love most popular in East Asia (and among writers of fan fiction everywhere).

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Fans of shonen ai might worry that this show will make fun of such narratives. But the dawning of the characters’ sexual feelings in Act II has all the tenderness and angst of a great shonen ai manga. Shonen ai is an unusual sub-genre of romance, one that doesn’t get much respect in any society, which makes it all the more striking that Coffee Prince delivers these story elements earnestly, without a hint of parody.

And when the story eventually shifts into a heterosexual love story, it doesn’t lose its feeling of originality. What makes Coffee Prince ultimately so fresh is the characters. Their negotiations as they fall in love are as individual and idiosyncratic as they are. The show doesn’t try to sell any particular thesis about the nature of romance, heterosexual or otherwise. The romance here is joyful and painful, beautiful and heart-breaking. And it’s unique to Eun-Chan and Han-Gyul.

Luckily, they let us watch.♥

Full cast information at Drama Wiki.

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