COFFEE PRINCE SERIES REVIEW
There are a lot of Korean dramas I love, but if I had to choose my all-time favorite drama, then that distinction undisputedly goes to 2007’s Coffee Prince. It is the first, and only, drama I watched and loved so much that I immediately watched it again. Since then, I’ve watched it at least once every year (sometimes twice).
I can’t pinpoint exactly what is so great about Coffee Prince because it truly is one of those well-rounded shows where the stars just seem to align and make magic. The casting is great, the writing is great, the acting is great, the subject matter is risqué but still relatively tame, and every element seems tailored-made for the production. But I can gush all night so let’s get into specifics. [WARNING: Spoilers ahead.]
Title(s): The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, Coffee Prince
Original Air Dates: July 2, 2007 to August 28, 2007
THE MAIN CAST
Go Eun-chan (Yoon Eun-hye) is the primary bread-winner in her family. She’s worked so hard to take care of her mother and sister since her father died that she has little time or money to spend on her appearance. Thus, she looks and acts like a boy and is comfortable being mistaken for a man as the “head” of the house. She works several jobs—delivering milk, teaching Taekwondo, working as a delivery driver for a jjajangmyun joint, sewing eyes on stuffed animals, and peeling chestnuts—to support the family. She has a huge appetite to fuel her nonstop work schedule, which is a running gag throughout the series.
Choi Han-gyul (Gong Yoo) is a rich, arrogant player. His mother and grandmother are tired of him coasting through life with the family’s money and want him to settle down and get married. His grandmother owns a large food company, which is the source of the family’s money. She threatens to cut him off financially if he doesn’t go on matchmaking dates. He agrees but hires Eun-chan, who he thinks is a boy, to pretend to be his gay lover and scare off any potential matches. Notably, despite being a player, Han-gyul has a hankering for his cousin’s long time flame.
Choi Han-sung (Lee Seon-gyun) is Han-gyul’s cousin. He is a musician who produces music for movie soundtracks. Han-sung is down-to-earth and friendly. He’s a nice guy who has a weak spot for his long time love, Han Yoo-joo. Yoo-joo left him for another man and moved to New York. When the series opens, she is back in Korea and ready to rekindle their relationship. Han-sung still loves her, but develops feelings for Eun-chan during his reconciliation with Yoo-joo. Han-sung is aware that his cousin Han-gyul has a crush on Yoo-joo but he doesn’t appear bothered by it.
Han Yoo-Joo (Chae Jung-ahn) is a famous artist. She is selfish and a little cold. She left Han-sung for another man (D.K.) to go to New York to make it in the art world. After gaining fame, she dumped D.K. and returned to Korea. She says she loves Han-sung but has a history of mistreating him. She knows that Han-gyul likes her as well but ignores his feelings.
THE MAIN STORYLINE
Believing Eun-chan is a boy, Han-gyul hires her to pose as his gay lover to ruin the blind dates his grandmother insists he attends. After his grandmother’s attempts to marry him off fail, she makes him run a dilapidated (and totally disgusting) coffee shop with Hong Gae-shik (Kim Chang-wan). He renovates the shop and decides to only hire men to draw in the female crowd from a nearby women’s university. Eun-chan decides to continue posing as a boy so she can work there. Over time Han-gyul finds himself more and more attracted to Eun-chan, which sends him on an emotional roller coaster as he grapples with the thought that he might be gay. Eun-chan falls in love with Han-gyul too, but she’s too afraid to reveal the truth for fear of losing him.
The story is typical rom-com unreality in that this most certainly will never happen in real life. But it seems Coffee Prince never got that memo, because the story manages to feel real and both leads draw you into their world and their feelings. When things are not going well between them, everything at the café seems to be in an uproar, and as the viewer your world feels a little helter skelter too. But when things are good, they’re really really good and you’ll find yourself smiling at the cuteness and the romance of it all.
To say that Gong Yoo is great in this role would be an understatement. He really makes Han-gyul into this loveable, complex, three-dimensional character instead of just another poor-little-rich-playboy. As he struggles to handle the weight of his growing feelings for Eun-chan, you can’t help but feel his pain. And when he finally decides to admit how he feels in spite of what it means, the viewer gets to go on that ride with him. Too bad it all comes crashing down when he discovers Eun-chan was lying to him all along and everyone (and I mean everyone) was in on the secret. His sense of betrayal is compounded by the fact that he discovers her duplicity soon after a family secret is revealed so to him it feels like everyone he loves lies to him.
But luckily, the betrayal eventually turns to relief that she’s a girl who he can take home to his parents and we’re back to cuteness and fun times again.
Despite Gong Yoo being really (REALLY) great, this is definitely a team effort and Yoon Eun-hye is a perfect companion to balance out our main couple. Coffee Prince is either the first or second drama I ever watched (I watched Full House and Coffee Prince after I caught a snippet of a Korean drama while on vacation but I can’t for the life of me recall which one I watched first) so I had no idea who any of the actors were at the time. After I watched the drama (the second time) I got around to googling Yoon Eun-hye and was floored to see how truly beautiful she is in real life (although we do get a glimpse of her beauty during the show). It made me admire her performance even more because she just really goes for it and gives her all, which is why this role is undeniably her best work ever. At times her emotions are so raw, that I cry along with her. And when she agonizes over her boyish appearance and feels the weight of having ignored her femininity to support her family for so long, I feel heavy-hearted right along with her.
As great as Gong Yoo and Yoon Eun-hye are, their individual performances pale in comparison to their awesomeness together as a couple. I feel like I could just watch them together forever.
Or if they’re apart, as long as I get to see Han-gyul sing to Eun-chan each morning and squee over the butterflies I get just watching them talk on the phone at night, then I’ll be just fine. Because the show does manage to take the small moments, such as them talking on the phone, and make them into romantic and touching events (chicken soup to a romantic’s soul I’d say).
I like their early relationship, which is playful and teasing as if they are really brothers. It is fun to watch, but I like it even more when the love (and resultant angst) kick in. Even though they both suffer from falling in love, they eventually move beyond the roadblocks in front of them, and for me it really solidifies the idea that they are truly meant to be. I mean, Han-gyul loved Eun-chan even when he thought she was a boy and if her gender can’t stop him from loving her, I feel like nothing else is going to come along and change his mind either.
Every single review and commentary I’ve read on this show talks about the chemistry between Han-gyul and Eun-chan, and I can confirm that sparks fly and there is definitely the sound of sizzling coming from the kitchen throughout the show. Sometimes it feels almost voyeuristic to watch the way Han-gyul looks at Eun-chan and he visibly struggles to keep his physical attraction to her in check.
I like that she is the one who pushes him over the edge. She comes over one night and he clearly wants to jump her bones but sends her home instead. She refuses to leave so he has to physically kick her out. He warns her that if she comes back in she won’t be going home at all that night and the way she slowly steps back inside is genius. Needless to say, this couple makes the drama so well worth watching!
THE SECONDARY COUPLE
As the two people ostensibly set up to come between the OTP, I like that the secondary pairing of Han-sung and Yoo-joo has a compelling and interesting storyline all their own (and are never in any real danger of coming between the OTP).
When the characters are introduced, all we know is that Yoo-joo is attempting to reconcile with Hang-sung. Then the story unfolds of their decade long relationship which Yoo-joo shattered by leaving him for another man.
Han-sung eventually takes Yoo-joo back, but then she gets the shock of a lifetime when she discovers he has feelings for someone else. Frankly I am a little flabbergasted by Yoo-joo’s attitude. She seems to truly believe she can cheat on, neglect, and mistreat Han-sung and he will always be there for her. Finding out he has the capacity to care for someone else finally knocks some sense into her. Unfortunately for him, even though he did nothing wrong, he has to beg and grovel for her to get over his momentary interest in someone else. But she does come around and I believe it is actually quite good for their long-term happiness that he gave her a little taste of her own medicine. As much as I like them as a couple, I would hate for her behavior to continue because Han-sung is a great guy who deserves someone who can love and appreciate him.
Yoo-joo’s cheating aside, I really like that Yoo-joo and Han-sung are very much a grown up couple. They are both successful in their careers and have a refreshing relationship in that they obviously enjoy being in each other’s company and spending time together. There isn’t a huge outward appearance of passion between the two, but there is definitely an undercurrent of compatibility and an ardent love that binds these two together. So when Han-gyul admits to Yoo-joo that he knew he never truly had a chance to come between them, it is a credible statement and puts into words what the viewer likely feels all along.
I think the relationship between these two is best exemplified when Yoo-joo proposes to Han-sung and when they see each other in their wedding finery on their wedding day.
The proposal scene shows how well-matched and equal they truly are. It is always very clear that Yoo-joo is fiercely independent and won’t be tied down by society’s expectations of her. Han-sung accepts her for who she is and is (mostly) content letting her lead the way. He has been ready to commit to her all along and lets her let him know when she’s finally ready too.
The wedding day scene showed how much joy and happiness they get from merely being in each other’s presence. It also happens to be an enviable display of their seemingly endless enthusiasm for going through life’s journey together. Their happiness on that day was contagious and it’s hard not to grin along with them.
FIRMLY IN THE FRIEND ZONE
No modern-day Korean drama would be complete without a pretender to the throne of the OTP. So it comes as no surprise that Coffee Prince hints at a romance between Eun-chan and Han-sung. Luckily for us, their timing is always just a little off. When the pair first meet, Eun-chan has a harmless crush on him, which he only marginally notices. By the time he gets around to liking her too, she realizes how much he loves Yoo-joo and wisely moves on. He can’t deny that she has an infectious energy and he’s drawn to her upbeat and quirky personality, but she fails to see his growing attraction. She has him firmly in the friend zone so when he unexpectedly kisses her one day, she doesn’t know how to react and does the only sensible thing she can think of: run!
Poor Han-sung takes quite a lot of flack for his unrequited mini-crush (especially when you consider that all he did was send a few charming smiles her way and sneak one teeny tiny kiss). But his actions affected everyone: Eun-chan bolted. Han-gyul punched him. And Yoo-joo left him (again).
Although Han-gyul and Yoo-joo’s relationship is never in danger of moving beyond strictly platonic, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Han-gyul’s self-professed “bad habit” of pining after his cousin’s girl. I guess I can understand Han-gyul liking Yoo-joo, but it is less clear why she never calls him out on his behavior (perhaps she likes the attention) or why Han-sung never checks him (perhaps he is too nice and laid-back). I think the show implies Han-sung doesn’t mind his antics, but I certainly wanted someone to speak up. And finally Eun-chan does just that when she sees Han-gyul lounging on a bench in a hospital hallway with his head in Yoo-joo’s lap. Han-sung clearly looks uncomfortable witnessing them together, but as usual he keeps his feelings to himself and Eun-chan steps in to express her indignation for all of them.
Suffice it to say, I am glad Han-gyul eventually focuses his attentions on a more suitable choice because a pairing with Yoo-joo was just never going to happen.
THE SUPPORTING CAST AND THEIR STORYLINES
One of the things I love about Coffee Prince is that the supporting cast members get their storylines fleshed out about as much as possible among such a top-heavy cast. Yes, this means that the adorable OTP gets a little less screen time (and the plot starts to ramble), but the cast is just so loveable that I really wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hwang Min-yup vs. Go Eun-sae
One of the earliest backstories is the relationship between the perennially clueless Min-yup (Lee Eon) and Eun-chan’s little sister, Eun-sae (Han Ye-in). Min-yup refers to her as his angel and dopily follows her around despite the fact that she’s mean to him, repeatedly tries to push him away, and gets annoyed at every little thing he does. There is a silver lining to her poor treatment though. It lands him a job when he arrives at the First Shop of Coffee Prince to challenge Eun-chan to a fight and ends up working there instead.
Eun-sae takes advantage of Min-yup’s feeling for her and his good-nature for quite some time. But she gets her comeuppance when he dates someone else behind her back. He toys with the idea of becoming a player when the date goes well (which is his funniest scene, ever) but eventually he sets his sights on winning her back.
I was never quite convinced they should work out in the long-run (I couldn’t get over how poorly she treated him), but as Min-yup seemed destined to great things and was in no danger of continuing to let her mistreat him, I was satisfied that they appeared to be on the right track by the end of the show.
Noh Sun-ki vs. The Runaway Non-bride
Sun-ki (Kim Jae-wook) is the silent, mysterious rebel who only works at the shop because the authorities confiscate his waffle cart. Over time we learn he left his home in Japan to follow the woman he loves. She left her abusive husband (after Sun-ki took a beating in her stead) and fled the country with her young son. Sun-ki is devoted to her, but she thinks he’s too young and she doesn’t want to brave the disapproval from his family or be responsible for burdening him when he has his entire life ahead of him so she keeps running away from him. Their storyline is actually quite sad.
Jin Ha-rim vs. The ‘Rents
Ha-rim (Kim Dong-wook) comes from a wealthy family of doctors and he gets kicked out when he refuses to follow the family tradition and become a surgeon. He comes across mostly as a fun-loving wanna-be-playboy, but he’s actually quite talented and has a caring heart. He oversees the renovation and interior design of the coffee shop and has a penchant for flirting with the women who frequent the establishment. He finally meets a worthy adversary in Han-byul who doesn’t fall for his usual pick up lines and ends up playing with his emotions and stringing him along.
When Ha-rim and Sun-ki find themselves without a place to live, Mr. Hong kindly takes them in. They’re shocked when they find his apartment is even filthier than the coffee shop used to be. The situation is so bad that Sun-ki blackmails Eun-chan into cleaning the place in exchange for keeping her gender a secret from Han-gyul. Thereafter, the roommates are good for a couple of gross-out moments which, along with the bathroom humor, is peppered throughout the series (and which you just have to overlook if you’re like me and filth and disgusting squalor are not your thing).
The Ajusshi Love Triangle
If you can believe it, this drama also manages to give the forty and fifty-somethings a bit of screen time as Mr. Hong and Mr. Ku (Lee Han-wi), the neighborhood butcher, both seem to have a thing for Eun-chan’s mom (Park Won-sook). She doesn’t seem that interested in either one of them, but when Mr. Hong quits the field, she reluctantly tells Mr. Ku she’ll consider dating him–after she finishes raising her children. This storyline is relatively harmless. For me, it mostly serves to show the source of Eun-sae’s attitude toward men because Mom treats Mr. Ku only marginally better than Eun-sae treats Min-yup. But still it is nice to know Mom won’t be alone once the kids move out and move on with their lives.
The Coffee Shop and the Princes
As much as this drama is character driven, this is also very much a workplace drama in that much of the action occurs at the First Shop of Coffee Prince. The producers of the show renovated an actual café in the Hongdae area of Seoul and after production wrapped the café opened to the public. The café was quite stylishly designed and was almost a character in and of itself.
It was a great place to watch the princes bond and have fun. They really do become one big happy family, and their relationship is another aspect of the show that makes it so wonderful. Eun-chan bonds with the other princes almost as much as she bonds with Han-gyul—something that’s not lost on him. His jealously at seeing her with them is quite cute, and when she returns from her study abroad program they’re just as excited that she’s back as he is.
After the OTP finally gets over that small pesky issue of gender that dominates the first three-quarters of the series, there are a few episodes left so the writers have to throw a curveball to fill up the remaining time. That curveball comes in the form of Han-gyul proposing to Eun-chan and Eun-chan basically turning him down (she says she’ll marry him in four to five years) because she wants to make it on her own before she commits to him. Grandmother offers her a chance to study in Italy and, although Han-gyul is initially against the idea, he gives his blessing for her to pursue her dream of becoming a world-class barista.
I don’t have a problem with another hurdle tripping up our main pair. Let’s face it, in real life there’s no such thing as happily ever after so they were bound to face some challenges. But the way the final story arc is presented comes out of left field and feels slightly manufactured. This break down in the execution of this final obstacle is especially disappointing because Eun-chan has a valid reason for putting off marriage: she wants to be able to support herself without relying on a man to take care of her. Her father said he’d always be there for her, but he died. And Han-gyul may well say he’ll always be there for her too, but he can’t be sure of that either. Her father’s death made her realize she can’t depend on anyone except herself so she looks to becoming a barista as a way to ensure she can support herself and her family without depending on anyone else.
I think her reasoning was a little flawed in that it is certainly possible to get married and pursue your dreams and goals in life, but it is her prerogative to make that decision herself and I certainly didn’t begrudge her that choice. I just wish that after so much greatness, the writers could have come up with a smoother way to introduce the final arc. However, this flaw in execution was minor compared to my overall enjoyment in the show. By the end of the drama I was just sad to see the series end and had no time to quibble over a slight bump in the road of an otherwise smooth ride.
All in all, I think this is objectively one of the most well-made dramas around. Subjectively, I love it to pieces–which is why it’s my all-time favorite. It’s sweet, romantic, fun and funny, full of heart and has my favorite OTP ever as well as great music and one of the best casts in the dramaverse. It’s a must see!
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