Sunday, January 1, 2012

Drama Review: Coffee Prince

Grade: A+++

My initial viewing of Coffee Prince was like a first kiss with someone I really, really liked: there were bells and rose petals and choruses of angels. (Seriously.) And this is the reason I’m completely incapable of objectively evaluating this drama—I just love it too damn much.

Originally airing in 2007, this Kdrama classic is the story of Ko Eun Chan, a tomboyish girl who passes herself off as a actual boy when a moneymaking opportunity presents itself—being pretend "boyfriend" to the dreamy, spoiled Choi Han Gyul. Throughout 17 episodes worth of trials and tribulations, family and food, the two slowly realize they're meant to be together.

Purportedly there are pacing problems toward the end of this series, likely due to a mid-run episode extension, but this letup in narrative tension didn’t impact my enjoyment of the show even one tiny bit. In fact, I would gladly watch a hundred completely narrativeless episodes of Coffee Prince, just to spend more time with its cast of characters: Grandma plays card games (while miraculously recovering from caner)! Han Gyul attends a business meeting! Eun Chan stubs her toe!

As far as I’m concerned, there are pretty much endless reasons to like this show. But an aborted viewing of Triple, the follow-up effort of Coffee Prince’s creative team, drove one thing home: without the outlandishly charming Yoon Eun Hye, Coffee Prince probably wouldn’t have been as fun to watch. Triple’s lead comes off as shrill, shallow, and obnoxious; yet playing a similar character, Yoon Eun Hye manages to be high energy and goofy while still giving Eun Chan depth and texture, making her someone you’d like to know.

I’d seen Princess Hours before watching Coffee Prince and had some difficulty imaging how the same actress could be in both: she seemed far too pretty and feminine for someone who passes as a boy. Was I ever wrong—with the right outfit and haircut, Yoon Eun Hye really did look like a guy. And unlike many other gender-bending Korean actresses, she didn’t stop there. The way she walked, the way she sat, the way she moved, all were suddenly replaced with the loose-limbed, slouching mannerisms of a teenaged boy.

As Han Gyul, Gong Yoo was another marvel. His magnetism and easy charisma were a perfect fit for the character, a chaebol playboy who approached the world around him with winking, open-hearted delight. Whether he was wooing his grandmother or pointing out Eun Chan's gender to random strangers on the street, it was impossible to take your eyes off him.

And when the show’s melodramatic plot threads heated up—“How will I ever win his heart looking like I do?” “But I’m a man and I love another man!”—both actors were more than capable of handling the situation.

Usually, crying in Korean dramas involves a few tears gracefully tracing a path down an actor’s cheek. But when faced with confessing her character’s true gender to Han Gyul, Yoon Eun Hye took the complete lack of vanity she showed in Coffee Prince one step further, and cried like a real person with a broken heart, gasping and shaking and snotty and in general looking like a hot mess.

The scenes of longing scattered throughout the show are tender and lovely, but Coffee Prince’s plot hit on another aspect of love often overlooked in television shows—Eun Chan and Han Gyul genuinely enjoyed spending time together. Their relationship wasn’t all confessions of undying love and insurmountable obstacles: it was playing with Legos, brushing their teeth together, and goofing off at work, all while talking about anything and everything that came to mind.

This sense of genuine respect and friendship between romantic partners doesn’t appear all that often in Korean drama, but when it does gender shenanigans are often in the offing. The wonderful Sungkyunkwan Scandal is another example: while spending time together as “boys,” its leads fall in love as fully-drawn and complete people, not as genders. Pretending to be a boy allows these girls to step outside the expectations of their society and be appreciated for who they actually are, not what their gender defines them as.

In a similar vein, I love that Eun Chan is a little feminist (whether she realizes it or not). She doesn’t want to rely on a man for the rest of her life, and even after Han Gyul has made it clear he’d be happy to support her family, she works hard to provide for them with her own abilities. Even when she marries Han Gyul, it’s clear that Eun Chan is going to be more than just his wife: she’s going to be his partner.

As a westerner, I also appreciate that the characters in Coffee Prince actually touch: playful shoves at a shoulder, tying other people’s ponytails, and even falling asleep in your cousin’s girlfriend’s lap. (However uncool that may be, whatever continent you’re on.) These things make the relationships seem more relatable and casual—nobody in this show is afraid of being near anybody else in this show.

This also comes to the forefront in the big love scene toward the end of the series. In the few dramas I’ve seen that actually acknowledge that their characters are having sex, the girl seems to be only grudgingly involved. (See, for example, the final episode of Sungkyunkwan Scandal.) She consents actively but usually looks more terrified about what’s going to happen than excited. This is not at all the case in Coffee Prince. Eun Chan might be nervous, but the look on Yoon Eun Hye’s face as Gong Yoo backs her up against the door and sweeps her into his arms tells the whole story: she wants to be with him just as much as he wants to be with her.

So for my money, Eun Chan and Han Gyul share the single most sublime love in all of Korean drama. But there’s more! The second leads are also great, and their tumultuous relationship only adds to the show’s contemporary, grown-up feel: Their lives have been entangled for ten years and they’re casual and comfortable companions, just like the leads. Their storyline is compelling and perfectly handled, overlapping and complementing the show’s primary plot.

Even beyond the two lead couples, Coffee Prince’s supporting cast is invaluable to its cracktacular appeal. The coffee princes are economically but thoughtfully drawn, each with his own motivations and desires. It’s a pleasure to watch their friendships build as they interact, especially when dim-bulb Min Yeop decides to protect Eun Chan’s honor in assorted silly ways.

Add to this embarrassment of riches the earthy air of sensuality that runs throughout the show, along with its naturalistic styling, beautiful settings, and amazing, globe-spanning soundtrack (which I’m listening to right now), and the result just might be my favorite television show of all time.

Fundamentally, Coffee Prince is made of the same old Korean drama building blocks: it includes chaebol–Cinderella romance, birth secrets, and a family’s attempt to break up the lead couple. But what it does with these building blocks is something altogether different: It creates a window into a warm, cozy world of blue skies and bright sunshine, a world that feels like our own, but ever so slightly better.


  1. I caught a misspelling or two, bit other than that, this post really brought back all the warm and fuzzy feelings I had for Coffee Prince. I feel like some childhood nostalgia has come over me whenever I rewatch a clip from the show.

  2. OMG, Alice. You can't leave me hanging like that—what's misspelled? I literally live to irradiate spelling problems!

    I completely agree about Coffee Prince feeling like childhood nostalgia. I just watched the comparably gritty Who Are You, and caught myself flinching when it used one of the key songs from the Coffee Prince soundtrack during an unhappy moment. It was as if the song's purity was being threatened just by being associated with another emotion ;)

  3. Wonderful review. I'm in the process of watching through it again, picking up on things I missed the other 2 times around. You did a great job pulling out the details of what made this drama so wonderful. I'll be keeping up with you from now on.

  4. I just finished Coffee Prince and I'm seriously finding it difficult to move on. Haha. It's only my third KDrama but it is one of the best things I've ever seen and I am so sad I can't spend anymore time with Eun Chan and Han Gyul who have my favorite relationship of all time. Their goofiness, playfulness, and complete and utter adoration of each other was incredible. It was so wonderful to see two worthy characters take such complete joy in one another and I will forever be in love with Han Gyul.

    It's dorky to say, but I feel a connection reading your blog because its sounds like you understand this Coffee Prince obsession. For the last few days, I've been trying to find a new KDrama to watch (only to return to watching Coffee Prince clips) and I'm going to rely on your recommendations (it sounds like Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a good next choice for me). Thanks so much for taking the time to keep up this site! I love reading this blog!

    1. It has taken me almost a year to (almost) get over my utter fixation on Coffee Prince. Even just thinking about it long enough to respond to this comment, though, makes me want to watch it again. For the fourth time...or is that fifth?

      Hardcore drama fans often talk about the painful recovery period that follows watching a show they really liked, and it sounds like you're right about there ;) Sungkyunkwan Scandal is probably a good follow up—it's different enough that you might not spend all your time comparing it with Coffee Prince, and a great first sageuk if you haven't seen one before. It also includes a lovely central couple, even if they're no comparison to Eun Chan and Han Gyul. (But then again, who is?)

      Thanks for the kind words about this blog. Good luck with your obsession! :)

  5. It's good to know that I am not alone in my obsession on Coffee Prince. I have finished it about a month ago but I cannot move on, and, I am not sure I want to. Just thinking about Coffee Prince, about the wonderful moments from it it makes me feel like...Go Eun Chan after Han Gyul had told her he loved her. You said it best: "I want to marry Coffee Prince." What I liked best about Coffee Prince is that I cannot think about it and not be flooded by feelings. I suddenly feel the summer, the first love, the nostalgia, the craving, all wrapped in one big cotton candy. All characters' emotions felt so real that it is impossible to forget them.
    I love your blog, I read everything you had written about Coffee Prince.Your recap of the first episode is great. It has a certain flavor because it is not about a random episode at first glance but something you have watched, and watched and it gives perspective of the whole drama. I know it is a hard work and thank you for doing it, even if I wondered what other things I missed in the rest of the episodes.
    I only watched Coffee Prince because somebody, on a blog, mentioned it as a sexy drama and I was intrigued, a sexy Korean drama...That I had to see. I remembered about it when I read your comment about the slippers missing, the bare feet had a important role in Eun Chan and Han Gyul's relation, the slippers would have just ruined the mood.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

    1. Thanks for your kind words :) It's funny how special Coffee Prince is to the people who love it—every time I watch it, I just get more obsessed. It's really the perfect drama...

  6. Amanda,

    I don't know if you and your readers know that the actor who played Min Yeop was killed in a motorcycle accident a few years ago. It was while Gong Yoo was in the Army and he was able to attend the funeral. Yoon Eun Hye was there also and extremely distraught. Very sad, he was a wonderful actor and had a wonderful future.

    I've watched Coffee Prince 6 times so far and know I will again. It's a nagging an addiction!

  7. An incredibly accurate review in all regards. A production with no flaws in it's portrayal, direction, or storyline all held together by the incredible glue slathered on in permanent adhesive by the incomparable Yoon Eun Hye. How a person can move from place to place and give off such large quantities of likability, goofiness, humility, passion, etc. while also having the ability to morph from girl-next-door innocence to four alarm fire sexiness is nothing short of miraculous. The name Yoon Eun Hye is well more than enough to pique this viewer's interest in any project involving her. In this one, she delivers the high-quality goods in spades!


  8. Your Coffee Prince review makes me want to give it another try! I actually stopped watching after about the third episode. I love Gong Yoo and I love the idea of the story but I just couldn't get past some of the gross stuff. For a drama that seems to be aimed at girls there are a lot of things like people picking their noses, or threatening to pick their noses, and talking to each other in the bathroom or about the bathroom, and a bunch of other stuff like that. And what was up with the big ant on that one guy's face (in episode 3, I think)?! And that eating contest in the beginning, Yuck!! Those kinds of things really turned me off and distracted me from the story. But because of your review, and the adorable Gong Yoo, I want to like it, so I'm wondering does it get better, or does the gross stuff continue?

  9. I've come to the conclusion that the interior of the stomachs of Kdrama characters, especially petite female ones, have the same spatial characteristics as that of the Tardis. :)

  10. I have been going through your reviews because we so agree on Coffee Prince, but seems we disagree on Secret Garden, but I also dropped Gentlemen's Dignity so I wonder how well our taste match. I am also a big fan of ISWAK and TKA. I dropped Pasta and a few others.
    I was looking to see if you reviewed Warrior Baek Dong Soo as I recently watched this and for the most part love it except the last ep.

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