As such, I’ve always been both grateful for and intrigued by people who write recaps. It’s clearly a long, incredibly involved process, from watching the show to writing the summary to getting the images to preparing personal commentary about the episode. On top of the time commitment involved, relevancy demands the recaps get posted quickly—and appear twice a week. That’s genuinely insane.
And yet, the Kdrama community is full of amazingly dedicated recappers, both those posting on big collaborative sites like Drama Beans and personal blogs like Mad Dino’s Asylum and Adverse Effects.
I’ve always wanted to give recapping a try myself, but know that I don’t have the gumption to do it regularly. So I thought I’d come at it from another direction: during my recent re-watching of Coffee Prince, I set out writing a recap of the first episode. As expected, it took hours and was actually a lot of fun.
But five thousand words and a mere twenty minutes of running time later, I gave up: It was just too much work. On the one hand, recapping forced me to see the show with fresh eyes, and really unpack all its many pleasures. On the other hand, it pulled me out of the story and prevented me from enjoying the narrative flow. I also suspect that recapping a show you’ve practically memorized from beginning to end is a really different experience than recapping something that’s currently airing—I knew exactly where all the puzzle pieces fit, and could evaluate them in context of the entire series.
Admittedly, what I ended up with was closer to a swooning analysis than a true recap. But if writing it has taught me anything, it’s that the lazy and long-winded should never, ever try to recap.
Here are the results of my first (and probably only) attempt at it.
(Note: All screen captures from Doramacaps)
Coffee Prince introduces us to its heroine, Go Eun Chan, as she races through Seoul traffic on a motorbike emblazoned with the name of a take-out restaurant. Only we don’t know that the bike’s driver is our heroine—instead, all signs point toward it being our hero. This scene exploits our preconceived notions about men and women: men make food deliveries; men love potentially unsafe vehicles; men wear baggy jeans, nondescript helmets, and beat up Chuck Taylors. It sets us up to assume that Eun Chan is a boy, fooling us about her gender just as the show’s characters will eventually be fooled.
For me, Coffee Prince’s opening brings back memories of Bush’s 1996 video for the song “Machinehead.” Each plays with the viewer’s perception of gender, and each has a surprising reveal at the end.
In the women’s bathhouse, Eun Chan is greeted by the stunned glances and incredulous clamor of its female patrons. Frantically, the women cover themselves, assuming that the swaggering young person in the bright-yellow delivery vest is a boy. In fact, they refuse to believe anything else even after Eun Chan proclaims “I’m a girl!” and removes her helmet in frustration (revealing some of the worst helmet hair in recorded history).This scene gives viewers a glimpse into the naturalistic, real-world universe Coffee Prince is set in, even in spite of its makjang-tastic central conceit of a girl pretending to be a boy. Most dramas (whatever continent they were filmed on) would take this opportunity to show skinny, gorgeous twenty-year-olds in expensive lingerie. But Coffee Prince is not most dramas. The women in this bathhouse aren’t carefully lit or presented in any idealized way—instead, they’re regular people, with special attention paid to soft-around-the-middle ajummas in granny panties and practical support garments.
Coffee Prince introduces us to Choi Han Gyul, its male lead, using typical Kdrama shorthand: he is on a plane bound for Seoul, playing a flirty game of cards with the girl in the next seat. The girl, smitten with her handsome gaming partner, suggests that they play again sometime. Even though she’s cute and he clearly had fun passing time with her, Han Gyul turns her down flat. He looks away and flashes a devilish smile that makes it clear how much he enjoyed the attention.According to Established Kdrama Law, Han Gyul’s seatmate should be his romantic interest (e.g., Shining Inheritance), or at the very least a key player in the rest of the show’s plot (e.g., Spring Waltz). Instead, she’s a red herring that we never see again. Her purpose is to clue us in to Choi Han Gyul’s mindset: He’s interested in women as temporary playmates, not girlfriends.
Superficially, the next scene is further proof of Han Gyul’s playboy attitude. He lazes in an enormous, bubble-filled tub, a glass of orange juice beside him and his cell phone’s headpiece in his ear. He’s telling someone that he’s back in Korea, effortlessly keeping his mystery caller at arm’s length: “I’m filthy right now,” he says, stepping out of the tub, clean as can be. “Of course I miss you, but I don’t think I can greet you like this.” “You sound like a player,” the caller eventually responds, and this viewer couldn’t help but agree.It may not have been intentional, but for an American viewer who’s unfamiliar with Korean culture this scene represented another bait and switch. My first assumption was that Han Gyul was speaking with one of the many girlfriends he was no doubt stringing along—he’s rich, good-looking and unattached, after all. (I suspect his use of greet would have given Koreans a better sense for what was going on: in Korea you greet elders, not girlfriends.)
But no matter how you interpret the beginning of this scene, the character of Choi Han Gyul is eventually rehabilitated: by mid-scene, it becomes clear that he’s chatting affectionately with his mom. Other good signs, as far as I was concerned? He had a stack of books to read while in the tub, and the room is lined with what look like well-loved bookshelves. Why they’re in the bathroom, I’m not so sure. But that they exist at all is a rare and wonderful thing when it comes to the home of a young Kdrama character.
On the other end of the call, Han Gyul’s mother and grandmother are visiting a plant that processes coffee beans. In the background, we see Grandma yelling at a sad-eyed man in a cheap-looking suit. “But it’s where I dedicated my youth,” he pleads. “Talk to her about youth,” she snaps in response. “You threw out our friendship of 20 years over a woman!”And that little throw-away moment, buried within a larger, seemingly more important scene, lays the foundation for the rest of the show. The first time I watched this episode, I had no idea what was happening. But the second time? I realized the man in the suit was Mr. Hong, Han Gyul’s eventual colleague at Coffee Prince. This drama is full of scenes like this: they’re fun for newcomers, but it takes someone who’s already seen the entire show to understand their full depth and meaning. This is no doubt one of the things that keeps us coming back to Coffee Prince—its interwoven plot rewards repeat viewings. (Well, that and the cute.)
In the course of their conversation, Han Gyul’s mom asks if he’s seen Han Seung, who cleaned the house in preparation for his arrival. “No,” he answers, trying hard to sound unconcerned. “We live in the same neighborhood. I’ll see him some other time.” Han Gyul’s eyes wander to a photo displayed in his living room. It’s a candid moment showing three young, beautiful people sitting on a bench, colorful pictures dotting the wall behind them. In the photo, Han Gyul is the only one who doesn’t make eye contact with the camera—instead, he appears to be examining a wooden heart (a fact that will maybe make sense after a few hundred more viewings?). In contrast with the easy, casual poses of the people next to him, Han Gyul sits with his legs tightly crossed and his arms close in at his sides. His body language makes him seem absent and closed off from the people next to him.Although the first-time viewer doesn’t know it, the other two people in the photo are of course Han Yoo Joo, Han Gyul’s longtime crush; and Choi Han Seung, the show’s second male lead, Han Gyul’s cousin, and Yoo Joo’s longtime boyfriend. In the space of ten minutes, Coffee Prince has just introduced its leads and laid out the show’s every conflict—and done so in such a thoughtful, economical way that it’s possible to have completely missed it altogether. From just a few lines of dialogue and well-chosen props, we’ve learned where Han Gyul got his money, how he feels about his mom and grandmother, and that he has conflicted emotions about his cousin. We know his mother fawns over him, and that his grandmother is a tough cookie who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Coffee Prince makes the hard work of storytelling seem delightfully effortless, and the way it throws the viewer right into the middle of these conflicting relationships is a perfect fit for its naturalistic cinematography and shooting style. These things play a big part in the show’s charm, making it feel like an organically captured moment in someone’s real life, not a scripted drama that begins with its first scene and ends with its finale.
(P.S.: Both Han Gyul and Han Sung are smoking in the picture. Ick.)
Enter Eun Chan, slouching in a t-shirt and baggy jeans and still wearing her helmet. Having stepped into Han Gyul’s house to deliver his takeout, she tries to remove her shoes while juggling the food. Han Gyul, wrapped in a towel and carefully drying his feet (is he prone to athlete’s foot or what?), tells her not to worry about her shoes and just bring in the delivery. She does, and happens to get an eyeful of what’s under Han Gyul’s towel. Cuteness ensues.Unlike the characters in most Korean dramas, in Coffee Prince people hardly ever wear slippers indoors. I have no idea why this may be, but I think it has the effect of making the show feel more Westerner-friendly—it’s one less unfamiliar tradition to distract newcomers from the story.
This is also a good time to notice what an outstanding job Yoon Eun Hye does embodying the character of Eun Chan. When they’re pretending to be boys, most Kdrama actresses get short haircuts and wear a lot of pants, and that’s the end of it. What they don’t do is act like boys. We’ve only seen Eun Chan twice at this point, but already she’s slammed several doors, thoughtlessly kicked a pile of neatly ordered shoes out of her way, bellowed unflatteringly, and moved through the world with a graceless, unstudied gait. As a human being, Yoon Eun Hye takes up space differently in Coffee Prince than she usually does. In it, she’s never dainty or delicate, and her every gesture is big and sloppy. Thanks to her performance, Eun Chan could really be a boy—or a girl who has bigger things to think about than how she looks.
Cut to Eun Chan performing an impressive feat of martial arts prowess in front of a group of little kids in taekwondo uniforms. Totally indifferent and distracted, the kids go about their kid-ish business until she demands “Applaud!” They do, and Eun Chan affectionately ruffles one little boy’s hair. A grown man arrives, saying he needs “Master Go” to handle an emergency. This has clearly happened before, because one of the little girls rolls her eyes. “The toilet must be clogged again,” she sighs, exasperated. Off goes Eun Chan to unclog the toilet, barely registering a complaint.Go Eun Chan is one in a long line of cheerful, hardworking, and super-competent Kdrama girls. (I regularly complain about the dense population of airheaded ditzes in romantic comedies, but overall women in Korean dramas tend to be the characters who really get things done.) Throughout the show, we see again and again the two facets of Eun Chan’s personality that are highlighted in this early scene: The easy rapport and physical affection she shares with her taekondo students mimics the relationships she’ll eventually develop with the other Coffee Princes. And unclogging the grossest toilet imaginable doesn’t even faze her—Eun Chan has a stomach of steel and is used to being the problem solver. Although her physical energy is boyish, at the heart of Eun Chan’s personality is actually her mothering nature: she loves the people around her and selflessly helps them every chance she gets.
Having unclogged the toilet, Eun Chan steps out of the bathroom only to see her mother walk by, all dolled up in a ladylike flowered dress, hat, and elegant high heels. “That’s my mom!” Eun Chan says. Half a beat later, she adds “New shoes?!” and takes off in pursuit.Eun Chan’s mom is her polar opposite, and it’s a testament to this drama’s kind heart that she never once comes off as a villain. While Eun Chan works hard to keep her family fed and sheltered, her mother works only part time and spends money on nonessential things like pricey shoes and cosmetics. Mom is also a touch irresponsible—a good portion of this episode revolves around her having borrowed and then lost a diamond ring, which only makes the family’s financial situation worse. More than any other woman in this drama, Eun Chan’s mom is concerned with appearances; she dresses carefully, and wanted that ring to convince classmates at a reunion that she’s married. But instead of turning Eun Chan’s mother into an obstacle to overcome, Coffee Prince only pokes gentle fun at her for being an impulsive clotheshorse, just as it pokes gentle fun at Eun Chan for being a tomboy. In spite of their differences, it’s ultimately clear that Eun Chan’s mother is her greatest source of love and support.
While chasing her mother, Eun Chan receives a phone call from Eun Sae, her little sister. Calling her “Oppa,” Eun Sae claims that a wannabe is bothering her. When Eun Chan hears a gruff voice on the other end of the line saying, “Don’t call me a wannabe. Just call me a thug,” she decides to take the call seriously and runs to her sister’s aid. She finds Eun Sae at a fallen-down, ivy-chocked café that looks only marginally cleaner than the toilet she just unclogged. The Go girls are clearly regulars at the café, as the still-to-be-introduced Mr. Hong greets Eun Chan by name and doesn’t bother to seat her.
Discovering Hwang Min Yeop putting the moves on her sister, Eun Chan plays along with his assumption that she’s Eun Sae’s boyfriend. “Don’t you know you’re my angel?” Min Yeop asks Eun Sae, trying to soften her heart. Without blinking an eye, Eun Sae lists his many shortcomings and responds, “I’m a bad girl. I need more than just love.”
The two “boys” decide to compete for Eun Sae’s love, and the world’s grossest eating contest ensues. Naturally, Eun Chan wins handily.Another scene, another series of seemingly off-handed introductions to places and characters that will be essential throughout the next sixteen episodes. The grungy café, of course, is Wangja Coffee, soon to be rechristened Coffee Prince by Han Gyul. Disgusting Mr. Hong will become Eun Chan’s boss, and Min Yeop, Eun Chan’s “rival” for her sister’s affections, will be her dim but loveable sidekick.
For a Western viewer, it may not immediately sink in that Eun Sae has called Eun Chan “oppa,” or brother. But in the world of Korean drama, this is a big deal: people use relationship titles all the time, and Eun Chan should by rights be called “unni.” Eun Sae did this primarily to scare off the amorous Min Yeop, but we eventually learn that Eun Chan is used to this kind of treatment: Her short hair and masculine habits have always inspired people to tease her about being a boy.
As always, Eun Chan rushes in to the rescue, and as always Eun Sae thoughtlessly takes advantage of her sister’s goodwill. Eun Sae say isn’t mean, exactly, but she’s self-centered, concerned with her own interests before the interests of other people. Throughout the drama, Eun Sae will be the show’s most-reliable truth-teller, always summing up things with concision and frank accuracy—regardless of whether it will hurt someone’s feelings.
As is so often the case with Coffee Prince, nothing is wasted here: the episode stands on its own two feet as an entertaining diversion, but more than that, it’s a building block used to both establish the show’s cast of characters and set in motion its plot. As (absurdly careful) viewers, we now know that people often think Eun Chan is a boy, and that her family is having money troubles. We know that Wangja Coffee is in major need of a makeover, and that both Eun Chan and Han Gyul are connected to the café—she’s a regular patron, and his grandmother knows Mr. Hong.
A car pulls into the driveway of what looks like a posh, suburban home surrounded by a gorgeous stone wall. Carrying a tray, Han Gyul steps into a study lined with books; an older man sits behind a computer listening to headphones. It’s a man cave, Korean-style, and Han Gyul is completely uncomfortable there. “Go to your grandmother’s room,” the man says, but Han Gyul just awkwardly shifts his weight. “I don’t want to be here either, but Grandma and Mom want me to,” he says reluctantly. “I’ll be out in five minutes.” The older man closes his eyes, engrossed in whatever he’s listening to. “Do you hate me that much? You didn’t even have dinner with us.” The grownups aren’t sure why Han Gyul and his dad don’t get along; as the men are off in the study, the women perfect their scheme for Han Gyul’s future and ponder the question. “My friends tell me that’s just how men are,” his mother offers as she sits with Grandma in a spacious, richly decorated living room.Han Gyul’s chilly relationship with his father will resonate throughout Coffee Prince. He wants his dad’s approval, but also resents him: Han Gyul has long believed that his dad cheated on his beloved mother, and that he’s the result of the forbidden liaison. Han Gyul and his dad share the same space in this scene, but that’s it—their relationship is at a complete standstill, something that exists only because the women in the family insist that it must.
What this drama does particularly well is using all these little facts about its lead couple to support its thesis: that Go Eun Chan and Choi Han Gyul belong together. Instead of melodramatic wonk, Han Gyul’s family troubles exist to give him an opportunity to get closer to Eun Chan. When he’s upset about his grandmother’s health, Eun Chan kisses him for the first time; when he learns the truth about his parentage, Eun Chan awkwardly wraps herself around him. Watching their slow, uncertain coupling is a delight. And instead of existing outside of this process, their family stories form and inform it—unlike so many other television shows, Coffee Prince shows us not only who its characters are, but also how they got that way.
Han Gyul is finally called out into the living room by his mother, where he snacks on a plate of fruit. Having adorably psyched themselves up to have a serious talk with their family’s only son, Grandma and Han Gyul’s mom watch him with guarded expressions. “You’re looking good!” Grandma suddenly spits out, unwilling to let Han Gyul take control of the situation with his easy, lady-killing charm. She immediately takes him to task for his layabout lifestyle. As she rants and raves, Han Gyul shows his smooth-talking ways. He reassures her that he’s actually done just what she wanted, and then tries to change the subject to dessert. Grandma is almost swayed, until Mom pinches her leg as a reminder to guard against her sheer glee that her (favorite) grandson is home at last.In a lot of ways, the first episode or two of Coffee Prince are much more whimsical than the rest of the drama. It’s not just that the subject matter got more serious; it’s that the style of filming changed. This scene in particular scene playfully intercuts moments of magical realism used to illustrate Grandma’s list: one a mock-sageuk, one a young Sherlock Holmes, and one a cosplay-meets-reality-show snippet. Han Gyul’s back story is also slightly different in the early episodes: he was in America hanging around Hollywood, per Grandma, while the show eventually settles on him having been in New York working as a designer at a Lego-like company.
One of the most appealing things about the character of Han Gyul is how much he loves his mom and grandmother. Sure, this is partially because they let him get away with murder. But it’s nonetheless true that his strongest relationships are with the women in his life.
Eun Chan returns home, finding her mother hard at work sewing on doll’s eyes and—in a classic moment of Coffee Prince gross-out—her sister using the bathroom with the door open. Their house is small but well-maintained and cozy. Eun Chan’s mother discovers that she’s lost the diamond ring she borrowed for her reunion, and a late-night search of the yard ensues, with Eun Sae again calling Eun Chan “oppa,” and Eun Chan having a mini-meltdown in frustration.Even during this family crisis, it’s Eun Chan who takes control of the situation: she and Eun Sae look everywhere for the ring, while mom stands by with a blank expression on her face. If this were something my mother had done, I would have some choice words about the situation. But even when Eun Chan is so irritated she throws herself to the ground and screams, she never once says anything catty or nasty to her mother. (Which, I guess, is why they call this fiction.)
One of the (many, many) reasons I love Coffee Prince is the way its characters interact. Instead of dwelling on lots of drama-style interpersonal conflicts, this show makes it obvious that everyone genuinely loves everyone else. And thanks to the actors’ stellar chemistry, their joy at being together practically radiates from the screen.