Monday, September 3, 2012

Marathon Chatter: Coffee Prince

After watching Boys over Flowers, my first Korean drama, it became clear to me that Kdrama and I were fated to be together. But I wasn’t sure where to go from there—the Internet was exploding with tens of thousands of hours of these series, and I had no idea how to figure out what was worth watching and what wasn’t. So I decided to make my way through Drama Crazy’s list of most popular shows.

Everything on the list seemed intriguing, but I rolled my eyes at the description of one show: “The life of Go Eun Chan (Yoon Eun Hye) is not easy; she works many jobs to pay off debts and even gave up her feminine image. Choi Han Kyul (Gong Yoo) is the heir of a big food company, but his grandmother wants him to settle down, so she arranged many dates for him.”

I initially imagined Coffee Prince to be set on a coffee plantation, and full of lots of heavy-handed judgment against a female lead who dared to do the unthinkable: giving up “her feminine image.” Heavens to Betsy, how could she do such a horrid thing?!? I clutched my imaginary pearls in response and moved on to the next drama. Unsurprisingly, I put off watching Coffee Prince until after I’d seen everything else on the list.

And then, I fell in complete and utter love. The show was the perfect mix of nuanced characterization, staggering chemistry, and thoughtful plotting. It was funny, sweet, and tender. Its wonderful script was beautifully realized in every way—great acting, great design and set direction, great locations, great music. Every little thing about the story served to increase its emotional heft, and the show’s naturalistic vibe was utterly charming. I loved Coffee prince  so much that I couldn’t stop talking about it for months. In the year since, I’ve watched it four more times, liking it better with each passing minute. The more I learned about Korea drama from other shows, the more obvious it became that Coffee Prince  was (tragically) one of a kind: the ultimate Korean romantic comedy that also happened to be an insightful critique of the institution of Kdrama rom-coms.

In fact, the main reason I started this blog in the first place was because I was so obsessed with Coffee Prince.  It was the first drama I reviewed here, and it’s been like a ghost hovering behind everything I’ve written since. It’s what I compare other dramas to, and my craziness for Coffee Prince is so intense that it inspired me to buy the show on DVD—a Kdrama first (and last, it would seem).

In honor of my obsessive love for Coffee Prince, I decided to watch it one more time, taking notes about its awesomeness as I went. So herein are my bite-sized thoughts on the 17 hours of my all-time favorite Kdrama.

Episode 1.

Dear Coffee Prince:

Will you marry me?


• You know what the only problem is with the site My Drama List? That they don’t have a section for how many times you’ve watched a particular show. My Coffee Prince count is deeply embarrassing at this point—and after receiving news of something I screwed up at work, I’ve decided to call off my afternoon plans and add one more to the tally. I think I’m at five.

• You just unclogged a toilet, Eun Chan. For the love of God, wash your hands before you accept a popsicle as payment!

• If only Coffee Prince weren’t so wonderful, every other Korean drama ever made would feel like less of a let down. In addition to being objectively wonderful, there’s just something about it that makes me smile uncontrollably.

• Man, those are come cute PJs on the attempted rapist. One question: where’d she get them?

• Near-rape is an alarmingly common occurrence in Kdramas. But as it’s Coffee Prince’s mission to subvert all Kdrama tropes, in this episode it’s the male lead who’s almost taken advantage of. The show doesn’t judge, but come right down to it, the girl got him drunk, took him to a hotel room, and tried to undress him. That’s deeply uncool, however much you candy coat it for your cute romantic comedy.

• FYI, Blind Date number 2, I’m pretty sure MIT doesn’t have a major in Korean history.

• Everything about this drama is better than essentially everything else ever made. (Not to get bogged down in hyperbole or anything.) It even seems to have been shot using different film, making every scene super crisp and hyper-realistic. In a lot of ways, it feels more like a movie than even today’s super-slick dramas. Each scene is edited together from shots taken from many different angles. I counted four in just a few seconds of Eun Chan on her bike—there’s a side view, a front view, a three-quarters view, and a view from behind the protective glass of her helmet. You don’t see that kind of attention to detail these days, when most dramas use a single wide shot and a few close-ups for each scene.

• I have no ear for languages whatsoever, but one of the things I’ve noticed in my 8 trillion hours of drama watching is that Eun Chan’s name seems to be a play on the Korean for “I’m okay.“

• I could seriously watch this show on an infinite loop for the rest of my life. Longer, maybe.

• I wish Han Gyul’s mom was my mom. (Don’t tell my mom!)

• Dude. I bought the boxed set on DVD—you don’t need to translate “Oppa” into “boy” for me. On the other hand, the noodle eating contest in this episode is all the more horrifying in high definition.

Episode 2

• Would you believe that I’ve watched this show five times now, but never noticed the animosity between Han Gyul and Han Sung in the early episodes? I know Han Gyul is jealous about Yoo Joo, but I can’t even remember how they make up.

• My fancy touch-screen cell phone died two months before I could get a free replacement by renewing my service contract, so I ordered the cheapest used phone off Amazon to tide me over. Guess what? It’s exactly Eun Chan’s phone. (And I love it so much I might even keep it instead of upgrading. It feels like a real phone, not a flimsy piece of metal, and flip phones are actually way better for talking into, IMHO.

• Han Gyul’s such a fashion maven. Instead of just picking clothes that look good, he starts by carefully inspecting their quality. He really cares about the stitching, the fabric, the buttons on the cuffs.

• I love what the male leads’ houses have to say about them: Han Gyul’s swinging bachelor pad in the city versus Han Sung’s family-ready house in the suburbs. One is living like Peter Pan, and the other is a responsible grown-up with a manicured backyard (and dog) to die for.

• This is the perfect drama for after a big snow storm—it’s so lush and green you can’t help feeling warm when you watch it.

• I’m so glad they cut Han Gyul’s hair after a few episodes. This shellacked shag doesn’t do him justice.

Episode 3 

• Out of the art by Yoo Joo shown in CP, I like her mural of mutant sea creature sunflowers the least. Bummer.

• In addition to amazing sets, the props on this show are perfect. Even the tiny details are just right, like the mismatched weights Eun Chan just started lifting. It would have been so easy to just buy a matched pair at some store somewhere, but instead they went with battered, used-looking weights in totally different styles.

• Well, I guess Choi Han Gyul isn’t the perfect man after all. He just left the toilet seat up!

• The first time I watched this drama, I was totally thrown by Eun Chan’s flashback being set in Han Gyul’s apartment. Did her family live there when she was young? Now that I’ve watched the whole drama a few more times, I understand that the location isn’t meant to be taken literally. Eun Chan carries her memories of her dad with her, so wherever she goes, she finds him there.

Episode 4

• Weird that flashing is such a thing in Asian dramas, and weirder that it tends to be shrugged off as no big deal. In America, you sometimes hear about people streaking, which involves running through a crowded public place naked. That seems less like the act of a creepy sexual predator, though.

• Han Sung to Eun Chan: “I envy you. No matter what you’re going through, you still manage to look up at the stars and appreciate them like a little kid.” Amanda to Coffee Prince: ::dreamy sigh::

Episode 5

• If a mad scientist kidnapped me and spent a decade doing invasive psychological profiling to be used in creating a drama tailored just for me, Coffee Prince would so be the result. This time around, I’m watching with an eye toward Han Sung and Yoo Joo. They’re not as cute as Eun Chan and Han Gyul, but their relationship is far and away the most believable thing in this drama.

• Note to self: don’t buy fruit at Coffee Prince. I swear apples bruise and begin to rot if you even look at them the wrong way, and here these knuckleheads are tossing them around like softballs.

• Yet another twisted trope: Kdrama people are always seeking company because they’re too afraid to use outhouses by themselves. (Think Dream High.) Coffee Prince does this, too, but in this case it’s the male lead who’s chicken. And because I’m watching this on super-crisp DVD for the first time, I’m noticing all sorts of things I’ve missed in the past... Including the fact that this bathroom doesn’t have a Western toilet—you can tell from the way Han Gyul is standing. Eeek.

• The official subs don’t really explain what Eun Chan is writing in the outhouse scene. Of course, the wonderful WITH S2 translation does: “One woman, nine years, habit.”

Episode 6

• I think it’s interesting that Eun Chan is dressed up as girlie-girl by Han Sung, and then immediately heads off to Han Gyul’s house, where she pigs out and uses her freakish nose to identify coffee beans. No matter how great he is, the fact that Han Sung sees Eun Chan as a girl actually gets in the way of him appreciating her for who she is. On the other hand, Han Gyul may believe she’s a boy, but he really, truly understands her as a person.

 I’ve noticed that whenever a guy is anticipating having sex in a Kdrama, he’s shown stretching his lower back, presumably in preparation for physical activity. And it looks like Han Sung might be using that stone lion to do the very thing. He couldn’t have thought Eun Chan was going to put out, could he?

 The final hug scene in this episode gets me every time, but it does have one flaw: Yoon Eun Hye is so poorly lit in it that she looks like a Halloween ghoul.

• I’d go to Borders to buy books with you whenever you wanted, Han Gyul. Oh, wait... Han Gyul is fictional, and Borders is history. Why are the things I love so tantalizingly unattainable?

Episode 7 

• As an American, it strikes me as incredibly bizarre that Asian cultures don’t have breakfast-specific foods. Here, breakfast is the exclusive province of things like hot or cold cereal, bagels, and toast and eggs. (When someone eats one of those things later in the day, there’s even a specific name for it: Breakfast for dinner.) On Korean dramas, breakfast usually looks just like any other meal of the day: rice, soup, and side-dishes.

• Twisted trope: When Eun Chan quits her job after fighting with Han Gyul, he’s the one who stress eats, not her.

Episode 8 

• Eun Chan gives Grandma a glass bottle and tells her to drink something hot before she eats her shaved ice. I don’t get it—hot, as in warm? Or hot, as in spicy? Why would anyone put a warm drink in a glass bottle, which would be (1) too hot to carry and (2) unlikely to hold heat for very long? Asia, why must you torment me so?!?!

• Guess what, Eun Chan? All of this “You’re so awesome, you’re like Santa!” talk could be construed as leading on Han Sung. It’s no wonder he tried to kiss you, even though it’s regrettable from both of your perspectives. (I never realized what music was playing in the background during the kiss, but it’s the song Han Sung sang for Yoo Joo a few episodes ago. That’s just wrong.)

• Yet another twisted trope: For the second time in the course of this drama, Eun Chan piggybacks Han Gyul when he’s drunk. People always point out that this reversal only lasts until Eun Chan’s gender is revealed, but the piggybacks in the later episodes are fundamentally different: Eun Chan piggybacks Han Gyul because he needs to be carried, while Han Gyul piggybacks Eun Chan because he wants to be close to her.

• It’s a pity that they don’t show the actual ear-piercing in this scene episode. Call me a masochist, but I suspect it would have been weirdly sexual (and totally hot).

Episode 9

• I’ve probably watched five hundred hours of Korean drama at this point, but not one moment in all of them even begins to compare to the power of this beach scene: The sad game of “Bothers can do this” one-upsmanship, the way Han Gyul laces his fingers together with Eun Chan’s, the look of mournful longing on his face as he stretches out next to her on the sand. It’s a perfectly executed scene, from the music to the editing to the acting, but an even better indicator of its effectiveness is that it makes me cry every single time I see it.

 As far as I’m concerned, Coffee Prince is not a drama about homosexuality. It uses the topic of gayness in the same way Romeo and Juliet used a family feud: as a seemingly insurmountable barrier between people in love. I would have loved this show just as much if Eun Chan really had been a man, though.

Episode 10 

• Ah, the concert—this drama’s one sour note. My bitter, black little heart finds it neither amusing nor interesting. (Although Han Gyul’s fit of jealousy and Eun Chan’s breakdown afterward are more than worth the price of admission. Her sadness is painful to watch, and her tears are probably the most genuine Kdrama crying I’ve ever seen.)

• Will anyone who sees this drama ever forget Han Gyul’s declaration of love? The problem is that we English speakers don’t even know what he really said. Here are two translations:
Dramacrazy and official subs: “I’m just going to say this once, so listen carefully. I like you. I don’t care if you’re a man or an alien anymore. It’s too hard to get over you, so let’s just go through with this. Let’s go through with this.” 

With S2 subs: “Just once. I’ll say this just once, so listen up. I like you. Whether you’re a man or an alien. I don’t care anymore. I tried getting rid of my feelings, but couldn’t. So let’s go as far as we can go. Let’s give it a try.”
Both of them are actually pretty great, but as always I prefer the With S2 version.

  • Speaking of genuine, the entire kiss scene is utterly perfect. Honestly, there’s nothing to be said about it—it’s proof positive that a romantic moment on screen doesn’t require showy camera work or 462 jump cuts. This first real kiss shared by Eun Chan and Han Gyul is nothing less than intimate and tender, and so powerful even the viewer can practically feel it.

 Having just checked a streaming version of the kiss scene after watching the DVD version, I have this to say: Good gravy! The DVD’s colors are a thousand times more crisp and clear, and it’s so high definition it actually took some getting used to for someone who’s accustomed to the grainy Dramafever version. Worth every penny I spent, boys and girls.

Episode 11

• I love that there are so many English-language slogans on t-shirts in this drama. The best? The t-shirt Han Gyul wears in a few episodes that says “Golden boy.” (Appropriate, yes?) The worst is definitely the one he’s wearing toward the end of this episode, which seems to have a pill on it reading “Get laid.” I’m too scared to think about the deeper meaning there, if there is such a thing.

• The official subtitles also have a less-than-shining moment in this episode, when Han Gyul “kisses” Eun Chan after they fight. In the DVD version, he says “I liked you better when you were a boy.” In the With S2 version, he says “The kiss was better when you were a boy.” The words are pretty similar, but I think is a lot more fitting—and cutting.

Episode 12

• Han Yoo Joo isn’t my favorite character, but in some ways she’s a feminist-minded trope reversal just like Eun Chan. Rather than looking like a stereotypical man, she acts like one: she’s a cold, calculating, workaholic who has difficulty with monogamy. (Erm...monoandry?)

• It’s a whole different experience to watch this show after committing its soundtrack and score to memory. Some of the best songs are only used for a few seconds as ring tones, which sure isn’t how things work in dramas today: now, two or three songs are played until you want to vomit every time you hear them. That’s kind of bizarre...the Coffee Prince soundtrack(s!) must have been a success on CD. Why wouldn’t every record label in Korea be lining up for their songs to be used on TV in any capacity?

• As I mentioned earlier in this post, I don’t think it’s such a big deal that Eun Chan is suddenly recipient, rather than giver, of piggyback rides after her gender is revealed. She does, however, fall victim to some stereotypically female behavior: now she’s the one stress eating, not Han Gyul.

• Coffee Prince, could you please lay off the awesomeness? It’s cruel how you’re putting every other drama to shame with your relentless sweetness. The writers could have gotten Eun Chan and Han Gyul back together any old way, but instead they arranged a second-round meet-cute that’s cuter than most shows can manage for round one.

• Sad but true: Han Gyul’s “I love you more” worked so well for me, I even wrote fan fiction revolving around it. (Which has been recently edited, by the by. I decided the beginning was too dense.)

• Twisted trope: The male lead rests his head on the female lead’s shoulder, instead of the other way around. Bonus points for it being incredibly funny to see great big Gong Yoo with his head on Yoon Eun Hye’s delicate little shoulder.

Episode 13

• My absolute favorite display of of physical affection in this drama full of displays of physical affection? The moment in this episode when Ha Rim scratches under Eun Chan’s chin as if she’s a beloved pet. Most shows lavish that kind of detail only on their primary relationships, but Coffee Prince has enough heart to go around. (And around. [And around some more.])

Episode 14

• I’m not so well versed on the finer points of Korean home pregnancy tests, but I’m pretty sure Han Yoo Joo just put something she peed on under a pile of clean hand towels in her bathroom. Ick.

• So now that I’ve watched this show almost five times, I’ve finally seen what everyone else saw the first time around: The narrative tension is completely destroyed once Han Gyul accepts Eun Chan as a girl. The first time I watched Coffee Prince, I was delighted that we got to tag along with its leads through the early days of their courtship. Because my love for the OTP is so absurdly strong, I still don’t mind. But I definitely see the storyline flagging, nonetheless.

Episode 15

• It’s a not-so-little-known fact that New York is actually closer to Italy than Seoul is—everybody would have won if Han Gyul had gone to New York while Eun Chan was in Italy.

 This episode is an emotional roller-coaster for me. First I have to pick myself up after fainting dead away when Han Gyul says “Will you be my wife?,” and then I have to quake in terror at the swarm of giant bugs that flit around them through the rest of the scene. Clearly, Seoul and I would not get along.

 The actress who plays Han Yoo Joo is insanely beautiful and has a perfect figure, so naturally they put her in the ugliest wedding dress ever devised. I’m sure it’s supposed to look fashionable and elegant, but please—a giant black bandeau over a classy dress is not a good look for anybody. (On the other hand, I love the fairytale princess dress Han Gyul dreams up for Eun Chan.)

Episode 16

 “I realized I can’t take care of you. But at least I can by by your side. Although we’re apart right now, later...when you make your first kimchi, when you hold your first child, when you become a student’s parent, when you marry off your kids.... Wow. Proposing is so embarrassing.” Best proposal ever, Han Gyul. ::Amanda sighs dramatically and melts into a puddle of delight::

Episode 17

• The scene—you know the one. This is all I have to say: Yowza. (Well, that and: I hope the wheels on Han Gyul’s bed have some sort of locking mechanism, because otherwise they’re both going to be seasick before the night is over.)

• Twisted trope: When it comes to new levels of physical intimacy, Eun Chan is almost always the instigator. Good girl!

• So Han Gyul gives Eun Chan shoes, even knowing that it’s in violation of a Korean proverb to do so. The proverb says the person to whom you give shoes will use them to walk away from you—just what he doesn’t want. But by writing his name in the shoes, it’s as if Han Gyul has symbolically given Eun Chan both her freedom and the strong foundation of his love.

• Another problem with the official Coffee Prince subtitles is the lack of subbing during the scene where Ha Rim catches Han Gyul and Eun Chan together in the bathroom. If you’re like me, you imagined the worst (best?): that they couldn’t keep their hands off each other and were hooking up during work hours. The WITH S2 subs tell a slightly different story. In an annoyed voice, Eun Chan is saying: “Why are you like that? You work, work.” When Ha Rim opens the door, she’s holding a paper towel and messing with Han Gyul’s shirt. My theory is that he got coffee on himself and she’s chastising him for not treating the stain right away.

• I’m always a little sad when Eun Chan comes home from Italy looking so different—as if she’s any average girl. On the bright side, though, one wardrobe choice hints that she’s still the same person we know and love: her shirt is essentially a girlier version of the red polo she wore on her first night with Han Gyul. Like they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

• Good luck not crying at the final goodbye and the “Coffee Prince is closed” sign at the end. You’re a better woman than I am if you can do it.


  1. We ended up going to Orlando to Universal to celebrate my husband graduating college so I did not get to watch CP or any other kdrama for that matter this weekend(it was so difficult... I am a true addict). But having just read your comments I could picture every scene in my head and it made me smile. God how perfect episodes 9 and 10 are (aside from the concert, I agree it was a little awkward lol). Now off to feed my addiction, I have to watch Arang, TTBY, and Painter of the Wind.... but after reading your comments I will probably be re-watching CP soon as well.

    1. That’s a big milestone! Congratulations—and I bet you managed to have fun, even though you were missing your dramas ;)

      TTBY includes a fun nod to Coffee Prince this week, which I thought was cool. And Painter of the Wind’s finale really might drive you to rewatch you can tell from the beginning of the first episode, it’s not the happiest thing ever.

    2. I also haven't gotten to watch any dramas the past few days. My husband and I went to Houston to hang out, shop and eat food, and most specifically to NOT visit family! We didn't tell anyone we were even there. Shop we did, but what I didn't realize until he had dragged me into the Apple store, was that he intended to buy me an iPad!!! He even pulled up dramafever on the store's iPad to see how it worked! Now I can watch drama from anywhere!! I christened it well just now: Arang, even though I said I wouldn't start it just yet. Hehe.

      Ahhhh Coffee Prince... Watching it again is strange. After the first time, I knew of course that it was absolutely special. After seeing 50 + more dramas, I knew it was awesome. After listening to so many people rage about it, I knew that I agreed. But seeing it again and realizing that time could not mar the perfect wondrous-ness of these episodes... Now that is priceless.

      Keep up the marathoning! I love reading your brain splattering overflow of kdrama thoughts! (ehm, that is a compliment, in case it didn't come out that way, hehe)

    3. Hooray for the iPad! Ever since I got mine, all other computers seem too slow and gigantic to use. (Which is kind of amazing, when you consider how impossibly little and fast iPads seemed when they first came out. Also, I remember being horrified by the name—why did you name your cool new device after a feminine hygiene product? Now I don’t even blink at it.)

      I intentionally stayed away from Coffee Prince for months (no matter how desperately I wanted to re-watch it), just so I could see if it was as incredible as I thought the first few viewings. It's easy to get wrapped up in the OTP and whatever personal preferences you bring to a show, but I can now report that Coffee Prince is truly spectacular as I initially thought, and better than most contemporary dramas in every way. ::Sigh:: How will Kdrama (or American television) manage to top it?

  2. Hehe. Ep 17s "scene" has given me many endless hours of.. uhm... wondering about that rolling bed... yeah... *falls into mindless daze*

    1. Frankly, the amount of time I’ve spent contemplating all the great spots in Han Gyul’s apartment for...hanky nothing short of obscene =X

    2. I've never been able to look at a door the same way again...

  3. Boys Over Flowers was my introduction to Kdramas too and I was hooked! Since then I've watched an array of them . . . Pasta, My Princess, and Flower Boy Ramyen Shop being my top favorites. Now I have to add Coffee Prince to that list; each episode is so incredibly entertaining; it's definitely the type of show that's worth repeating!

    1. I could literally watch Coffee Prince forever and not get get sick of it...although I like your other favorites, too. I wish all Kdramas were as wonderfully done.

  4. Coffee Prince is at the top of my all time favorite list. I've watched it at least 5 times. I have the DVD, which took a month to come from Hong Kong, and it goes with me wherever I go in case I don't have internet connection, can't go through drama DTs! I also have the OST soundtrack which was disappointing. It doesn't have all the songs played during the drama on it. But I tracked down the ones that were missing, never fear.

    I fell in love with CP during the first couple of episodes. The later ones, not counting episode 10 because it was amazing, were very good but not as cute, I guess is the word.

    Anyway, I agree with Amanda's critique completely. I think I'll go watch it again now.....

  5. I just watched Coffee Prince for the first time. It took me two days to watch the whole way through, and I cannot believe how much I loved it. I tried talking to some friends about it, and they were like: "Weird, does it have subtitles?" and I was over there like "OMG #*$#&* it was so good!!!". Reading your blog was what prompted me to watch it in the first place, so THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.

    Also, what do I do know? I feel like I am mourning the loss of my favorite friends now that it is over. Is it too soon to re-watch the whole thing?

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