[Revisiting Dramas] I’ll take a refill of Coffee Prince
My very first K-drama was You’re Beautiful, the gender-bender rom-com that was centered on the pop idol industry. Soon after I completed that drama, I searched for other dramas to view, and Coffee Prince was often mentioned. I watched it at some point, but the details about what made it unique were getting fuzzy. This month’s challenge was the perfect opportunity to give it another look.
That opening scene in the first episode was enough to remind me why it was so appealing the first time that I saw it. After the stylized polish of the idols in You’re Beautiful, Coffee Prince feels like a very different kind of drama. Starting with the brigade of food delivery scooters as they jockey for space on the road, we are introduced to a grittier Seoul.
One of those scooters belongs to the main character, Go Eun-chan, and our first look at her is when she removes her helmet to reveal sweaty, messy hair. She’s such a tomboy that many people assume that she’s a boy. It’s just her style, or lack of style to be more precise. She’s used to it, but right away, the drama challenges deeply entrenched standards. How is a girl supposed to look and act? What kind of job is acceptable? Where do less feminine looking girls fit in? Is it enough to be beautiful on the inside?
Coffee Prince doesn’t shy away from challenging preconceived ideas as the drama follows the romance of the boyish-looking Eun-chan (played by Yoon Eun-hye) and the man who falls for her, the Peter Pan-like Choi Han-gyul (Gong Yoo). I know that the first time that I watched Coffee Prince, the complicated love lines and moody characters made it challenging for me to fully appreciate this drama. Watching it for a second time gave me a chance to see that it is much more than a drama about a young woman pretending to be a man.
Together with Han-gyul’s cousin, Han-sung, and his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Yoo-joo, the four main leads find themselves romantically tangled together as they sort out their feelings for each other. While Eun-chan and Han-gyul represent a new relationship, Han-sung and the fickle Yoo-joo reunite after a long breakup. Coffee Prince successfully captures the highs and lows of young adulthood, even though the relationships don’t follow traditional norms.
While Coffee Prince deals with modern relationship issues, the look of the drama is now a bit dated. Styles have changed in the past ten years, evidenced by the princes’ tendency to wear their white shirts unbuttoned down to the mid-chest. Yikes! Unlike many current trendy dramas, Coffee Prince is no fashion parade since Eun-chan favors T-shirts and jeans. The most fashionable characters are Han-gyul, his mother, and his grandmother.
Speaking of those two women, the characters and the actresses who portrayed them were a highlight for me this time around. Kim Ja-ok as Han-gyul’s mother was the gentle counterpoint to Kim Young-ok as his much louder grandmother. Han-gyul loves them both dearly and treats them as if they are the cutest pair in the world. It’s this unabashed affection that redeems him early on, when he mostly behaves like a big jerk. You just have to believe that there’s hope for a man who can love his mother and grandmother like that.
This drama is harsher than I remember with hitting (mostly from grandma), yelling, crying, and some brutal arguments. Eun-chan and Han-gyul have some pretty intense disagreements and can take days to get over a fight. Yoo-joo is so flighty that Hang-sung can never be sure that she’ll stick around for one more day. It all contributes to a cycle of breakups and makeups with lots of sighing and moping on the way to happily ever after.
What sets Coffee Prince apart are the well-defined characters brought to life by the great cast. Yoon Eun-hye is believable as a boy in a role that requires her to shed all vanity. She convincingly brings the gender-confusing Eun-chan to life, while also depicting a young girl falling in love for the first time. Gong Yoo embodies the man/boy persona of Han-gyul perfectly, aided by his impish smile. He tackles Han-gyul’s wide range of moods seamlessly and somehow manages to make the volatile character sympathetic, even likable, by the final episode.
My favorite character of the four leads was, and still is, Lee Sun-kyun as Han-sung. Interestingly, he recognizes Eun-chan as a girl from the very beginning and is warm, friendly, and kind; he’s a bit melancholy, but he has the best smile. He always makes time to talk to Eun-chan and really listens to what she has to say. Han-sung meets the second lead syndrome criteria of being a serious contender for Eun-chan’s heart and his quiet conversations with her contrast sharply with Han-gyul’s fiery ones.
Another constant this time around is that I still didn’t warm up to Han-sung’s girlfriend, Yoo-joo, but that was kind of the point with her — she’s hard to get close to. I never understood why Han-sung was so hung up on her but it brought a sense of realism to the drama because honestly, some relationships don’t make sense.
The princes of the coffee house were more engaging than I remembered, as a ragtag team of misfits who finally find a place where they belong. Along with the original owner, Mr. Hong, Ha-rim, Seon-ki, and Min-yub gossip, tease, argue, and pout while they become more like family than coworkers. They complain about love, customers, their cranky boss and each other, as they serve cup after cup of coffee and plates of waffles. Their banter lends an authenticity to the coffee house that serves as the backdrop of the drama. Together, they make the coffee house an interesting place to hang out.
When I first started watching K-dramas I was completely distracted by the set designs and they hold up really well in Coffee Prince. Han-sung’s studio is probably my favorite set in the drama. Who wouldn’t want a private space like that? A close second is Han-gyul’s rooftop apartment; definitely not of the budget variety, with that amazing courtyard to enjoy his view. And of course the coffee house itself still looks like a great place to hang out and enjoy a perfectly brewed cup of coffee.
Though it does feel a bit dated, Coffee Prince holds up pretty well after ten years. My second look gave me a chance to appreciate that the drama is thought-provoking as well as entertaining, something that I didn’t fully grasp the first time that I watched it. Seeing it again helped me to remember my early days with K-dramas and why I fell in love with them in the first place.
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- Coffee Prince: Episode 1