My Dear Youth: Coffee Prince (Review)
In 2007, a chaebol heir turned reluctant coffeeshop manager and a poor Taekwondo instructor fell in love, overcoming misunderstandings, lies, class differences and first loves. The show became a sensation that speaks for itself at this point, and catapulted its young cast into superstardom. Thirteen years later, My Dear Youth: Coffee Prince brings Coffee Prince director Lee Yoon-jung and some of the principal cast back together. In the two-part documentary, they watch highlight reels from the drama, talk about their experiences while filming it, and describe what it’s meant to them in the years since.
EPISODE 1: In the summer of 2007, we were…
August 2020. Gong Yoo (who played CHOI HAN-KYUL) opens the episode, walking into the Coffee Prince cafe after thirteen years, and that music just takes me back immediately—not only to watching this, my first K-drama, in 2009, but to all the moments of my life scored by this OST since then. (This soundtrack even had selected dialogues, and I would sometimes cry just listening to those again.)
Gong Yoo says it feels like meeting his first love again, which he’s conflicted about, because, “It’s like facing something I’d wanted to keep as a good memory.” He says he was reluctant to do this program for the same reason, but he kept seeing clips on YouTube and got sucked in.
The production team surprises him with Yoon Eun-hye’s sudden entrance, and they just stare at each other, moved—and I need a moment. “It’s Go Eun-chan,” he says with a delighted smile. The person who makes them coffee is someone who was inspired by the show to become a barista, and it’s a touching tribute to how deeply audiences connected to these characters.
It’s strangely emotional to see these two, back together in this coffee shop that looks a bit different but has mostly been preserved as it was when we watched them fight and play and fall in love here—and the same goes for Chae Jung-ahn (YOO-JOO) and Lee Seon-kyun (HAN-SUNG).
I’ve been watching these actors pretty consistently during the last ten years in different projects, so they haven’t seemed like they changed at all, but it strikes me forcefully, as I see them side by side with clips from the drama, how very young they were back then. They were babies. And maybe I was a baby back then too.
The documentary special has the actors film in three locations: Gong Yoo and Eun-hye, who meet at the coffee shop, Jung-ahn and Seon-kyun meet in Han-sung’s house cum studio, as I mentioned above, and Kim Jae-wook (SUN-KI) and Kim Dong-wook (HA-RIM) meet in a separate cafe, and the three groups rewatch iconic scenes from the drama, interspersed with interviews.
They also interview director Lee Yoon-jung, who shares some behind-the-scenes stories about the development and production of the show. It’s a real treat to hear about how she worked with Gong Yoo to get Han-kyul where he needed to be as a character—which included him doing a reading with Noh Hee-kyung, who read Eun-chan’s part! What an amazing story.
This first episode mostly focuses on Gong Yoo, Eun-hye, and their scenes together, which leads to a lot of laughter and awkwardness on the their parts. Gong Yoo says at one point, “We kissed a lot back then. I’m old now so I’m not embarrassed—” but Eun-hye interrupts that she’s embarrassed.
As all three groups watch the famous I don’t care if you’re a man or an alien scene, Lee Seon-kyun makes a high-pitched squeal, and Kim Dong-wook asks the production team wryly, “Why do you keep showing us their kisses?” I laughed so hard.
There’s a real sense that comes across of how close these people ended up becoming during filming, regardless of whether they fell out of touch in the years since, and how unique that time was in their lives. There’s an affection to the way Jung-ahn and Seon-kyun watch Eun-chan and Han-kyul falling in love, like an ajusshi and ajumma fondly commenting on the younguns they’ve watched grow up.
It’s kind of adorable and incredibly relatable, as someone who watched this for the first time in my early twenties, when I was in the baffled, amazed glow of discovering Korean dramas for the first time. A bit like falling love, now I think about it. I’m now more jaded both by dramas and life, but the authenticity of youthful feeling still comes through.
There’s something very heart-tugging about Eun-hye tearing up watching Eun-chan sob her heart out onscreen. It’s illuminating to hear how desperate she felt to do well after her embarrassment at the harsh criticism she received for her performance in Goong. It was why she threw herself so completely into the role of Eun-chan, and, as Jung-ahn observes, Eun-chan allowed Eun-hye to taste freedom again.
Jung-ahn says she herself was recovering from a bad breakup and didn’t want to work on anything at the time. It’s hard not to wonder if part of that went into her more difficult scenes in Coffee Prince. Gong Yoo says of the drama that it was healing for him; it reignited his passion for acting. “Everyone who did Coffee Prince together became bright and hot at the same time,” he says, which is why it was such an unforgettable experience.
EPISODE 2: Things we know now but didn’t back then
Part 2 focuses on the secondary love story in Coffee Prince, which was the second-chance romance between Yoo-joo and Han-sung. This storyline that required a lot of nuance in the telling to convince the audience to root for them to reunite, given their history. But Jung-ahn and especially Seon-kyun were incredibly good in their roles—as all the cast were, even the rookies—and carried it off with a level of emotion that rivaled that of Han-kyul and Eun-chan’s story, although with a very different vibe.
Just like the coffee princes and the cafe, Yoo-joo and Han-sung’s relationship was very rooted in that location, and seeing them walking around in that house again reminds me strongly of how much that place just felt like art and summer, freedom and melancholy. In the same way that the coffee shop felt like heat and tension, youth and dreams.
It’s interesting that Gong Yoo, Eun-hye and even Jung-ahn all say now that they weren’t mature enough at the time to really understand Han-sung and Yoo-joo’s story. But it’s so clear that Seon-kyun did get it, and he played it so well, in a way that Jung-ahn says allowed her to also rise to the same level of emotion. He jokes about it, but as they all watch the scene of Yoo-joo leaving Han-sung for the second time, they marvel at how good he was.
Chae Jung-ahn: The suitcase is too light!
Seon-kyun You should have covered that with your acting.
Chae Jung-ahn: [laughing] I should have. You shouted so much that I forgot everything.
Comparing Han-sung with his character in My Ajusshi, Eun-hye reflects that Seon-kyun is the kind of actor who always puts a bit of himself into each character he plays, while clearly differentiating them, which she feels is much harder than playing characters who are totally different each time. Seon-kyun, who says that it’s a rare role whose name he remembers years later, predicts, “I think I’ll remember Choi Han-sung forever. It was the last drama of my youth.”
I certainly will never forget Han-sung singing Tearliner’s “Ocean Travel” to Yoo-joo, promising a new and beautiful future for them where they’ll face the entirety of life’s joys and sadness together.
Then there are Kim Jae-wook and Kim Dong-wook, both of whom were rookies at the time they were cast in Coffee Prince, and who, along with the late Lee Eon (MIN-YEOB), captured viewers’ hearts with their performances as the princes who became as close as brothers. And of course they remember Eon, who was Jae-wook’s model sunbae, and who had felt constricted by the limits placed on someone with his physique in the modeling industry—and was excited to break into a second and hopefully more successful career as an actor.
It’s heartbreaking to watch his interviews post-Coffee Prince, where he talks excitedly about the opportunities opening up before him. His death only a year after the drama aired clearly affected them all deeply—they all recall with great emotion where they were and what they were doing when the heard the news of his accident.
The cast all talk about how starring in Coffee Prince was an incredible, unreal success—we’ve probably all seen footage of how halfway through the drama, the crowds outside the cafe grew so large that the cast would be mobbed when they tried to leave after filming every day. The sudden attention—and the lightning-in-a-bottle, perfect coming together of all the elements that make a show work—was so rare and overwhelming that for the cast and director, it became something not only to celebrate, but to overcome.
Lee Yoon-jung talks about how it sometimes felt like her nemesis, the show that all her future projects would be compared to, although she still loves it. All the actors struggled to reach the same level of success afterward.
It was particularly bad for Eun-hye, who had finally gained her hard-won acknowledgment as an actor, and had such an amazing experience filming it that she feared that nothing could ever be as good again. “I felt that I’d never meet another character as lovable as Eun-chan.”
It’s particularly hard to hear that given how she never did gain such height in her career after that, and the very different trajectory she took compared to Gong Yoo, who has done many critically and commercially successful projects over the years.
Dong-wook points out that actors are always at the receiving end: of love, of approval, of being chosen for roles. Seon-kyun puts it best, as usual (we call him The Voice around here for good reason). Acting is an inherently unstable career, he acknowledges, but he’s learned to take all his roles as gifts, or perhaps homework, given to him as if encouraging him to work harder and let go of his worry.
As if to prove Seon-kyun’s point, the documentary ends with Gong Yoo reflecting that Coffee Prince came to him at a time when, in the summer at the end of his 20s, he felt a bit lost. Ten years later, in the winter when he was 39, once again feeling lost and unsure, he became the Goblin.
I haven’t rewatched this in at least six years, and I’d forgotten how beautifully the writing, directing and music created a seamless little world of romantic angst and unresolved sexual tension, youthful dreams and fears for the younger couple, and disappointment and broken hearts for the older one. I’m reminded again how perfect and once-in-a-lifetime the chemistry was, and how totally and authentically these actors just faded into their characters. Like Dong-Wook says, a lot of their dialogue could have seemed cringeworthy, but they pulled it off perfectly.
At one point Gong Yoo and Eun-hye say it feels as though they are Eun-chan and Han-kyul, watching their wedding video all these years later with their kids running around them. As though they, too, imagined that these characters lived on after the drama ended. That hit me, because it’s the feeling I sometimes get about the shows that really stay with me—as though these people have lives of their own beyond our view. It’s touching to know they feel that too.
We’ve talked since of the problems with genderbenders, particularly with ones where the hero and heroine fall in love while she’s still pretending to be a man. But putting all of that aside, one really revolutionary thing about this show in 2007 was how it broke accepted norms of gendered behavior in ways that still feel daring today. A heroine who ate huge amounts without apologizing for it, who was a martial artist and the breadwinner of her family but not in the least downtrodden or abused by her family. She refused to act “feminine”, followed her career dreams, but still got a traditional happy ending—one that she wasn’t forced to change her hair, her job, her clothing or her personality for. Han-kyul loved Eun-chan for who she was, exhilaratingly and extremely so. What other romance drama has dared to have its lead actress in no makeup for 95% of its run? I can’t name anything in the years since.
And it wasn’t just the leads’ relationship that pushed boundaries. Han-sung and Yoo-joo tried again after what many people see as the ultimate dealbreaker, and in contrast to the narrative that men always cheat and it’s the duty of the woman to take him back anyway, here it was Yoo-joo who strayed. And the show didn’t shy away from the wreckage she left behind her, and that she had to be willing to face if she wanted to have another chance with Han-sung. Nor did it ever make her into the trope of the wicked woman. Seon-kyun observes that he thinks this was the first drama in which he saw the woman propose to the man.
This show treated every character with mercy and understanding and nuance, and whatever was there in the writing, the directing and acting took it to another level and launched this show into the stratosphere. There is so much authentic, genuine emotion in every scene, yet the indie sensibilities of the lighting and the music, the understated moments of the characters just playing and being young together—that’s what stays in my memory. I don’t think I’ll ever let go of how Coffee Prince made me feel. And that’s why this show feels like the unforgettable summer of my youth.