Coffee Prince (2007) Korean Drama Review ~Revisiting the classics (Part 3)

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Is Gender bending a curse?

So, is the show terrible?

Well no. The romance part of the core plot is good because of the chemistry between the two leads.  The “gender bending” component of the romance is an entertaining gimmick as seen from the fact that it has been used many times following this show. The actors are great too. While there have been many gender bending romance shows after this, “Coffee Prince” (2007) has the most plausible tomboy who could be mistaken as a boy of all of them. Yoon Eun-Hye gives a great performance as the “tomboy” although I would never mistake her for being a man. She would be better described as a young lesbian or something similar. For Korea, it is close enough. I will discuss some social aspects of the “gender bending” component later.

While the gender bending romance is solid in the show, it is also somewhat of a curse for the show at the same time. Because the romance works so well and the gimmick is controversial, the gender bending romance does tend to dominate the show which is antithetical to the structure of the show. It becomes worse as the “gender bending” has nothing to do with the characters’ internal issues which are intended to be at the center of the show.

While one may enjoy the cuteness of “tomboy” and her chemistry with the “prince” played by Gong Yoo, can you say that the “gender bending” gimmick is necessary for the core plot? I say core plot because it has no relevance to either the peripheral plot or the minor plots. Let’s look at the characters’ internal issues.

In regard to the “tomboy”, her issues have nothing to do with gender identity. She is a tomboy at her core. That is what the character is. The fact that sometimes people mistake her as a boy is incidental. Whether she is at home with loved ones or at work pretending to be a man, the “tomboy” basically acts in accordance to who she is although there are some minor exaggerations for the sake of the act. In addition, she is never confused about her sexual identity. She likes men and not just any men. She likes older men.

In other words…daddy issues anyone?
아저씨 킬러!!!”

Other than as gimmick to spice up the core plot, the whole “gender bender” thing contributes nothing to her story about her issues.

Let’s also touch on the “prince”.  Even with him, sexual identity was never an issue the character had going into the show. He was heterosexual male who was confident in his sexual identity. At the same time, he was not even a bit homophobic or homo-afraid. Rather, he seems nonchalant about the issue of sexual politics.  It was him that came up with the whole “use a cute looking young boy to trick unwanted female suitors” gambit.

What does this mean?

Coffee Prince and Twelfth Night
The whole “gender bender” thing is superfluous to his character arc. This is shown by the fact that he basically signs a sound of relief and tries to wipe the whole thing out of his memory after everything is revealed. In a manner, the gender bending plot point is rather unnecessarily cruel to the character in order to get cheap melodramatics.

You have him go through all the mental turmoil of a sexuality crisis for what?
To just say, … my bad! Let’s forget about the whole thing?

In this respect, “Coffee Prince” (2007) has quite similar approach to gender bending as classical play “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare in which a fair maiden is disguised as her twin brother who she thinks dead to get a job. However, she falls in love with her male employer as her male persona. In the area of gender bending, “Coffee Prince” (2007) has defiantly borrowed from this classic. The issue with this approach is that Twelfth Night is a comedy and was written in early years of the 15th century. It does not really work that well with the sexual politics of the modern day and with the tone of this show.

The gender bending is somewhat crueler since the “prince” is generally more psychologically sound and a nice person than most Korean drama male lead characters who need a boatload of professional help in general. Even the initial gambit with the “tomboy” originates from kindness. He was being forced to meet women for marriage and the kindest manner to let the girls off was to fake being gay. It is the ultimate form of “it’s not you. It’s me.”

What may have made the show interesting would be to make the “tomboy” an actual boy and thus, go for the whole “gay” angle. However, this may have been too hardcore for Korean audiences. In a way, having the “tomboy” never be mistaken as a boy throughout the show would have been more interesting. The show could have examined how the “prince’s” attraction to a tomboy reflects his the internal issues. However, this may seem too subtle for Koreans who basically think having female sexual organs and being pretty is all that one needs.

In any case, the “gender bender” is just a gimmick. This in itself is not a problem. The problem is that the core plot of the show tends to dominate the other plots more than it was designed to. This contradicts the intentions of the chosen story structure. The problems originating from this contradiction can be seen easily in the peripheral plot. For the time allocated to the peripheral plot, it is an oddity that I barely know anything about the “composer” and his “ex”. The composer has a dog, composes movie music, and is cousins with the “prince”. That is the only thing I know about him. 

It is more serious for the “ex”. She is a painter and has issues with commitment. That’s all I know about her which is a shame since I do sense there are deeper issues with the character.  The choice of actress to play the role of the “ex” is also unfortunate as a better actress may have done more with less. Chae Jung-An has never really been an actress that I really liked. While her acting is not horrendous, she is never able to emote enough to nail any of her characters. She is typically only about 60% on the mark most of the time. This is the same for her role in “Coffee Prince” (2007) although it seemed to suit her better than any of the roles she had played since.

Anyone remember “Hot Blood” (2009)?

This lack of development is the same for all the other plots and characters. The structure of the show seems to intend for the show to pay attention to all of the plots and how the characters deal with their internal issues. However, the dominance of the major plot distorts this structure essentially after the middle point of the good episode run in which I mean the first 12 episodes or so. As a result, every other plot gets the short end of the stick for what amounts to a gimmick. They are simply not given enough attention.


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