Coffee Prince (2007) Korean Drama Review ~Revisiting the classics (Part 4)

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Gender bending in Korea Dramas

I have been asked whether the fact that there is a female president in Korea means anything in terms of gender inequality. My answer is… not much. The thing about Korean gender inequality is that it is not something that was developed as a philosophical theory unlike something like race inequality in the modern age. It is more of a hodgepodge of concepts that had been organically accumulated over the ages.  To be more accurate, it is those accumulated after the forceful modernization period. There were developed Confucianism philosophical theories during the pre-modern age which lost its social relevancy in the modern age. In any case, these organic origins make it easier for loopholes and exceptions to exist. The Korean female president is one of those cases. As with Queen Elizabeth I during her time, the female president is the exception because she is the daughter of a male ruler.

This situation also applies to sexual identity in Korea. Korean society is fundamentally homophobic. However, it is an organically accumulated type of homophobia. There are loopholes.    The gender bending in “Coffee Prince” (2007) falls into one of those loopholes essentially since it is all about a misunderstanding. Prior to this show, gender bending was not something that came up in mainstream Korean consciousness. I mean before the start of the 21st century, there was no real acknowledgement in mainstream media of the existence of homosexuals in Korea. It was just an American and Japanese thing. Even in the first decade of the 21st century, things did not change that much.

There were exceptions.

One of those exceptions was Ha Ri-su who was a male to female transgender actress/model. In 2001, she just emerged on to mainstream Korean consciousness. It was a weird thing. I remember being rather confused by the whole thing since I had a more western mindset of sexuality based on organized philosophical theories.

If a society is homophobic, why would this single transgender actress/model be an exception?

However, she/he was an exception. At the time, there was a joke circulating in Korea. “If you’re pretty, everything is forgiven even the fact that you have a penis.” Considering how generally really horny Korean men are, it was rather true.

Why am I talking about this?

I want to provide context to what “Coffee Prince” (2007) was in Korean society. It was really the first acknowledgement in mainstream that not all people are heterosexual or have conventional sexuality. It is always interesting how information does not circulate in a society with a seedy underbelly.

Before this show, the idea of homosexuals existing was only expressed in niches in Korea. The most common niche was people who read teen female mangas that were imported from Japan at the time. While most have encountered some of those mangas while growing up in Korea, it could be deem one of those kinky things the Japanese are up to. The concept of gender bending was also popularized via mangas in Korea.

So, it is not that surprising that there is a definite taste of Japanese in how the gender bending is portrayed in “Coffee Prince” (2007). However, what is most surprising of “Coffee Prince” (2007) is not the portrayal of gender bending. What is surprising is that under the guise of gender bending hijinks, the show is oddly gay-friendly for the time and for Korea. None of the surrounding characters in the show seems to be overtly disturbed by the fact that the “prince” and the “tomboy”, who they think is a boy, are having a “bromance” that is veering into something else. Even in U.S. shows and movies, there is at least one character that does not act in this casual manner.

The last few episodes
If you think about it, the “prince’s” parents and family was never included in whole gender bending thing.  The surrounding people without family connections were the only ones in the thing. I guess it was too much to push the envelope in that area. Considering how the family reacts when confronted by their son/ grandson in love with just a tomboy, I think better of wishing to see the family member getting into the whole gender bending and homosexual subject.

This portrayal of family leads into the discussion of the last few episodes which are not good TV. Around episode 13 or so, the plots are wrapped up to the degree that would ever by wrap up in the show. This means that tone of stuff are abandoned and other stuff are rushed. In any case, the show is on its last legs. The only thing left is the epilogue. However, this epilogue is spread over several episodes.

This is one of the issues with a lot of Korean dramas in which the story ends early because there is simply not enough content to the basic conceit of the show. This is not the case for “Coffee Prince” (2007). Rather, it is another example of the problems caused by the gender bending romance dominating the show. By the setup of the show, there is a lot of content to mine from the plots. The issue is that the gender bending romance has its own pace that, once start going, has to run towards the finish line. If it does not adhere to this pacing, the romance then drags and the shows execution is too good for this.

The consequence of this is that the pacing of the show is sped up as dictated by the gender bending romance’s pacing which leave the rest of the plots eating dirt. When the gender bending romance’s concludes around episode 13 or so, everything else is forced to wrap up also. However, there is another 4 episode or so to still go. So, the show shift focus to the tired marriage plot which does not go well with the first 13 or so episodes. Also, it’s rather weird seriously talking about marriage when the “prince” just started dating the “tomboy” who from everything I seen in the show is still a virgin. The whole thing is rather contradictory to the more liberal tone of the first 13 episodes.

At the end
Coffee Prince” (2007) is a difficult case to evaluate and assign a score. Leaving aside the tedious last few episodes, the show does what it does pretty well. It has great casting in general expect for a few exceptions, the romance works because of both chemistry between the lead, and the “gender bending” gimmick is entertaining.  Even the overly ambitious script lifts up show in the audience’s eyes because of the promise it gives out when initially viewed.

However, once all the hype is gone out and one becomes more rational, the problems with the lack of follow through on the initial ambitions of the script becomes more than just something scratching underneath one’s subconscious. It emerges as a serious matter of contention. I am saying this as a person who had a lot of fond memories from past viewing of the show.  In a way, those memories were rather tarnished by my analysis of the show.

Before this viewing and even up to episode 8 of this viewing, I would have gladly given “Coffee Prince” (2007) an A+. However, the last episodes dropped it to a A-. The lack of follow through on the promises drop the show two more letter scores. Thus,…

I give given “Coffee Prince” (2007) a score of B.

Thank you for reading this review.

Score: B or 6.75/10

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