Coffee Prince(2007) In-depth Review Full Version

Coffee Prince(2007) In-depth Review Full version

#GongYoo #YoonEunHye #LeeSunKyun #ChaeJungAn #KimChangWan #KimDongWook #KimJaeWook #LeeEon #CoffeePrince #Kdrama

It is a common experience with Korean drama viewing to be disappointed with the last few episodes of a Korean drama. They tend to either run out of story several episodes before the end of the show or forcefully end the show in an un-organic manner. What is rare with even a Korean drama is to have the weak last few episodes make you discover that the earlier episodes were not as good as you initially thought they were.

Because of the lack of anything interesting happen during the last few episodes, you end up comparing the so called “good” episodes with the “bad” episodes. This mental process makes you think beyond the veil created by hype and the “mirrors and smoke” generated by the makers of the show. What you discover is that the “good” episodes were not that good in retrospect. This is because, while you’re watching them, “good” usually means ambitious in concept with lots of promise without screwing up the execution. However, ambitious is a double edged sword. You have to really nail the landing compared to the rather mundane concepts. If you do not, you are left with empty promises that cannot do not meet the expectations of the viewers. The Korean drama, “Coffee Prince” (2007), is one of those rare cases.

The Plot
Coffee Prince” (2007) is essentially a slice of life show contained within a 3 month period and encompassing a few character relationships. While there is somewhat of the ticking clock built into the show, the show even forgets about it from time to time. This is because there is nothing really significant at stake in the show. It is just about people living their lives, working together, and dealing with their own crap or issues.  As a result, there is no real central plot driving the show…

Well in theory. I’ll talk about this in detail later.

Rather, the show spends its time leisurely following several plots of different sizes. 

There is a core plot, a peripheral core plot, an several minor plots tied together very loosely around a coffee shop called “Coffee Prince” which was formally known as “커피 왕자.

It’s basically the same meaning but saying it in English is always more fancy in Korea.

The coffee shop “커피 왕자was a dilapidated hole which was run into the ground on which it stood by a skillful old Batista who basically stopped caring about anything a long time ago. Let’s call him the “Old man”.

However, the show is not about him. His story barely constitutes a minor plot.

This is where the “Prince” comes into the story. The “prince” is the grandson of a successful food distribution company who has been wondering around oversees trying to avoid what is waiting at home for him. Through various circumstances, the “prince” is challenged to triple the profits from the coffee shop “커피 왕자” by his grandmother. The show basically starts and ends with this challenge. However, this challenge is not the exactly the plot of the show. It is not even a minor one. Rather, it is merely background setting since theprince” is just doing it to placate his grandmother.

So, what is the plot?

In order the meet this challenge, the “prince” gathers a ragtag crew consisting of the “tomboy”, the “waffle”, the “know it all”, and the “idiot”. The core plot of the show is the complicated relationship between the “prince” and the “tomboy” who the “prince” thinks is a boy for some contrived reasons.

If you haven’t noticed from the casting and the posters, the “tomboy” is a girl.

The others in the crew have their own minor plots independent from the core plot. The “waffle” is in love with a woman that keeps running away from him. The “idiot” is chasing after the “tomboy’s” sister who no one would mistake as a boy. And the “know it all”…not sure what his minor plot is although he definitely has something… I think. These minor plots are only really connected with the core plot by the fact that everyone works together.

I also said, previously, that there was a peripheral plot in “Coffee Prince” (2007). The “prince” has a male cousin, the “composer”. He has an ex-girlfriend, the “ex”, that he loved very much but had left him before the show starts and who came back into his life at the beginning of the show. The show’s peripheral plot is about their subtle but complicated relationship of trying to get back together. This peripheral plot is displayed almost totally independent from the major plot. It is even more so than the minor plots. It is only really tied to the core plot by the fact that basically the “prince” and the “tomboy” essentially guest star in the peripheral plot. Not only are the “prince” and the “composer” cousins but the “prince” has had a crush on the “ex” for years. Another connection is that the “tomboy” has been delivering milk to the “composer’s” house for months and has a slight crush on him.

A lot of stuff is being juggled up in the air!!!

You think that is a lot? There is another minor plot about the “tomboy’s” mother and her love triangle with the “old man” and the “butcher”. I mean literally the “butcher” as the guy’s profession is a butcher. “Coffee Prince” (2007) tries and succeeds somewhat in letting these plots play out with very little inter-connectivity between each other but, at the same time, feel organically tied together.

Mirrors and smoke

This is not an easy feat to accomplish as one has to juggle a lot of moving components. So, I was initially greatly impressed by the show. However, while going through the tedious latter episodes, it dawned on me that I was more impressed by the “Mirrors and smoke” and not the show itself.

Coffee Prince” (2007) is an example of the execution of the show far exceeding the construction of the show in quality. The script was far more ambitious than the screen writer could handle. What I mean is that all the disparate components the script has the show juggling are neither well developed on their own nor really come together in a cohesive manner on a story level at the end of the show.

I am not even talking about the last few episodes.
I am only talking about essentially the first 13 episodes which is where the story really ends.
The last few episodes are more like the retarded second season of the show when everyone jumped ship.

For a show without a dominant plot such as a “slice of life” show, nailing the landing is rather key to the show since, without it, it is just a collection of insignificant small stories. Let’s equate this situation to a stand-up comedian’s act. You have the comedian delivering his lines well but the joke has a major problem. There is no concrete punch line to the joke. There is only a setup. Thus, the only thing that a comedian could do with the situation is to use the figurative and sometimes literal “Mirrors and smoke” to make the audience not notice that there is no punch line. This is what “Coffee Prince” (2007) does. It is a way too ambitious joke that does not have a punch line. The fact is that “Coffee Prince” (2007) delivers what joke there is extremely well is notable. However, the novelty of it wears off rather quickly once you start to think about it.

What is it about?
What is “Coffee Prince” (2007) about?

You may say “gender bending” romance. However, it is more of a plot point.
What are the themes of the show?
What are the main points of the show?

While going through the latter episodes of the show that should have ended already, I asked myself these questions. It did not bode well for the show that I had difficulties in immediately pinpointing the point of the show.

Rather than getting distracted by the gender bending romance in the core plot, I looked at the rather unique story structure. “Coffee Prince” (2007) has several different plots with varying degrees of importance essentially running independent from each other at the same time. The core plot and the peripheral plot essentially do not need each other to exist. You could literally recast the characters that they share between each other with guest stars and the stories would not change at all.

This story structure is not totally unfamiliar to Korean dramas. However, they tend to be used in specific genres such as medical dramas in which an ensemble cast are utilized. Romance shows tend to not use this structure as it splits the focus of the show. So, there should be a reason for choosing this type of unique story structure for “Coffee Prince” (2007).
I came to the conclusion that the show is about the process of the individual characters resolving issues in their lives originating internally and not externally. In other words, the show is not about saving the coffee shop. It is not even about falling in love. It is definitely not about regaining a love once lost. It is not about one thing that grandiose. It is just about people dealing with their issues in a calm and subtle way as most people at least try to do in real life.

For the “prince”, his issues are with his family which originate from his distorted view of his role in his family. For the “tomboy”, her issues originate primarily from her inexperience in life, general poverty, and the loss of a father figure early on. In a way, she is actually the least psychologically damaged in the whole bunch.

For the “composer”, his issues are with his lack of confidence in love and resentment from the fact that his girlfriend left him. On the other hand, the “ex” has an uncertainty and uneasiness regarding committing to a relationship.  Nothing about the problems that the characters have is that unique or uncommon. However, showing these common problems in the show and using the running time to lay those problems out for anyone to see is not an easy thing to do in a Korean drama. The audience usually does not have the appetite or patience for this type of approach.  You see this approach used in Japanese drama more.

This focus on internally originated issues also explains the reason for the fact that none of the other characters directly resolve any of the other characters’ issues. In other words, no one saves anyone else. People handle their own s**t on their own albeit with the indirect support by loved ones. This is why I point out the initial ambitions of the screenplay writer. This is all great stuff that normally is not well handled by Korean drama. The problem is that the script fails to nail the landing. None of the issues first laid out are fully developed and explored before they just somehow resolve themselves.

The lack of development for what the show is about!
While one may argue this is because the show is subtle, I have to argue that the show lost focused on what it was meant and structured to be. The internal issues of the characters are so broadly described in the show that it is actually difficult to pinpoint what they actually are to the degree I just did.

If you want to be subtle, the issues do not need to be spelled out for you. However, it does at least need to be strongly inferred about as they are being resolved on screen. This does not really happen in the show as they just seem to fade away without much effort. For the “prince”, he just needed to better communicate with his family and everything is resolved for him. For the “tomboy”, she just needed to find a direction in life and everything is good.
(Major Spoilers!)
For the “composer” and his “ex”, getting knocked up seemed to have solved everything for them to live happily ever after.

In other words, not only is the show vague about the characters’ issues but the issues are resolved in a careless manner. This does not even include the minor plots which tend to be just abandoned halfway through. While a subplot not being fully developed in a Korean drama is as common as apple pie is in the United States, This is a problem for “Coffee Prince” (2007) since the show’s structure was so ambitious. As inferred by the show’s choice in structure, the show wanted to give the audience a better understanding about the human condition. Otherwise, there is no real reason for the intricate structure for just a gender bending romance as shown by all of the straightforward gender bending romance shows that followed “Coffee Prince” (2007). However, as you watch the characters go through their issues, you do not gain a better understanding about people. You just end up with many underdeveloped stories of characters out there in the ether.

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 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 does 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.

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 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. The Korean female president is one of those cases. As with Queen Elizabeth I during her time, she 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 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.

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