What an interesting show this was for me. I can see why it’s garnered such a fanbase, being nearly a decade ahead of its time and yet still made of the same backbones that shot Boys Over Flowers to fame. Plus it has Gong Yoo in it (although from what I hear this was an earlier work just solidifying his fame). His presence was what started me watching–and honestly what kept me there until the end. Despite what the Drama Journals may tell you, and although I’ll admit I pretty much marathoned the show I was not crack-hooked on Coffee Prince. It was good, I enjoyed myself, I did not love it.
Coffee Prince: 2/5 on story, 3/5 on characters, and 4/5 on philosophy
Ok, let’s get this out of the way first: I have nothing against the gender-bending plot device. I think it’s hilarious and can make for a really engaging ride–there are a few mangas I really would recommend. However because of that I can’t give Coffee Prince much wiggle room for being one of the first Korean dramas to try it. And honestly besides providing angst for a few episodes (which I’m never a fan of) they didn’t utilize it as much as they could have. That’s not totally a bad thing as it allowed us to see more of the characters behind the setup as opposed to the setup itself–but I did find myself missing some of the close calls in mangas like W Juliet or Seiyuu Ka, and the bonding that comes after they’ve all found out but still hide the secret like Ouran High School Host Club.
As for the rest of the plot, it was better than I expected. I often struggle with the older K-dramas–the setups and acting often feel dramatic for its own sake, not for a good story. But I found Coffee Prince surprisingly down to earth, with complicated “real life” problems… albeit with rather ridiculous solutions at times. I enjoyed the sub plots with our second leads, and really loved the mini stories with the rest of the Coffee Prince workers. I’d have enjoyed it every plot more if they’d been cleaner–the humor, a few racy scenes–but those are easy enough to predict and skip past. My biggest complaint is what seems to be the downfall of romantic comedies everywhere: the plot starts to circle the drain later on. They run out of really good conflicts and start using a few less-good new ones*, and then reuse even those**. So no, I wouldn’t recommend Coffee Prince for the story.
The characters, on the other hand, I really liked. Specifically, Eun-Chan as a character. I’ve watched and read enough gender-bent material to have a single pet peeve: if they’re wearing makeup and look nothing like a boy then the leads shouldn’t be hoodwinked for so long. And that’s where Eun-Chan really shined (I take my hat off to Yoon Eun-Hye, who put her heart into that character). Eun-Chan didn’t skimp on the tomboy-ness: the baggy clothes, the mannerisms, the massive eating, the strength and lack of concern when rough-housing with the boys, the lack of makeup. She was endearing and hardworking, and she didn’t try to be cutesy. That made it all the better when she did have concerns about not being feminine enough and low self esteem–because that itself showed us a softer side to her. I really enjoyed that.
Han-Kyul by the same token was an incredibly flawed character, one I would have trouble liking, and sprinkled Gong-Yoo magic all over. He more than anyone allowed me to realize that everyone has faults–but they have good points too and shouldn’t just be dismissed. It was one of the best cases of taking a bad first impression and turning your opinion around–not because the qualities have changed but because they’ve put them to work in a new way. Plus he was adorable, so there’s that.
Our second leads were great too, both thought provoking and capable of tugging at the heartstrings: it took me a while to warm up to Yoo-Joo, but I really empathized with her for a stretch of the drama. The rest of the side characters fell easily into the classic molds, where they didn’t act outside of the stereotype–they were well played, but not really insightful.
It’s a gender-bent drama. Of course there’s one place the philosophy will go–true love and gender. But I won’t focus on the “should I love him (her, really) or not” debate, as I don’t agree with the conclusion he came up with. The angst I can laugh at, conclusions less so. The philosophy is there and there’s plenty to mine, if you’d like.
But I’d really like to highlight another philosophy I found in the drama, one I thought was very well done: women in the workplace and equality. I’m not usually a feminist–actually, I’m just not a feminist–but I do stand for gender equality, and I liked what the show said about that. Eun-Chan worked hard for what she was given, and continued working hard after she was found out as a girl. She had her own dreams and she tried to accomplish them–and the show made note that marriage doesn’t and shouldn’t stop the rest of your life and desires. By the same token Han-Kyul worked hard for his cafe and didn’t want to parachute into his father’s company. He had his own dreams and made his decisions accordingly. They were both strong people who respected and loved each other for what they were, and worked to help each other become better. Han-Kyul needed to grow a bit, sure, but in our secondary story the same was true of Yoo-Joo.
There was more than just those two philosophies, too–a lot of common talking points today were present in this drama from a decade ago. Many were never resolved, only discussed. Marriage and family, children and marriage, marriage at all (it was a really love-centered drama). I enjoyed watching some of the back and forth on these issues, and think that they definitely have a foothold in conversations today.
Final Verdict: 6/10. It wasn’t really the show I wanted it to be, and I’ll admit a lot of my watching towards the end was just for Gong-Yoo. So yeah, I’m blaming him. ^^
*less good conflicts: Grandma, seriously? You were irritable, you weren’t a witch. Until the show needed you to be to provide conflict, so you opposed them terribly. You were adorable once you came around again though. And Han-Kyul leaving for New York? I think this could have been handled a bit better, although I love how and why he decided to stay. It wasn’t just for a single woman, but he wouldn’t deny that the people were a part of it.
**reusing the less-good: Eun-Chan leaving rubbed me the wrong way in a big way, to be honest. Han-Kyul had just done the same thing so it felt recycled, she didn’t seem as mature in making her decision which felt out of character, and it really just felt unnecessary. And aaaaalll the angst associated with “Are we together? Are we not? Are we again? No?” I can only watch the same arguments played out so many times before I tune out.