Exploring Korean Drama: Coffee Prince

coffee prince poster

On paper, Coffee Prince shouldn’t have been as special as it was.  Its central premise is ancient — woman disguises herself as a man in order to get through doors normally closed to her — and even the central conflict is predictable.  While she’s in disguise, she and another man fall for each other.  Coffee Prince took that formula and did something fun and fresh with it, making the show the biggest and most talked about hit of 2007.

eun chan helmet

Eun Chan’s mistaken for a man more than once when in her delivery getup.

The first big change was the modern setting.  Usually these gender-bending stories are set in the past, when the lines between men and women were drawn much more clearly.  “Men disguised as women,” or vice versa, story lines set in the modern day tend to play the premise for laughs (and also tend to have men disguising themselves as women), but that’s not where Coffee Prince went (not most of the time; though it did derive a brief chuckle from it for one or two once-and-done jokes).

Instead, it focused on how we still draw gender lines in our society, how despite the fact that we’re starting to see them as more fluid, we still derive the most assumptions from this one fact about us.  Go Eun Chan never sets out to be mistaken as a man.  She just prefers her short hair and baggy clothing.  She’s strong, a taekwondo instructor, and can out-eat anyone she knows.  She’s just trying to live the way she feels comfortable; some people assume things about her because of that, but that’s not her problem.

One of those people is Choi Han Kyul.  He assumes that Eun Chan is a man, and given that he immediately offers her a job based on her gender, she doesn’t correct him.  Eun Chan’s only 24, but she’s the breadwinner for her family.  They squeak by on the mountain of odd jobs she and her mother complete, including shelling chestnuts and sewing the eyes on dolls.  Eun Chan wants to give her 18-year-old sister the opportunity to go to college, so when some seemingly dumb (but hot) rich guy offers her a job based on her (mistaken) gender, she accepts.

coffee prince concert

Preparing for a special concert.

Han Kyul’s trying to quickly turn around a new coffee shop his family bought.  They’ve got stiff competition in the form of two major coffee chains in the area, but they have one thing to their advantage: there’s also a nearby women’s college.  Han Kyul notices the popularity of food stands run by attractive young men just down the street from the college, so he comes up with a theme for the shop: Coffee Prince.  All the staff (minus the middle-aged co-owner) will be attractive young men, and they’ll throw concerts and parties in addition to just being a typical coffee shop.

When I was thinking about the next kdrama to feature on the column, my mind immediately went to Coffee Prince: it’s still popular and discussed six years later, it’s one of the first kdramas I saw and loved, and so it seemed perfect.  It’s a bit problematic, however, in how it handles Han Kyul’s struggles with his sexuality.

noodle eating contest

Eun Chan puts away almost more than all of the other coffee princes combined.
Also, stop making me want jajangmyeon, dramas.

The Coffee Prince gig isn’t the first job Han Kyul offers to Eun Chan.  At first, he wants her to pretend to date him, to get his matchmaking family off his back.  That’s familiar enough — we see it in shows like My Lovely Sam Soon.  The difference is that Han Kyul thinks Eun Chan is a man, and he wants her to pretend to be his lover.

It’s not clear why Han Kyul makes this decision.  He identifies as straight, and claims he doesn’t have any interest in branching out.  He seems to want to throw off his family long enough that they’ll cool it with the matchmaking for a while.  We’re probably supposed to think that he’s already feeling attracted to Eun Chan, and this is how he’s working through it.

It’s upsetting, as many of the scenes of Han Kyul’s struggles are.  At least things improve as time goes on.  The show is devoted to showing Han Kyul working through how he really feels.  He might say or do awful things, but it’s realistic; his struggles aren’t made light of or glossed over.  They’re a major facet of the primary conflict of the series, as opposed to stories with similar plots (like Sungkyunkwan Scandal) that have other things going on.

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