“Coffee Prince” AKA “First Shop of Coffee Prince” was a mega hit K Drama which ran in 2007. The premise might be a tough one to swallow; a young tomboy-style woman is mistaken for being male and befriends a handsome, rich man. They fall in love, but the rich man doesn’t realize his buddy is a woman.
Wait, what? Give it a chance, this show works.
It’s to the credit of the clever writing and the scintillating star of the show, Korean actress/singer, Yoon Eun Hye. She is stripped down of her usual glamorous stylings as Eun Chan, an androgynous young woman who passes as a young lad. She doesn’t mind because she’s too busy being the head of her household and chief bread winner since her father died. Her mother is silly and materialistic, and her younger sister is still in high school and needs tuition money. Eun Chan juggles many jobs and has super-heroine like strength and stamina. (Yoon Eun Hye will amaze you as she hauls her male costars on her back and in her arms). She meets Han Gyul (Gong Yoo) who is the heir to a food company conglomerate. His family is on his case to find a proper wife, but he wants to remain a carefree bachelor, so he devises a plan to hire Eun Chan as his fake gay boyfriend to chase away female bride candidates. Han Gyul’s family is fed up with his antics and force him to work at a run down coffee shop, which Eun Chan frequents. Faux gay romance sparks fly after Eun Chan is hired.
There is another man who enters Eun Chan’s life: Han Seong, the sensitive, understanding music producer who happens to be a cousin of Han Gyul. The cousins are in a love triangle with Yoo Joo, a beautiful, sophisticated but free spirited artist. Eun Chan and Han Seong have an honest open, and soulful friendship. With Eun Chan the love triangle becomes a love square. Other handsome young men are hired to work at Coffee Prince, including the old boss who knows Eun Chan’s true gender, and has a soft spot for her mother. All employees are male, so Eun Chan feels she must continue with the masquerade to keep this well paying job. Besides she needs to be with Han Gyul–he is simultaneously her worst nightmare and dreamboat.
As a man Eun Chan has more freedom. She bonds with her male co-workers, frolics and rough houses with them. One by one they discover her true gender, but remain loyal to her. Eun Chan is an extraordinary character, a grab bag of oxymoron. She is not an intellectual, but is street and people smart. She’s clumsy, but strong as an ox. Above all she has heart and a rough charm.
How does a show like this work? As I mentioned in my review for Flowers Before Boys bishonen (kkon-mi-nam in Korean) are characters that are found in manga, anime, books, stories, and popular TV, movies, and music. They have “soft masculinity.” They are pretty, youthful and androgynous and they possess both masculine and feminine traits. It is acceptable that Eun Chan would be mistaken for a young man if one accepts the premise of these pretty boys. In shojo manga (sunjeon manhwa in Korean) plain girls are paired with handsome strapping men. This is the case with the coupling of Eun Chan and Han Gyul. The original source for Coffee Prince is a popular romance novel by Lee Seon-Mi.
Watching Eun Chan stumble, rally, and triumph is inspirational and highly entertaining. She overcomes the obstacles of her low status and hurdles over them with spunk and pluck, eschewing self-pity. When she has the girly makeover it is refreshingly appropriate. Without giving away juicy plot details, Eun Chan will emerge a graceful swan, but still retain the original duckling traits that make her enchanting.
Secondary characters are well fleshed out and have interesting side stories. My one complaint is the very dull and lackluster side love story between sensitive Han Seong and seemingly perfect Yoo Joo. The two actors don’t generate heat and their characters are so low key, I wished both had left country.
All 17 episodes available on Hulu. Episode summaries and notes can be found on dramabeans.com. One final note the young model turned actor, Lee Eon, who played lunkhead Min Yoop, tragically died in 2008 from a motorcycle accident. Coffee Prince was his second to last TV series.