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All the rage in Korea this summer, The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince brings homosexuality into the spotlight in a tale of gender-bending mixups, but ultimately loses its intrigue when it reverts back to a traditional story of cutesy straight coupling.
In a country where feminine guys and boyish girls can easily pass off as the opposite sex, it only makes sense to make a romantic comedy series about the mixed-up relationships that emerge from a society that welcomes (and appreciates) androgyny. Until the Korean series Coffee Prince recently came to a disappointing close, faithful viewers have been glued to the television screen every Monday and Tuesday nights. Being a Coffee addict myself, I would obediently come home early just to get my cup's worth.
In the beginning, the series looked very promising. The story follows a tomboyish 24 year-old girl named Go Eun Chan (Yoon Eun Hye), who is trying with all her power to take care of her family financially and emotionally -- being the "man of the house" ever since her father passed away. Because of this, she takes up all types of odd jobs, from delivering Chinese food to teaching tae-kwon-do to stitching for a doll factory. During one of her deliveries, she fatefully crosses paths with Choi Han Kyul (Gong Yoo), a rich but lazy "playboy" who is getting nagged left and right by his family about settling down, getting a real job and getting married. When Han Kyul first meets Go Eun Chan, he mistakenly assumes (like many others) that she's a "he." So he hires her to be his fake gay boyfriend in order to repel potential suitors that his family sets him up with.
Somehow Eun Chan allows this ruse to continue, because she thinks he would never give her a chance a girlfriend, and for some reason would rather be retain their close guy pal not be friends with him at all. To further the misunderstanding, when Han Kyul decides to get his act together through running the local coffee shop, Coffee Prince, he hires Eun Chan to be on his all-male staff (going along with the theme of princes). What starts off as a buddy-buddy, brotherly bond between the two leads ends up being much more of a romantic, pseudo-homosexual relationship. Add in Han Kyul's amiable, music producer cousin Han Sung and his gorgeous, on-and-off girlfriend Han Yoo Joo, and you get the perfect "love square" formula that Korean dramas are infamous for.
Coffee Prince broke all types of socio-cultural boundaries in the Korean drama series department. In fact, many Koreans pointed out that the drama is very "American style." The homosexual undertones in Coffee Prince are not very consistent with societal norms even though such themes are becoming more prevalent now in the mainstream media, especially with the hit film The King and the Clown (2005). Although King and the Clown does not include overtly homosexual scenes, the film focuses on the intimate relationship between a king and his cross-dressing clown played by actor Lee Jun Ki. With this film, Lee Jun Ki also catapulted the craze of cross-sexuality, where effeminate men transcend the boundaries between masculinity and femininity and opt for a hybrid appearance of both genders for the sake of fashion. This new movement brought on the surge of "ggot mee-nams" (flower boys) and sets the grounds for Coffee Prince's "pretty" princes.
Despite the popularity of The King and the Clown and shows like Queer As Folk and Will and Grace, homosexuality is still a taboo topic amongst Korean society, and when applied to "reality," it may still make members of Korean audiences squeamish. According to Elvis Anber's recent article in the Korea Times "Queer Media- Is It Enough?," Korean homosexuals still maintain a low profile out of fear of coming out to their family, friends, and the public.
In the drama, Han Kyul is in a period of denial about his feelings for Eun Chan. He even goes to the extent of seeing the psychologist to figure out why he's having these homoerotic thoughts, and the doctor prescribes him some medicine for his "illness." Though it was supposed to have a comedic effect, it doesn't stray too far from Korea's views of homosexuality.
Another aspect of the drama that was inconsistent with Korean social norms was the storyline involving Han Yoo Joo's pregnancy out of wedlock. It wasn't just the pregnancy itself that was unexpected, but the reaction to it was not the usual response of shame or social ostracization, but of congratulatory happiness. Her boyfriend Han Sung only showed expressions of sheer delight when she told him the news through a text message of the baby's ultrasound (a caricatural demonstration of Korea's active texting culture). Han Sung's family also welcomed the news with open arms whereas most Korean families would secure the assurance of marriage before such warm acceptance. Also, except for Eun Chan's character who gave off the initial impression of innocence and naiveté, the casual attitude that the characters approached pre-martial sex and co-habitation would generally be frowned upon in Korean society.
Despite all its "Westernized" qualities, you can't help but love the chemistry between the two leads. Yoon Eun Hye was amazingly convincing as a guy with her rough and dowdy mannerisms and speech patterns, especially after seeing her previous, more feminine image in the drama Goong and in the pop group Baby Vox. And every girl in Seoul pretty much fell in love with Gong Yoo's affectionate charm and dapper style. The two go back and forth in their tumultuous rollercoaster of a relationship, from being strangers to fake gay lovers to coworkers to friends to confidantes to brothers to estranged lovers to finally, "real" gay lovers. One minute they'll be at each others' throats at the coffee shop; in the next, they'll be nuzzling necks at the beach. And one couldn't help but anticipate their updated relationship status in each following episode.
However, all forms of suspense and excitement pretty much dissipated after Episode 11, where Han Kyul finally finds out from a fellow Coffee Prince coworker that the man he loves is not actually a man, but indeed a woman. After the angsty fights about Eun Chan's dishonesty, Han Kyul and Eun Chan finally kiss and make up. After all, even though Eun Chan lied and Han Kyul had to suffer through the "torment" of being gay, it all works out in his favor. From that point on, it's just a love-fest as Eun Chan and Han Kyul exchange sugary doses of flirty banter and cutesy little text messages. Oh how it great it is to be young (straight) and in love! There are few hurdles here and there for the newly anointed couple, save for the concern over Han Kyul and Eun Chan's decisions to pursue their careers abroad, but honestly, after the whole gender revelation, what could possibly stand in their way? In addition, the side stories (the story of the music producer cousin and Han Yoo Joo, the other coworkers' love lives, and Han Kyul's family drama) seem to only distract intead of enhancing the storyline.
For the sake of perseverance and loyalty, I stuck through 'til the end, but ultimately, the water, or should I say coffee, ran dry after that pivotal point of truth. There is a rather memorable scene in the drama where Han Kyul first discovers Go Eun Chan's deception and is so enraged that he kisses her roughly and offers these stinging words: "Yeah, it was better when you were a guy." I can't agree with him more.
Date Posted: 9/21/2007