K-drama review: Coffee Prince

Coffee Prince advert

I haven’t written about the last few TV shows I’ve watched, but this one had some interesting quirks that I thought were worth a blog post. Coffee Prince (MBC 2007) was a successful enough show that it’s been remade in at least four other countries and the old cafe used for the main set was turned into a real coffee shop that’s a popular tourist attraction in Seoul.

The set-up is that our heroine, Go Eun-chan (played by Yoon Eun-hye), is a 24-year-old androgynous-looking woman who is often mistaken for a man and rarely bothers to correct people. She is the sole wage-earner in her family since her father died, and is determined to earn enough to send her younger sister Eun-sae to college, which means that she works several low-paying jobs. In the first episode, she meets the two men who will be rivals for her love, and of course they are cousins and close friends.

Choi Han-gyul (Gong Yoo) is the heir to a major food corporation and after spending a few years in America “dabbling” with being a toy designer, his grandmother is keen to get him suitably settled down. Her first aim is to find him a wife, so Han-gyul hires Eun-chan – who he thinks is a man – to play his boyfriend who breaks up every blind date. Eun-chan doesn’t like Han-gyul but she has just lost one of her jobs and needs the money.

She does, however, like Choi Han-sung (Lee Sun-kyun) – a semi-famous music producer to whom she delivers milk every morning and befriends through his beautiful dog. Han-sung is still pining for his ex-girlfriend Han Yoo-joo, who has just moved back to Seoul from New York where she lived with another man. She’s a successful artist and has reconnected with her good friend Han-gyul – Han-sung’s cousin.

The next step in the grandmother’s grand scheme is to train up Han-gyul in the family business, starting him out with the task of turning around the profits of a small coffee shop they own. He’s actually a savvy marketer and comes up with the gimmick of hiring attractive young men as the servers, called the “princes”. When he offers Eun-chan a job as a “prince” she decides to continue the pretence that she is a man. She puts a little effort into walking and talking in a more masculine way and most people are fooled. But it quickly becomes complicated, first when she discovers that Han-gyul is close to Han-sung and Yoo-joo – both of whom know that she’s a woman – and then when romantic feelings develop.

Coffee Prince poster
Han-gyul (left) and co-manager Hong Gae-shik with the “coffee princes”, including Eun-chan (centre).

The possibility that Han-gyul – a lead role – is actually gay, or bi, is taken surprisingly seriously, considering how LGBT+ characters have been depicted in other K-dramas I’ve watched. He also doesn’t start out as a complete asshole, the usual pattern for these shows – though he is a little fractious, he’s clearly a decent guy. As are all the “princes”, who become Eun-chan’s closest friends.

Overall, this is a very sweet series. The stakes are never very high and none of the characters is put through the ringer. Though you do end up with solely straight couples, there is at least some acknowledgement of how the real world works without it getting especially gritty either. A light, fun watch.