Now that First Shop of Coffee Prince (커피프린스 1호점) has finally been released with English subtitles (“finally” in a relative sense–the show started airing in Korea mid-summer 2007), it will be interesting to see its reception by American audiences. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it revolves around at least four linked love triangles (naturally!) among beautiful, urban Korean youth on the edge of becoming responsibe adults. It has elements of Japanese trendy dramas, such as prominent product placement and a focus on urban, consumption-oriented lifestyles (high-end coffee shops, sports cars, pop music, globe-trotting artists), and of course the beautiful actors, most of whom are fashion models and/or pop musicians as well as actors. It also features the occasionally tragic love triangle so well known from earlier dramas like Stairway to Heaven (천국의 계단), Something Happened in Bali (발리에서 생긴 일), and of course the granddaddy of them all, Winter Sonata (겨울연가).
So what does Coffee Prince bring that’s new? First of all, the acting is good, really good. Unusually really good. Really. The main male character, Choi Han Kyul, is played by pretty boy Gong Yoo, whose previous work was not so good. His previous performances were so broad, so exaggerated, that it was as if you could see him thinking “OK, now I pretend to be mad…let’s hope I can keep a straight face this time. They were entertaining, sure, but in the same way that clowns can be entertaining, and every bit as draining to watch for any length of time. Coffee Prince is the first drama in which Gong Yoo really acts, and does it well. He has said as much himself in interviews, that he really first learned to act doing this drama. And it’s not just Gong Yoo. Every actor in the show gives consistently strong performances, particularly the “background” characters like coffee master Hong (played by veteran actor and singer Kim Chang Wan) and of course the horribly romantic butcher-poet (played with an almost unbearable level of self-absorption by Lee Han Wie).
Second, the subtheme brought in through the Comedy of Errors-like gender confusion brought about by very tomboyish Eun Chan (played by singer-actress Yoon Eun Hye), while handled in part for laughs, is ultimately taken very seriously when her real gender is revealed. The opening scene of the first episode suggests that the gender confusion is going to be all for fun–Eun Chan, working as a noodle-delivery driver, is driven out of a women’s public bath by the patrons who do not believe she’s really female. And the humorous take continues for several episodes as Eun Chan is hired by Han Kyul to pretend to be his male lover as way of getting his mother and grandmother off his case (they of course want him to get married and settle down). Then, as Han Kyul begins to realize that he is falling in love with Eun Chan, the humor begins to mix with darker elements as he struggles with the possibility that he really is gay. Some of his attempts to deal with the implications of his attraction to an apparently male Eun Chan are predictably treated for laughs, such as his brief consultation with a clueless doctor who gives him pills to “treat the problem.” But these moments mix more and more with Han Kyul’s real anguish over the uncertainty of his sexual identity, and the growing sense that what concerns him most is the way he will be treated if society thinks he’s gay.
At first he tries to fall out of love with Eun Chan, but this doesn’t work. (This is not a spoiler–his failure to fall out of love occurs in the first third of the episodes, much too early to be a genuine resolution). So he decides that, if being in love with Eun Chan means that he’s gay, so be it. This plot move is strong stuff, particularly for Korean television, which only began addressing gay issues very recently, but it is also strong stuff for a US audience, one of the things that I am curious to see in American reception of the show. Over the last few years (we’ll say post-Tootsie), gay characters in American media have become normalized to a certain extent, and have entered the pantheon of stock minorities along with the sassy black woman, the surprisingly feminist fashion-plate, the conservative black man, the nerdy Asian, bla bla bla. Nevertheless, as with the other minority stereotypes, the normalized gay man or woman is kept at arm’s length from the presumable straight audience by either denying or exoticizing the identity issues that inevitably arise as people mature. If a gay character has a crisis over their sexual identity, it serves as much to reassure the straight audience that their identity is secure and unanalyzable at is serves to develop the character or provide insight into the human condition.
Han Kyul’s wrestling with the instability of his own, heterosexual, identity is strong precisely because it is unexpected, because it is so achingly depicted by Gong Yoo, and because his second attempt to resolve the uncertainty is to embrace the new option. There is a third attempt, and a fourth, as Eun Chan reveals her true sexual identity and Han Kyul then attempts to deal with the new information, so I don’t want to imply that Coffee Prince breaks all taboos etc. etc. The ending of the story is in fact quite conventional for Korean love-triangle dramas, and hardly unknown in the US, either. But the conventionality of the ending is, for me, haunted and undermined by the struggle over sexual identity in the first part of the series.