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In honor of Big starting (now that Love Rain has finally ended), I thought I’d look back on the only other drama I’ve seen its leading man, Gong Yoo, in – the wonderful Coffee Prince (Keo-pi Peu-rin-seu 1-ho-jeom, aka, The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince – 17 Episodes).  Based on a novel by Lee Sun Mi (which I would totally read, if it ever came out in the States), this was the funny and outrageous drama about a tomboyish girl, Go Eun Chan, who takes her tomboyishness to the next level by actually masquerading as a boy, just to get a job working at a cafe.  I guess it helps that Gong Yoo played the cafe owner, but even without a hot boss, Korean drama heroines will go to any lengths to be gainfully employed.

Go Eun Chan (Yoon Eun Hye) has been the main breadwinner for her family (a selfish mother and a bratty younger sister) ever since her father died.  With her boyish ways, she has pretty much assumed the title of Man of the House, and has a series of jobs to try and make ends meet.  One day she crosses paths with Choi Han Kyul (Gong Yoo), a rich food chaebol with issues, and this leads her to a new job opportunity: pretending to be his lover in order to keep him from getting married.  For Han Kyul is one of the slower K-drama heroes, and thinks that the pretty Eun Chan is actually a boy.

The money’s good, as is the money she could get by working at the coffee shop which Han Kyul has been tasked with revitalizing by his rich grandmother.  He’s not so dumb, since he knows that the best way to do this is to rename the cafe Coffee Prince, and only hire cute guys to work there (himself included.)  Since this is a drama, Eun Chan desperately wants this job, since it will literally save her life, and so she pulls out the bandages to bind her chest, and pretends to be a boy. The coffee shop becomes a hit, thanks to the pretty boy “princes” who work there, including Waffle Sung Ki (Kim Jae Wook) and Han Kyul’s fellow rich guy friend, Jin Ha Rim (Kim Dong Wook).

But dramas are never just about work (bless them).  The real drama starts when Han Kyul finds himself falling for Eun Chan – who he still thinks is a boy!  Cue the sexually ambiguous hijinks, and a really weird consultation with a psychiatrist, which leads me to think that Korean dramas don’t really like psychiatrists.  Will Eun Chan be able to keep her job, and get her man?  What does it say about her that she didn’t get any guys until she pretended to be one?  Look at how many interesting questions this drama raised!

The second leads in this drama weren’t so much villains, as they were foils for the increasingly bizarre and immature leading couple.  It was almost like in Wild Romance (which I actually liked better), how there was one tonally dissonant couple who was strangely mature and angsty.  Why are they even in this drama?  Anyways, Han Kyul’s cousin, Choi Han Sung (Lee Seon Gyun, Pasta), was kind of inappropriate in how much he needed Eun Chan to be so adoring in order to feel good about himself, but at least he got really into his songs once.  I find this actor a little off-putting, but he seems to have a following, so whatever.

The two cousins had originally fought over Han Sung’s former girlfriend, Han Yoo Joo (Chae Jung An), who was totally boring, but I guess the drama wanted an ultra-feminine and boring girl to contrast with the manly and bizarre Eun Chan.  And I guess they chose wisely, since this girl was as uninteresting as Eun Chan was interesting.  To make her role even more thankless, she also had the most disturbing storyline, too, though I might have been the only one to see it like that.  Her “happy ending” made it seem like she was still getting punished for having dated a man she called DK.  For a drama that purported to upend traditional gender roles, this girl was pretty stuck in one as old as could be.  But then again, maybe I was just in a more critical mood when I watched this drama.

This was one of those really fun dramas to watch, and I know this makes me sound like an old fogey, but there hasn’t been one this fun in a long time.  Yes, 2007 was a very good year for dramas, I must say (this one, Dal Ja’s Spring, Four Gold Chasers, Legend, and so many others).  I had some problems, of course (is there a drama out there without them?), but most of them were just quibbles with the plot.  I could not get behind Eun Chan’s decision to keep Han Kyul in the dark for, like, the whole drama, and I felt so bad for him as he increasingly believed that he was going insane.  Did she really have to push him to the point where he compared them to aliens?

Still, this has been one of the better gender benders, which, to be honest, aren’t really my thing.  But people seem to like them, since there’s a new one every so often, like 2010’s great Sungkyunkwan Scandal.  There’s even one scheduled for this year, To the Beautiful You, which is based on the manga Hana Kimi, and features a girl who pretends to be a boy, just to attend this big sports school where her idol is some kind of track and field star.  It’s a largely idol cast, and we know how that turned out in Dream High 2.  Still, I’m curious, even if just to see the train wreck that will probably be Min Ho (from SHINee).  That sounded kind of mean-spirited, didn’t it?  Also, why have there been no guys-parading-as-girls dramas?  Why must only the women have to hide?  Hasn’t anyone in Korea watched Bosom Buddies?

One of the draws of the drama was easily Yoon Eun Hye’s no holds barred performance as the vaguely gross, but lovable Eun Chan.  Yoon totally reveled in being borderline nasty as she shoveled food in with abandon, or when she wasn’t as hygienic as she should have been.  I think she obviously set the bar for all other cross-dressing performances, as well as for the generally tomboyish heroine, like Yoo Eun Jae from Wild Romance.  I personally don’t like the cross-dressing heroine to be quite so method, and because of that I probably preferred Park Shin Hye’s approach in You’re Beautiful, where she didn’t even bother trying to act like a guy at all, even though I think Yoon Eun Hye did a better job in this role.  I can’t imagine anyone else in the role, especially Kim Ah Joong, who thankfully turned it down.

This, following the popular (and super good) Princess Hours, pretty much cemented Yoon Eun Hye’s status as the next generation rom-com queen, and for good reason, I think.  She’s a very likable actress, who can be funny and vulnerable, and she really throws herself into roles like this one.  I actually thought she was more affecting in Princess Hours, and her eating scenes were a lot better in that one, too, even if she didn’t polish off a whole plate of sweet and sour pork by herself, but I can see why she is as famous for Eun Chan as she is for Princess Hours.  Alas, her post Coffee Prince efforts have been…bad, at best, at least from what I hear.  My Fair Lady was just shy of absolutely terrible, but I could see glimmers of the old Yoon, even behind a clunky script and totally wrong leading man.  I don’t think she’s the funniest actress out there, but for a while she was so dependable, so I hope she returns to form soon.

It was definitely Yoon Eun Hye’s drama, but Gong Yoo wasn’t just a pretty face in this role.  Or even if he was, at least he wasn’t bad or a distraction from the rest of the great drama.  Of course his funny dancing wasn’t very funny, but do you know how hard it is to do funny dances?  Even though he’s made dramas and movies pretty steadily, the only other thing I’ve seen him in was the fluff film She’s on Duty, which starred Kim Sun Ah as a police detective sent undercover as a high school student.  Gong Yoo played another student, but his main purpose was to get harassed by Kim Sun Ah.  I see that with Big, which looks like it gives him more of the spotlight, he seems to be trying to move away from being a comedienne’s eye candy.

Just out of the army, he had a popular movie, The Crucible, which seems pretty disturbing, and now Big.  Even if I end up disliking him in that drama, I still want to see one of his early ones, Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy, which has him as a high school student who has a thing with his teacher lady.  Him and inappropriate drama romances – what’s up with that?  But let’s hope all of his oeuvre is half as fun as Coffee Prince was.  You don’t even have to like coffee, or cross dress to like this drama!

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Wild Romance: Episode 1

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