Coffee Prince

Also known as The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, released in 2007.

Korean cross-dressing

Who, or what, is Coffee Prince?

Italicized, it’s a 17-part 2007 Korean romantic comedy with a splash of soap opera thrown in.

Unitalicized, Coffee Prince is both the name of the first (and only) coffee shop in a chain of that name and a way of thinking about one of the main characters, Choi Han Kyul, a sort of layabout / playboy whose grandmother has threatened to cut off his apartment and car if he doesn’t do something with himself, like go on match-making dates (he’s 29 and unmarried) and take over a run-down coffee shop that she owns.

Grandma is chairwoman of a company named Dong In Foods. Dad is president and there’s some unspecified bad blood between Han Kyul and his father. Han Kyul is a kind of crown prince, to be sure, but maybe an understandably reluctant one. Would you want to be groomed to take over Dong In Foods? Me neither.

There’s a cousin, Choi Han Sung, also a kind of prince, with a wonderful smile; he appears to be a successful music producer. And both guys are in love with the same woman, Han Yoo Joo, a beautiful artist who’s recently returned from a couple of years in New York.

If all this sounds boringly familiar, that’s because it is, up to a point.

But then there’s Go Eun Chan. She’s not from a prominent family like the others. Instead she’s basically the head of a household that includes her shopaholic mother and her younger sister, who’s still in school but dreams of becoming a pop star. Eun Chan also works like the devil as the breadwinner in the family and to pay her mother’s debts: she delivers milk at dawn by bicycle and snacks by day on a scooter, peels chestnuts, sews eyes on dolls, even instructs small children in Taekwondo.

Eun Chan is extraordinarily strong. Before either has met her, Han Kyul and Han Sung watch her carry a drunken patron out of a wine bar on her back while wearing high heels (a temporary job as a waitress). Han Kyul observes to his cousin with a smile, “A woman who performs feats of super strength!”

Eun Chan also has an extraordinary sense of smell. She can smell coffee or unwashed feet from far away, knows what you had hours earlier for breakfast, and can identify the type of coffee just by sniffing a handful of beans. After one impressive demonstration of her talent, she tells Han Kyul that her nickname is “Dog Nose.”

And she has an an enormous appetite for food and drink. She grabs from others’ plates in restaurants, snatches a scrap from an outdoor cafe table as she’s passing by, and piles up four triangular slices of pizza into a single slab so as not to waste any time devouring them. In one memorable scene, she handily defeats her sister’s loutish suitor in a noodle eating contest. A running joke in the series is that Han Kyul can’t drink, practically going comatose after one or two shots, whereas Eun Chan guzzles beer and soju with nary an ill effect.

The character of Eun Chan feels vaguely Dickensian — there’s the humble background, the exaggerated traits employed for comic effect, and the sense that you’re seeing something remarkable being created.

Eun Chan is also constantly being mistaken for a boy, or so we’re supposed to believe. As viewers, knowing that she is a she, this can be a little hard to do at times. It’s like trying to see Clark Kent the way the characters in the comics do. Don’t they see that without those nerd glasses he’s really Superman?

Han Sung first meets Eun Chan when she’s in her cocktail waitress getup, so he assumes she’s a woman, but Han Kyul only knows her from when she’s delivering food, wearing typical delivery guy garb of helmet, jeans and sneakers, so he assumes she’s a man. (It seems most delivery guys in Seoul are guys, even though girls are apparently paid less.)

Leaving aside that we can’t unsee Eun Chan as a woman, what’s the explanation in the story for how she can pass for a man? After revealing her secret to another woman, she explains “I don’t try to imitate.” A couple of times she has stood in front of a urinal as though peeing, but there’s no crotch grabbing or other outlandish “male” gestures. She lets everyone see what they believe and believe what they see.

This line of Eun Chan’s is probably also a good way of explaining the success of Eun-hye Yun in this role. She moves with a lanky gait that at one time might have been described as “tomboyish” but it’s just a hint, nothing more. The role of Eun Chan is a physical one and Eun-hye Yun moves naturally and athletically in it. But she doesn’t “imitate” a male actor.

Coffee Prince is romantic comedy because you know how it has to end up; it’s soap opera because it takes its time getting there (roughly 17 hours); but it’s fun because the character of Eun Chan is so much fun.

Random notes and and other things to look for

  • Korean male beauty. If you watch Korean TV series, you can’t help but get the feeling that a different standard of male beauty is at work here. Western audiences are comfortable thinking about leading men as ranging from “handsome” on one end of the spectrum to “cute” on the other, but we normally don’t talk about great beauty with male actors the way we do with female ones. Take a hard look at Choi Han Kyul, Choi Han Sung and particularly the Japanese-Korean waffle cook Noh Sun Ki and see if you can spot this distinction. And notice how there are more beautiful male characters in this series than there are beautiful female characters.
  • Coffee Prince spends a lot of time with issues related to gender identity. As a comedy, it’s limited in how far it can take this investigation, but it does seem to focus an awful lot on one question: What does it mean to develop feelings for a woman you think is a man? This helps drive the comedy, of course, but it certainly feels like there’s more to this question than just an extended joke.
  • There isn’t much sex or what might be termed “the erotic” in Coffee Prince. Again, this is a TV comedy, so that’s hardly surprising. However, there is one scene that deviates a bit from convention and presents something that might only be unintentionally erotic (it’s hard to tell). That’s a scene where we see Eun Chan getting dressed in the morning, binding her breasts, looking both vulnerable and determined at the same time. Actually, we’re shown this scene twice. The second time it’s intercut with shots of Han Kyul also getting dressed, while the soundtrack plays Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)”. If intentional, is it supposed to be erotic because we see a woman touching her body, or because we see a woman turning into a man? And then there’s the choice of song. A hint of things to come or just ironic commentary? There’s definitely something very odd about this scene.
  • The character of Eun Chan is presented with a certain amount of sentimentality. She has constant money worries, doesn’t have the opportunities that the affluent characters have, etc. Much of this is stock in trade for romantic comedy, but there are a few places where it reveals a great deal about the character. For example, Eun Chan mentions to Choi Han that he was the first person (man) that ever “dropped her home.” This line speaks volumes about what her life has been like so far: she lives at home, never attended university, has never dated, an uneventful existence consumed by work and duty to family. In another scene, Han Kyul and Eun Chan pretend to be gay lovers to scare off his would-be matchmaking date and Han Kyul plants a long kiss on Eun Chan. Later, Eun Chan complains bitterly that her “first kiss” wasn’t supposed to be like this. Now we see that she has a rich, if unfufilled, romantic imagination. But worse than unrequited love, perhaps, is getting what you want in a way that violates your imaginary world.
  • The role of America in these shows. For example, as a place to escape to for the well-off. Characters wearing U.S.-inspired T-shirts, eg, “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR” with a peace symbol.
  • Subtitles and translation. These things can be infinitely fascinating in any film and Coffee Prince does not disappoint. For example, a character says to another “You smell like a human being.” Is this a literal translation or an attempt at approximating a Korean idiom? Either way, this expression sounds just about perfect. There’s also a great deal of wordplay between Eun Chan and the other coffee shop employees, particularly involving names. Probably a lot gets lost in translation, but something still gets through, if only a great example of Korean coworker camaraderie.

© 10 Franks 2015

A Coffee in Berlin

Original title Oh Boy, written and directed by Jan Ole Gerster, released in 2012.

Brooder from another planet

(A recently received notice from our Dept. of Obscure Films)

At first glance, Jan Ole Gerster’s A Coffee in Berlin (2012) feels like a German version of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), but it’s really not. Slacker is a linearly linked series of vignettes, whereas A Coffee is a more conventional film, a series of naturalistic (even novelistic) scenes from a day or two in the life of Berlin resident Niko Fischer, with most scenes separated by brief interludes as the camera pans over Berlin graffiti and streets.

Niko is a slacker, but a brooding one in a particularly German context. Supported by his father, who thinks Niko is studying law, Niko doesn’t do much of anything. In breaking up with his girlfriend, Niko tells her he has lots of things to do that day. He tells his father he’s spent the last two years “thinking”. But we don’t see much evidence of these activities.

Mostly Niko just wanders around Berlin. The joke in the title is that Niko can’t ever get a decent cup of coffee. Perhaps he does his thinking over coffee. Fortunately he does have a friend, part-time actor Matze, without whom, it would appear, not much would happen in Niko’s life.

A couple of scenes are notable, however, and worthy of discussion. Both involve the last days of the Third Reich. No doubt it’s difficult for a German filmmaker to avoid the subject, this being Berlin after all.

The first is on the set of a movie that an actor friend of Matze’s is in, as the lead in a movie about a German soldier and his wartime affair with a Jewish bookseller. Niko guesses correctly the “secret” of the affair (a child) and for a moment we get a glimmer of a different Niko, one who perhaps sees where the others do not that the movie being made is essentially melodrama. We even get to see the last scene of this movie as it’s filmed. It feels like an old movie, like something from the 40s, and for a moment it gives the sleepy outer movie a bit of life.

A film-within-a-film can sometimes feel like a gimmick in a dramatic film, but it fits nicely into this rather laid-back endeavor. And certainly this sort of device can cut through a lot of labored explication. Think of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet. This is Hamlet’s ingenious way of playing with Claudius’s head, letting him know in no uncertain terms that somebody is onto his murder of Hamlet’s father. But what is the function in the larger film of the filming that Niko observes? Niko is drawn away by a phone call and we immediately forget all about the film being made.

Later Niko meets an old drunk in a bar. The man experienced Krystalnacht as a child and he describes to Niko what he has undoubtedly been trying to deal with all his life: the realization that his only disappointment on the night in question was that he wouldn’t be able to ride his bike because of all the broken glass on the street and sidewalks. This confession presents a bit of a problem. Up until this point the film has stayed fairly constant in tone: ironic with some mild satire and humor. Are we now to accept this story as unironic and literally true?

Shot in black and white, A Coffee in Berlin is a mixed bag of Euro-weariness, culture-specific observations and interrupted attempts at storytelling. In the 90s this might have felt fresh, even exciting, but now it feels just a little tired.

One final note: There are references to various types of “subsidies” in this movie. Niko is subsidized by his father. The creator of a ridiculous bit of performance art / dance which Niko and Matze watch (apparently only Matze sees how funny it is) complains about subsidized art. The film’s credits suggest that even A Coffee in Berlin was subsidized. Not sure if there’s anything to be read into all this or not.

© 10 Franks 2015


Original title Shi, written and directed by Chang-dong Lee, released 2010.

In brief: In making this film, director Chang-dong Lee wrote not only the part of a lifetime for previously-retired actress Jeong-hie Yun, but also wrote a great deal of poetry that the film’s characters recite. The script alone is a literary achievement.

The horrific crime that drives the story has already been committed as the film opens: the gang rape at school of a teenage girl, who has now drowned herself. With some filmmakers we might have been forced to sit through harrowing bits of those events, but the focus of this film is on what happens after, not before, and so we’re mercifully spared all of that.

This film is also about language. Housekeeper and grandmother Mija is struggling to learn the language of poetry in an adult poetry-writing class, while beginning to lose everyday language due to Alzheimer’s. She’s the only character connected to the crime who’s trying to understand what happened, in the process becoming an amateur investigator of what led to the crime, which involved her own grandson. (The male relatives of the other rapists see the crime primarily as a monetary liability and even the mother of the victim does not appear to be particularly outraged by what happened to her daughter.)

Mija is also the only person in the poetry class who succeeds at breaking through into the world of poetry, finally producing a poem that essentially summarizes what she has discovered, but from the point of view of the dead girl. Mija fails to show up for the final class, so the teacher recites her poem for the other would-be poets. During the recitation the camera floats through the city, ending up at the river bridge where the girl killed herself. The teacher’s voice is replaced by that of the dead girl, and we see a young woman who might be the victim standing on the bridge with her back to us. The feelings engendered by this final scene are almost overwhelming, both heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time.

I know nothing of Korean poetic tradition, but most cultures produce poetry, which is metrical language that operates simultaneously on the outer ear and the inner eye. When reading the subtitles for the recited poems, don’t forget to listen to the other part, the sound of the poem’s language (even when you can’t understand that language).

© 10 Franks 2015