K-drama Review: Coffee House

Saturday, October 29, 2011

This is my first drama review in this blog (or ever) and for this special occasion I, of course, chose a very special show to talk about - the first drama I ever considered a favorite. 

Coffee House is one of those dramas that went fairly unnoticed during its run and never gained a very big following. I'd often wonder why it is so, until I started reading the completely contrasting opinions about the show - from some hating the drama with fiery hate to others loving it to bits - which made me realize that we've been saved from a big violent fanwar that would have taken place had Coffee House been popular.

Still, despite the fact that its unpopularity saved us from violent fan arguments (for the most part), I've always felt sad that the show never got much recognition as it remains as one of the quirkiest dramas I've ever seen. 

 Plot summary: 

The story revolves around a writer Lee Jin Soo (Kang Ji Hwan) who became a best-selling author by writing a series of thriller novels. Jin Soo’s charming looks and intelligence is admired, while his success as an author has made him a popular puplic figure. Jin Soo works for Seo Eun Young (Park Si Yeon), an old college acquaintance who skillfully runs a publishing firm. She is independent, witty and beautiful, but her relationship the writer is rocky.

One day, Jin Soo yet again avoids his duty to make a public appearance and finds cover in a small coffee shop where he meets naive and clumsy Kang Seung Yeon (Ham Eun Jung from T-ara). After a string of odd situations, Jin Soo ends up hiring Seung Yeon as his secretary. Her initial joy from scoring a job turns sour, however, when she learns about the writer's true nature. The pleasant personality that Seung Yeon has seen so far is fake as Jin Soo turns out to be weird and paranoid, treating her as a test-subject for his crazy ideas.

But things also get troublesome for Jin Soo and Eun Young as well when her greasy-looking and irritating ex-fiancé Han Ji Won (Jeong Woong In) returns to Seoul with a goal to win her back. Hilarity ensues and soon all kinds of sparks start to fly, when a complicated love quadrangle forms with Jin Soo being in the centre of it.


 What I liked: 

Kang Ji Hwan's performance as Lee Jin Soo. Before I watched Coffee House, Kang Ji Hwan was an actor I was completely uninterested in, to some extent, I might have even disliked him. In fact, the only reason I decided to watch a drama with him in it was because at that time I was going through a serious drama slump, with absolutely nothing else to watch.

So it is surprising that the thing I loved most about this show was Kang Ji Hwan himself. His performance as the neurotic (and borderline insane) writer is fantastic beyond all expectations as Jin Soo's character is not only amusing watch, but also extremely interesting to analyse.

Among the abundant amount of Darcy-esque K-drama heroes, Jin Soo is truly unconventional. It would be easy to describe him as simply crazy, but because Ji Hwan wonderfully balances Jin Soo's oddballness with subtle human emotions, there's always unexpected depth to his motivations. In the first half of the drama Jin Soo's actions and reasons for his behaviour are rarely fully explained, and instead, Ji Hwan entertains us with his awesome comic acting which, though extremely wacky, isn't cheesy. And although, Jin Soo can almost be infuriatingly mysterious when it comes to being honest about his feelings, Ji Hwan's ability to act through those emotions with subtle variations makes the character intriguing to observe, because while you never know what's going on in Jin Soo's head, his eyes or body language always reveal something "real" about him. 

As the show progresses on, the many different layers of Jin Soo are explored more in depth and Ji Hwan shows masterful acting by adding vulnerability and realism to the character, while still putting a comic twist to everything Jin Soo does. There is never a boring moment in Ji Hwan's performance and I doubt that there are very many actors who could have brought such a complex and contradictory character as Lee Jin Soo to life in the same way as he did. 

The rest of the main cast. Aside from the awesomeness that is Kang Ji Hwan in this drama, I was also quite impressed by the rest of the cast and the way they portrayed their respective characters.

Park Si Yeon is my second favourite thing about the drama. Having only seen her before in My Girl as the stereotypical bitchy female second lead, Si Yeon impressed me with her unexpectedly endearing and humorous performance as Eun Young. The character is refreshing and inspiring in many ways already (probably one of my favourite female characters ever in a drama), but what surprised me was that Si Yeon is actually really good at comedy. She manages to be playfully quirky, despite playing a very independent and sensible career woman. At the same time, Si Yeon is equally good at showing vulnerability of the character, proving that she is totally capable of carrying more demanding roles in the future. 

Ham Eun Jung gave us a fairly solid performance as Seung Yeon, Jin Soo's naive (not to say stupid) but eager secretary. I wouldn't go as far as saying that she's one of my favourite idol actors, but I do think she has more potential than most idols. She did overact at times (probably because she's not nearly as skilled in comic acting yet) but I thought there were some lovely moments in her overall performance. For instance, the scene in the final episode where she and Jin Soo are sitting in the cafe was surprisingly moving to watch.

Jeong Woong In, though not the most eye-capturing actor appearance-wise, is amusing as Han Ji Won. The character may not be as interesting as the rest, but he makes for a fun nuisance nevertheless. And surprisingly, even though he's incredibly ignorant about everyone else around him, the character manages to be rather likable throughout the show.

There were also a several minor characters and interactions that I found quite funny (Seung Yeon's offbeat family, oddball barista Dong Wook). It's strange, but I really can't think of a character I didn't like. 

The unconventional romantic setup. The first time I watched Coffee House (I've rewatched it quite a few times since) was when I was going through a terrible drama slump and I was bored with the same plots in dramas. In that sense, Coffee House couldn't have come at a better time as it surprised me with it's unusual charm.

And indeed, Coffee House proves to be quite original in a lot of ways. First of all, the characters are not what we're used to seeing. It's also worth noting that the normal division of the main characters (male/female lead, second lead etc) isn't as clearly emphasized either as the main romance is presented as a mystery of sorts. It isn't until the latter half of the drama where it becomes clear that it isn't the poor naive girl who's going to end up with the main guy, but it's the smart elegant woman we usually see in second female lead role in other shows. Moreover, the romance grows from the friendship between Jin Soo and Eun Young, both of whom have had serious relationships before. Not the most common set-up in dramaland, is it? 

It also should be pointed out that Coffee House also tries to avoid common K-drama cliche's as much as possible (though not always), building up tension in scenes where you'd think that something totally expected is going to happen, and then let the scene play out very differently from what you initially thought (for instance the wedding scene). I think it's very welcome when a drama is able to surprise you and to stand out from the rest, and I believe that Coffee House did just that. Whether you appreciate it being different, is another story though... 

The romance. I was completely invested in our main couple. It was not only the amazing chemistry between Kang Ji Hwan and Park Si Yeon that made the couple so compelling in my eyes, but also the fact that the couple had a very long and interesting history together, which was both an obstacle and a driving force behind their relationship. An obstacle because Jin Soo's guilt towards his dead wife who had also been Eun Young's close friend, but a driving force because of the connection they had formed over time. In fact, their unique friendship was almost as satisfying to watch as the romance. 

I also liked how it was never about someone else giving a green light to the main couple's relationship, it was simply a matter of opening up to each other and learning to move on from the past. Sure, there were other contenders to both Jin Soo's and Eun Young's hearts, but there was never a moment where their love depended on someone else. Because even though Jin Soo's feelings of responsibility over his wife's death was initially what prevented him from admitting his feelings towards Eun Young, by the end he made decisions not out of guilt towards his wife, but out of love he felt for Eun Young. 

That's exactly what I want from a romance, where the couple makes their own decisions (good and bad) and won't let others meddle in. 

Not to forget the fact this drama has one of the best kissing scenes I've seen. They're both creative in the typical K-drama way and also super swoonworthy. AND for once the woman initiates a kiss (you go girl!).  

The meaning of coffee. Throughout the drama we can see Seung Yeon trying to make Jin Soo a cup of coffee that he satisfied with. From the very beginning, Jin Soo explains that he has specific requirements for his special kind of brew. Seung Yeon tries her best to make his coffee just the way he likes it, learning tips from the baristas at Eun Young's cafe and trying to imitate Jin Soo's technique. However, no matter how hard she tries Jin Soo doesn't like her coffee. It is interesting to note, though, that later when she's working as at a radio station, she is known for her good coffee-making skills.  

The coffee serves as a metaphor for Seung Yeon's feelings towards Jin Soo, which remain unrequited. It's a lovely metaphor because it is used subtly throughout the drama, hinting early on that Seung Yeon and Jin Soo won't end up together. I especially like how it comes together at the final episode, where Jin Soo no longer spits out her coffee like he used to. Instead, it is Seung Yeon who notes: "I see that it still doesn't satisfy your taste". A remark which describes her own relationship with Jin Soo in a very apt, bittersweet way. Because even as Seung Yeon matured into a beautiful capable lady, Jin Soo never saw her in a romantic wayand finally she realizes it too. Only now it's clear that it wasn't because she wasn't good enough for him, but simply the fact that...well, heart wants what it wants.  

 What I didn't like: 

The heavy second half (from ep 12-18). It's a bit unfortunate that the second half of the drama lost some of its charm with a change in the pace and tone. I get that the story was supposed to get more serious in the latter half, to build up tension and whatnot, but instead the story slowed down and the final conflict was dragged out. I suspect that it had something to do with the low ratings Coffee House had been suffering from since the beginning. In any case, the heavy mood and dramatic tone was a little off-putting for me.

Jin Soo's and Dong Woo's makeovers. So, after the two-year time skip in episode 12, Jin Soo comes back looking like he's just stepped out of a Taiwanese drama (complete with a white suit, blonde highlights and a shiny sports car). That moment was a big WTF for me as I loved Jin Soo's dorky writer image and I couldn't believe they couldn't come up with a better look for the new and improved Jin Soo. Worse yet, our lovable barista Dong Woo also had a makeover and came back as a rich businessman with an equally awkward hairstyle. 

I still don't understand the delio with these out-of-place makeovers, especially since Coffee House had done so well with avoiding such silly cliches previously. But I guess it's just another reason why time-skips are a bad idea.

 Overall conclusion: 

Coffee House will probably remain as one of my favourites for a long time. It's definitely not perfect in all respects but, having I've rewatched the series many times, I'm certain that I will remember it fondly even when I discover new favourites. 

To me, this drama was a fun change in stereotypical plots and characters, surprising me in ways I did not expect. I was fully invested from start to finish (which is something that doesn't happen very often) and it pulled my heartstrings just the way it was supposed to. 

I would recommend Coffee House to anyone who's looking for something to watch, though I can't be sure that other people will enjoy this show as much as I did. I can, however, say that the show is definitely worth watching for the compelling couple, sizzling kisses and, of course, Kang Ji Hwan. 


Acting - Kang Ji Hwan is the star of the drama, wonderfully balancing comic and dramatic acting. His portrayal of Jin Soo is just as fascinating as the character itself. Park Si Yeon is charming and humorous, showing much improvement from her earlier roles. Idol-actress Ham Eun Jung gives a fairly good performance as well, though the character can be annoying at times.

Plot - Original and unconventional (or at least it was in 2010). Has it's flaws (mostly in the second half) but despite some missteps, the story is interesting and enjoyable.

OST - Some songs were overused (like a lot) but I found them enjoyable nevertheless. SG Wannabe's "Page One" and Hwang Ji Hyun's "I Want to Know Goodbye" are my favourite tracks from the OST.

Comedy - It was pee-my-pants funny the first time I watched it, and it's still amusing to watch even after umpteenth time. Wacky in the best way possible. 

Romance - Amazing chemistry between the leads. Also one of the best kissing scenes in drama history, in my opinion.

Cinematography and editing - The colour palette is warm and bright, making outdoor scenes seem quite pretty. The editing needs some work, but I liked the use of split screens. While some scenes are cleverly executed and remain memorable, the cinematography probably won't be as remarkable when pitched up against contemporary dramas (but it was one of the prettier dramas in 2010). 

 Final rating: 8.5       Enjoyment: 10 

 Memorable quotes: 

Seung Yeon: "You may be difficult to please and constantly lie and not see me as a woman and treat me badly. But in the end your words are right and you’re someone I respect — I want to protect that faith in you."
Seung Yeon: "Aren’t I the best secretary of all time?"
Jin Soo: "You’re right. You’re the best ever. Although I’ve only ever had one."
Jin Soo: "If you dump me, what will I write for? Why would I write?"
Eun Young: "I wonder if I’ll be able to see Lee Jin-soo being 100% sincere before I die. Just… for even a minute, were you ever 100% sincere with me?"
Jin Soo: "Are you my publisher or my friend? Do you want to make money with me, or have fun? Do you hate me or like me? To me, you only mean one thing, but it seems you are always confused, and it’s too much for me. I think it's time we clarify our relationship."
Eun Young: "I’m your publisher and your friend. I want to make money with you and have fun with you. I want to kill you out of annoyance, but I like you too. What do you want me to do?"
Jin Soo: "How can it be like that? You broke the rules."
Eun Young: "Who made the rule? Can't I choose both?"
Jin Soo: "No. You can only choose one."

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  1. I love to see Kang Ji Hwan and Park Si Yeon together, they make a beautiful couple, but his secretary is quite annoying... I do not understand people who write that they were disappointed with the ending (they would like to see the writer and his secretary be together). It is interesting to watch a Korean drama that is not typical, where usually poor and naive girl end up with a successful man.

    1. I actually liked the secretary, even though I was rooting for Si Yeon's character all the way. I liked how the secretary grew into a professional and how she gained self-confidence thanks to Jin Soo. I liked that Jin Soo was her mentor of sorts.

      But it was always clear that her romantic feelings for him were never requited. Most people who have watched this show never really pay attention to Jin Soo's attitude towards his secretary because, just like you said, they are already expecting the naive and clumsy girl always to end up with the male lead. However, if you pay more attention to how Jin Soo sees his secretary and how he talks to her you can pretty much tell that he has never had any romantic thoughts about her. So I don't think people have any right to be angry at the end-couple because the signs were always there, it wasn't like Jin Soo couldn't make up his mind about whom he loves. By the time we reach the end of the series it becomes clear that his mind was already made up long before the show even started. As much as some people hate to hear it, the secretary never had a chance with Jin Soo because his heart was already taken before she came into the picture.

    2. I'm one of the fans who wished that the secretary and Jin soo ended up together. However, I couldn't agree with your assessment more. Quarter-way through the drama, it was apparent that Jin Soo's heart belonged to his publisher and even his secretary acknowledged it. I can't help wishing however, that as a consolation prize, they wrote up more chemistry between SY and the barista. I would've liked to see her have a happy romantic ending along with her professional one. As it is, it's too open-ended and I don't see SY ending up with the barista, no matter how crazy he is about her.

    3. I think the writer meant to set up the secretary with the barista at the end, but because the secretary was still just getting over her crush for Jin Soo it doesn't really seem like she has feelings for the barista just yet. But I do think that they would still end up together in the long run.

  2. Hiya Indigo,
    It's Clockwatcher from Couch Kimchi. I just read your comment on our blog and had to come read your first review ever :D and I definitely agree with it. Although my feelings for Seung Yeon were less positive while I watched it (largely due to the intense shipper war), I definitely agree with your review. We were left in the dark about some things but overall, I enjoyed the drama and Jin Soo and Eun Young are still one of my favorite kdrama couples.

    Still love his contract-proposal.

    1. Heyy!
      Oh, this review is so old XD Although I still mean all those things I've said here, I wish I could have said them in a better way. Ha. But thanks for dropping by, Clockwatcher!

      Yup, Jin Soo and Eun Young will forever be one of my K-drama favourite couples. That proposal was so awesome. And who could forget those amazing kisses.


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