KDRAMAGUK : Korean Drama Soup

a landing site for quick, completely biased, and totally snarky korean drama reviews


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Coffee House (2010)

Coffee House
(May – Jul 2010)

who’s in it
Kang JiHwan (Hong Gil Dong, Be Strong, Geumsoon!)
Park SiYeon (Story of a Man, My Girl)
Ham EunJung (member of idol group T-ara)
Jung WoongIn (Last Scandal of my Life)

what’s it about
Kang JiHwan is obsessive compulsive (a neurosis that has found quite some popularity among kdrama leads of late), selfish, eccentric and socially blunt. Basically, he’s a douchebag. He also happens to be a novelist, and of the genius variety, which is how he is able to function as an antisocial meanie with very few consequences. Park SiYeon is the cool, collected president of a successful publishing company…cool and collected unless she’s dealing with Kang JiHwan, of course. Lately, she’s had enough of his self-important ways and decides to quit the management of his difficult brand of literary genius. Unfortunately, this writer’s got a golden new story idea simmering in his brain and so she grudgingly agrees to keep him on for one more book.

Things get more complicated when cute Ham EunJung, of popular idol girl group T-ara (in real life), gets hired on as Kang JiHwan’s pencil-sharpening, java-making secretary. At about the same time, as if Kang JiHwan’s ego isn’t enough for poor Park SiYeon, another quirky and self-involved man blows back into her life—her ex! And he wants her back—and this weirdo is played winningly by Jung WoongIn.

These four odd people bumble and stumble forward…and seemingly head for some much needed personal growth and, naturally, that irksome thing called love.

18 episodes


wildcard factor
I think Kang JiHwan was the wildcard for this one, as this entire show was really all about his character and, let’s not be coy, his character only. It was about one man’s [in]ability to exist in his own skin because of the demons of his past...and Kang’s ability to convince you that this guy’s hang ups were worth caring about for 18 episodes will probably be the selling point of this drama for you as a viewer. What I’m saying is, depending on how much you like Kang JiHwan as an actor will likely play a crucial part with your ability to connect with him.

The character he played was not an unsympathetic character, but he wasn’t the easiest to love either. I personally have no problem with Kang as an actor but neither would I consider myself a huge fan, so I watched his take on this eccentric role with a critical eye. Did it work? Was it a realistic caricature of an egoist? While I believe there were some occasional misses in the way he read some of the more emotional scenes, overall, Kang JiHwan did an exceptional job with a really complicated and risky character. A written part that could really have come across too ostracizing to be a good protagonist (notable failure that comes to mind is last year’s He Who Can’t Marry where Ji JinHee played an icy cool eccentric that never managed to connect with me on an emotional level). As for Kang The Actor, I actually know a drama fan who couldn’t get very far with this one because she didn’t like Kang or his portrayal of Writer Lee. She thought he was, in a word, annoying. That was unfortunate because she missed a really good show. Having written all of that, perhaps this is a futile worry on my part as Kang JiHwan is a much beloved actor so maybe he’s not a wildcard at all but a sure thing.

So in that case, if Kang JiHwan is not a worry factor for you, how about his leading ladies? A show like this, romance is important…or I should say, the lack of a procedural romance might play a part in how much you [dis]like it. The unconventional nature of the way the love lines developed may end up being the wildcard for you. I hate to borrow a now overused term from the zealous fans of a vampire series that-does-not-need-to-be-named, but I’m going to do it anyway—depending on whether or not you’re on Team EunJung or Team SiYeon, this drama may piss you off.

This one has the potential to create a great divide of opinions.

first impressions
The general feeling of the show was lively, like a cool spring breeze on a hot summer day. The characters felt original and well-casted and showed some interesting facets of their strange personalities early on in the drama. Ham EunJung was as spunky as her short, bristly hair and Park SiYeon was an endearing mix of sophistication yet goofy. Initially, the strength of the show appeared to lie with the female roles.

What concerned me about Kang JiHwan and Jung WoongIn after the first few episodes was the danger of their overly eccentric characters to become too distancing and cold for any real emotional connection. In the effort to paint them callously amusing and quirky, could they lose their humanity? Will they manage to stay sympathetic? Instead of the man wearing the suit, will the suit drown out the shape of the man?

Both Kang JiHwan and Jung WoongIn were capable actors, so it wasn’t so much their ability to deliver that caused me pause, but the direction of the drama as a whole. I liked the characters and the actors playing them, yes, but I wasn’t impressed with the story or language/writing of the show. After a few episodes, I was left with a feeling of...hovering expectation.

I only hoped the story was allowed to move out of the shallow end of the pool, and if failing to reach any substantial depth, at least be able to find an enjoyable, light-hearted middle wading area for some talented and attractive people to show their ability to charm (without overly pandering to silliness and ridiculousness). I’ve been satisfied if a loosie goosie plot simply stayed out of the way long enough for me to enjoy pretty people being goofy and fun.

gave up

snoozer moments

This was a fairly fast-feeling drama. It felt forced with its comedy in the beginning and definitely gave me moments of concern about its direction, but once The Writer’s sad saga was revealed, giving us a legitimate and interesting event that tied all the protags together…I was invested.

Speaking of drinking...there was a pretty hot and sexy scene involving beer cans and a phone booth. And rain. Oooh la la, it was one of the more passionate kdrama scenes ever. Me liked!

There was another scene that had nothing to do with alcohol, but I was drunk from its cuteness. This little bit of drama intermission would definitely be on a “one of the cutest scenes ever” list, should one ever be compiled (which I’m sure it has somewhere). Scene: A sick Kang JiHwan is eating homemade kimchee and rice with his secretary’s grandmother, who has come at Ham EunJung’s request to force the stubborn patient to eat something. I must say, Kang JiHwan needs to be hired for a lot more foodie endorsements because everything he ate in this show looked so fan-freakin’-licious. He eats with his mouth stretched wide open and chomps with exuberant gusto. Never has finger-torn, long tongues of cabbage kimchee on heapin’ spoonfuls of rice looked so deeelicious.

what didn’t work
We were introduced to the cute Ham EunJung who played the straight narrator among a cast of quirks, a youthful character among a cast of veterans. She was an acting newbie in real life and an aspiring writer in the drama. She was the innocent and pure character that was utilized as the measuring device against Kang JiHwan’s jaded and broken one, and while her development was central to the story, she sometimes came across as important only because she was the impetus for Kang JiHwan’s own growth.

Unfortunately, while Ham EunJung had a genuine likability in the way she approached her character, she also occasionally strayed toward too “cute” and came across as far too young, even younger than she should have been. Because of her true age gap with Kang JiHwan and also the distance in maturity of their assigned characters, it was difficult to truly see her as an equal match for our leading guy. I wanted to like them as a couple, but their couple mojo never felt really properly established in the show. In some scenes she was pitch perfect, in others, she felt flat.

After a while, it became frustrating to see the unrequited development of her character when I so desperately wanted her to become a legitimate contender for Kang JiHwan’s heart. She was a character that was supposed to be responsible for great change in Kang JiHwan, but it seemed more accurate to say that it was only the passing of time which changed him, not her influence in his life. She was one character that felt somewhat incomplete. On a show of this quality, I suppose I just expected something more...of a wrinkled tree with many inner rings, instead of such a smooth and plain one. She was capable, if not always with the widest emotive range.

Okay, I’m going to take a second and play a total schizophrenic. This is going to be my attempt at some devil’s advocating here on behalf of Ham EunJung’s supporters and disagree with myself:

What if the entire point was exactly her unfinished quality, Ham EunJung’s incompleteness? Was her lack of definition the core struggle for her character? Was she a purposely incomplete character that needed to be filled throughout the course of the drama? Were these 18 hours of exploration into Kang’s past interesting only because Ham EunJung’s position in life was so far, far away from Kang JiHwan’s?

That struggle between innocence and cynicism was a part of the show’s integral conflict, the idea that both of these people were incomplete, but for the opposite reasons. He was too aggressive and cocksure, she was too hesitant and naïve.Perhaps Kang’s character was meaningful only because he was so obviously confident compared to Ham’s stuttering awkwardness. In an unintended way, did Ham EunJung’s relatively green delivery add some unexpected texture to her character? Did it lend a sort of real life honesty to her acting? When reflecting on the show and its finished product, one could say that their characters were never meant to intersect in a way that challenged Kang JiHwan’s heart...but merely his lifestyle.

Maybe, maybe not. I could be stretching.

what did
Overall, this is a rather difficult drama to describe…it ended up really exceeding my expectations...I really enjoyed watching it, but at the same time, I don’t know if I liked it as much as I think I did. Was that confusing? I’m confused too.

So much of it worked—very well, in fact. It was definitely not ‘kiddie pool’ stuff, as I had worried about in my ‘first impressions’ section. I think Coffee House ended up being much, much more substantial than the early episodes indicated and developed into a real moving story about the complexities of friendship and romantic love. The show definitely improved as it stepped away from the ridiculous and focused on evolving the dynamics between the four three main players—Kang JiHwan, Park SiYeon and Jung WoongIn.

When it became clear that this show’s true focus was about a self-destructive writer who had long ago misplaced the connection between existing and living, I shifted the way I viewed the show and it became easier to emotionally invest. I stopped trying to predict the love lines. It wasn’t about romance, so I needed to just enjoy Kang’s performance. Writer Lee’s life was an exercise in empty movement, he had no desire to participate, and therefore he lived in it as if it were all a big joke. That’s what made him such a jerk. He was writing his own story and creating a character for himself to play, and it was often a character that was not a reflection of his true self. The other people around him continued to change and develop as time moved forward, but Kang JiHwan’s character continued to resist. And that was the most delightful to follow, watching this writer struggle against himself.

Spoilerish content: {I’m assuming many people thought/anticipated Kang JiHwan and his secretary Ham JungEum were the romantic pairing (as did I)…and for that, the show does get some pointage from me for trying to keep the romantic aspect of the show vague, tangled and confused until the very end. Not to say it was always a credible effort—as I mentioned earlier that it never really felt like a love triangle type of drama because of the age and maturity discrepancy between the two female leads—but commendable that they tried. For some fans, the way Coffee House ended may bother, but I really felt that this show wasn’t about who Kang JiHwan chose, because there was no choice at all. It was obvious who had his heart, but the point of this drama turned out to be a much nobler aim. It was not romantic love the characters needed, but self-love.}

Ah, I also want to make a quick mention of the music. It was fantastic.

what made me want to gouge my eyes out
This drama can be separated into Part 1 and Part 2, the latter occurring after a two year time jump. In the second half, when we met Kang JiHwan again, the man had tan hair. I did not like it. AT. ALL. I liked his Part 1 look consisting of dark hair and glasses far more than his spruced up glam-do and dark guy-liner.

what kept me going

After I finished this one, I really sat and thought about it. I mulled it over in my head, tried to examine my reactions. I had to do some soul searching. The beginning was mediocre, the ending was mediocre, but everything that came between the bookends really resonated with me in a way that startled. Perhaps it triggered some residual pains hidden within the memory of past relationships or whatever, but there was definitely a sorta “ah, that is so true” kind of feeling about this one.

As the show continued into the teen digits and really started to delve into Kang JiHwan and Park SiYeon’s shared past, I realized this kdrama was one of those aberrant ones that pretended to be, but wan’t really playing by the usual kdrama rules...on the one hand, it felt like a light and fluffy comedy with cartoonish, unrealistic characters—just another trendy drama—but on the other, it was exhibiting some strange signs, giving indications that it wanted to make these people based in reality, determined to present them as adults, not characters whose fates were at the mercy of fan furor. Their behaviors were motivated by events that had come before we met them and their emotions were true to those events. We, as a viewer, were blind to what came before when we initially joined their lives but as we learned more, what first seemed shallow and silly became meaningful and interesting.

Other factors:
predictability No. It was pretty original
engrish A little bit, here and there.
originality Yes. I especially liked their little editing trick of splitting the screens on each respective character during major emotional moments so that we could witness both sides of the equation at the same time. At first it was odd, but later, appreciated.
eye-candy Yes. I want to say, Park SiYeon looked gorgeous here. For the longest time, I only saw her as Eric’s ex-girlfriend, and then a not-so-funny Family Outing addition/replacement for Park YeJin, but I think this former beauty pageanteer has really grown up and improved in her acting. She has become a genuine leading lady. I thought she really shined brightly in this drama.
hair and fashion Kang JiHwan had fantastic pairs of specs…and was always wearing something way sexy. Although, I will say, I wasn’t that big a fan of Park SiYeon’s short-short shorts...but I suppose summers in S.Korea are too hot for long pants.

is it worth trying to find?
Yes, even my dad liked this one. Honestly, I thought it was very odd when he recommended this one to me. What were his words exactly? The conversation started with me asking if dad was enjoying Baker King. He responded that he was but have I seen Life is Beautiful? That’s a really good one about traditional K-family life, he said, and then he offered idly, “Coffee House. That one…was very unique. You should watch that one.” 

And so I did. If my dad recommends something, I finish it.

total enjoyment factor 

total disdain factor

why this review is completely biased
Thoughtful kdramas that make perceptive observations about people are rare and these are the types of stories that resonate with me. Always. This was a funny drama, which was without a doubt one of its intended goals, especially obvious when we tally up the ludicrous scenarios that had happened throughout the course of the show. But it was also very sweet, introspective even. Feelings and dramatic highlights were expressed through ambiguously meaningful dialogue, the swelling of dramatic music, and beautifully filmed scenes—some almost poetic. At its best, it felt lyrical, like a ballad in motion…at its worst, slo-mo abuse made scene delivery feel like a music video.

An example of a scene that worked? Park SiYeon picked up a call from Kang JiHwan while waiting for a train. She wondered aloud that in the past 10 years of their friendship, there was never a time when Kang JiHwan had ever been 100% genuine with her. Kang JiHwan replied, “1 minute can be more genuine than 10 years” before running to grab her for one last kiss before her train left.

There was so much going on in this one scene—the music, the movement of the camera, the dialogue, the significance of trains (often symbolic of lovers crossing paths), the idea that one beautiful moment can surpass lifetimes, the feeling that there was sincerity in Kang’s emotions yet lies as well—it definitely stood out as a melodramatic highlight, and surprisingly, came at only the half point of the show. These were the types of emotional bursts in Coffee House that really made me fall for it, because a troubled relationship can feel this way—time stops, music playing in the background, poetry in every word. Miserable exhilaration. Then the train passed by and the moment was gone, everything else was as well—time, music, and the poetry. That’s what passion can be for young lovers. Two trains only meeting for one amazing minute at the side of a railroad station.

could a non-kdrama fan like this
I think they could, actually, because this one really tried to step around a lot of the usual kdrama traps. It wasn’t really a love triangle or quadrangle…it was about life and the timing of love, and about having loved someone when it was never right to love them. And I don’t care what anyone else says, but adoring someone while pretending to be just friends…hiding from your own feelings? Well, that’s a skill in which we’re all born experts.

Intelligently written. While watching Park SiYeon and Kang JiHwan and Jung WoogIn (Park SiYeon’s ex-fiancé), I thought to myself, “Yeah, people really are like that. It’s true.” Everyone on this show played an act. They were happy on the surface, but like poetry, they were fathomless and dark and mysterious deep inside the folds of their false smiles. One of my favorite bits of dialogue from this show came from Park SiYeon, when she expressed surprise at learning that Kang JiHwan’s secretary was possibly dating the manager of her café. She said in wonder: “People walk around as if they have their eyes closed, but they have a supernatural ability to sniff out their other half, don’t they?” It’s a good comment. Through all the pain and misery, in the end, do we always get to where we are supposed to be?

Oh, and also, was it just me or did the happily-ever-after couple create their love nest in Full House? Where did YoungJae and Han JiEun move to?


  1. hey hey~~ glad u enjoyed that one too!!
    unlike u tho, i totally expected PSY and KJH to end up together since the beginning since from the promos and poster and all, that's what i assumed and with that in my mind, i viewed the relationship between them with a different eye i guess. on the other hand, altho i knew HEJ was a no contender, i really kinda wished for her to have some of her feelings returned or something.. i knew that the story made much more sense if the female lead was PSY and that they had undeniable and unbreakable chemistry but im a total sucker for the cutsy romance thing that HJE had with KJH.. in the end, i didnt know what i wanted and thought i would be happy with either one ending up with KJH. anyways, liked this drama a lot.. some scenes are SO epically laugh out loud funny they reminded me of the hong sisters. hey hey hey... gumiho is airing today!!

  2. oh... just cuz we "talked" about secret garden last time.. heard janghyuk is almost out of the picture and hyun bin is in.. bummer on one hand.. but not a bad replacement if any of those rumors are true anyways.

  3. You're right, this was a drama that did well in making both female characters really likable but ultimately PSY always felt the better match for KJH's Writer Lee. I really did enjoy this drama very much. I feel richer for having seen it! =) I always love it when a drama comes along and takes care to nurture its characters. Ah...and no, I hadn't heard that Jang Hyuk might not play Ha JiWon's lead. That makes me so sad. I like Hyun Bin, but I think the collision of intensity between Ha JiWon and Jang Hyuk could be a once in a lifetime thing...meteoric, even! =(

  4. Agreed... sigh. for some good news. big bang is on a roll and coming back soon.

  5. Oh, I know, I can hardly wait for their new album...and for Daesung's drama, too! Groovin' on Taeyang's Solar just wet my appetite. I'm going to really enjoy this latter half of 2010, I think!


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