31 Dec 2007

my coffee prince

Fridae's coffee connoisseur, Alvin Tan, confesses to being addicted to top-rated Korean drama The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince which brings homosexuality into spotlight - briefly, before expectedly reverting to a conventional hetero coupling.

For the past few days, I have been looking like an escapee from the raccoon enclosure at the Night Safari - all because I was eye-cuffed to the TV in almost the same way raging nymphomaniac Christina Ricci was chained to a radiator in Black Snake Moan.

Han-gyeol (played by former video jockey Gong Yoo, top image, right) mistakes Eun-chan (Yoon Eun Hye) for a man and hires
Things got so bad that when my TLC deprived partner threatened to switch off the TV and throw away the DVD player to rehabilitate me and curb my addiction, I actually channelled Amy Winehouse and yelled: "No! No! No!"

The source of our domestic strife?

The Korean drama series The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince which had built a huge following in Korea thanks to its pair of telegenic stars and their oh-so-chaste "homosexual" relationship which plays to the gay man's fantasy of bending and bedding a delectable straight man.

The top-rated TV show stars my new Korean kraze, the 1.84 metres tall Gong Yoo, as Han-gyeol, a "rich, irresponsible and hot-tempered" chap who is simply not interested in running the family business and in my opinion, dresses far too well for a straight man (except for that one time when he donned a retina-searing orange shirt with ping-pong sized white polka-dots.)

Whenever the delicious Gong Yoo appears onscreen without his shirt, my eyes would stop blinking and I would be seized by the urge to lick my lips. That's why one of my favourite scenes was when he follows the example set by Ms "It's Britney Bitch!" Spears and goes without underwear while clad only in a towel.

Then again, my attraction to the character of Han-gyeol could be attributed to my sympathy for the handicapped and Han-gyeol is clearly severely myopic since there is just no other explanation as to how he could have mistaken Eun-chan for a boy but I digress.

Acting as Eun-chan is Yoon Eun Hye (from 2006's Goong or Princess Hours), an excellent shedder of copious tears who happens to be the most adorable tomboy I have ever laid my eyes upon and who will no doubt make many femmes (and maybe even some gay men) go weak in the knees.

According to news reports, Eun Hye hoped to achieve a breakthrough in her acting career with the role of Eun-chan and I guess that's why she has taken to the tried-and-tested path of emoting sans makeup and hair products - much like Halle Berry in Monster's Ball.

In a nutshell, the "hard-to-swallow" plot is as follows: Following a couple of chance meetings, Han-gyeol hires Eun-chan to be his "gay boyfriend" to throw off the old maids he has had to meet in a series of blind dates arranged by his doting but draconian grandmother.

Han-gyeol then hires Eun-chan as a waiter when he has to manage Coffee Prince whose recruitment policy appears to be lifted from Bangkok's go-go bars since all its male waiters (minus the hygiene-challenged barista) are good-looking young men clad in the tightest of uniforms.

In the course of working together, Han-gyeol and Eun-chan fall for each other and spark off a "gay" romance which leads to the former wrestling with his "sexuality" and the latter wrestling with her guilt over her deception while trying to cast off the albatross of virginity a la Molly Ringwald in those John Hughes movies in the 80s.

Since Han-gyeol and Eun-chan have only three months together before he returns to New York to pursue his career as a toy-designer, Eun-chan made it her mission to bed Han-gyeol through whatever means possible. Oh, all right. I confess - I made up the last bit because I'm the one who yearns to ravish Han-gyeol (be still my wanton heart!).

Personal fantasy notwithstanding, The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince makes for must-see TV because it is a romantic comedy of errors with many heart wrenching moments which reduced this writer to bouts of wailing not seen since Mariah and Whitney got together for "When You Believe."

There was the scene where Han-gyeol hugged Eun-chan in an attempt to sort out his feelings, the beach scene where Han-gyeol is torn between embracing a sleeping Eun-chan and his burgeoning "homosexuality," and the scene where the two agreed to be sworn brothers to "legitimatise" their growing feelings for each other.

My only grouse with The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince lies in the fact that although it deals with homosexual love, it does so with a safety valve. With the exception of Han-gyeol and some supporting characters, there was never any doubt that he's actually a she and that the predicament will resolve itself in an affirmation of heterosexual love.

Because of that, the Korean drama series fall short of similar works such as Shakespeare's Twelfth Night where the dramatic tension is heightened not just by a female protagonist who cross-dresses but also by the Renaissance theatre tradition of double-cross-dressing where male actors play female characters disguising themselves as males.

Having said that, it is still noteworthy that The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince openly deals with the topic of homosexual love (albeit through mistaken gender identity) which has long been considered a cultural taboo in Korea and reinforces the notion that true love transcends gender boundaries - at least in the mind of Han-gyeol.

And this is perhaps most evident in the reach-for-the-Kleenex moment when Han-gyeol finally comes to terms with his love for Eun-chan (whom he still thinks is a boy) and utters those unforgettable lines: "I'll say this just once so listen up. I like you, whether you're a man... or an alien. I just don't care anymore."

Editor's Note: First aired in South Korea in July this year, The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince will be telecast in Singapore on Dec 31, 2007 (Channel U), the Philippines on Jan 1, 2008 (Kapuso Channel) and Taiwan on Jan 3, 2008 (Video Land channel).

Korea (South)