I rarely have such a positive reaction to a drama after just one hour, but I’ll say it: I loved the first episode of Coffee House. More than I was expecting, in fact. I’d been keeping my expectations down — didn’t want to be disappointed again — which I was pretty successful in doing, mostly by trying not to think about it too much. So this was a happy surprise.
The characters — and actors — are all adorable (and interesting), the tone is feel-good, and there’s a refreshing quality to this drama. The story is pretty straightforward so far, but there’s a stylish flair to the directing — not too much, but a hint — that makes it FEEL like a newish, different style of drama (even if it may not be breaking any ground narratively). The atmosphere and general feel are what I was hoping of Personal Taste, actually. I have a good feeling about this one.
This is KANG SEUNG-YEON (played by member of pop group T-ara Ham Eun-jung). She is 25 and only barely employed working at her family’s shabby coffee shop. (So, effectively unemployed.) As the place doesn’t have very many customers, she spends her days sitting around reading manhwa books, and the episode starts off with one of her musings about what her life would be like if it were like those manhwa stories.
Alas, she’s not exactly what you’d call blessed with good luck — she has a habit of running into embarrassing situations. I wouldn’t describe her as overly plucky or bubbly, but despite a lack of promising prospects on the horizon, she doesn’t succumb to depression or self-pity, either.
This is her family, who are adorable. Seung-yeon’s father (Ahn Gil-kang — SO different here than he was in Chuno and Queen Seon-deok!) runs the cafe, while younger brother SEUNG-CHUL (Kim Min-sang of La Dolce Vita) is in high school. They live with Grandma, while Mom passed away of cancer.
Similar to Seung-yeon, they aren’t terribly ambitious or prosperous, but they’re not really unhappy with their circumstances. They are okay with things, even if life could be better. Hey, it could also be worse.
Now for LEE JIN-SOO (Kang Ji-hwan), who at 32 is already a famous novelist. Although he is quite charming and makes a great first impression, upon closer look he’s got quite the unpredictable personality. For instance, even when he’s annoyed with something, he’s able to slap on his trademark friendly grin and smoothly solve the problem without letting his dissatisfaction show. At least not until he’s alone.
Jin-soo’s not outright rude, but his eccentricities make him an intriguing mix of contradictions: he’s generous but picky about his preferences, has a warm smile but cool logic, is capable of putting on a professional persona but behaves incredibly irresponsibly with business commitments, is frank but also glib…
SEO EUN-YOUNG (Park Shi-yeon), 31, is a savvy businesswoman and the head of her own publishing company. According to her profile, she got some help gaining a foothold in the industry because her grandfather was famous in cultural circles and her father was also a publisher, but with her skills Eun-young has propelled her company to great success and also launched a successful franchise of book cafes.
Personality-wise, she’s expressive of her emotions, one minute taking out her frustrations violently on inanimate objects, then toasting in glee shortly thereafter. Jin-soo is one of her star authors, but also a grand source of headaches. From the way they talk to each other, it appears they’ve known each other very well for many years. In fact, Eun-young sighs that she’s the only one who sees through the charming facade to Jin-soo’s true personality.
PAGE 1 RECAP
(The drama uses the page motif to denote episode numbers.)
Sitting in her family’s empty cafe, Seung-yeon fantasizes about the type of story typical to the manhwa books she likes to read. You know, the kind that starts off with a successful, handsome guy deciding to depart from his usual routine and ending up in an unexpected scenario.
Kind of like this one:
Jin-soo sits in traffic with his two handlers — publishing company employees who are escorting him to a book signing. They assure him that they’re almost there, and that these things never start on time anyway. But Jin-soo decides that he’d rather ditch this shindig, and he quickly grabs his things to dash out of the car.
The two employees don’t know how to react, unable to desert their car and also unable to chase after him through traffic, and call after him pleadingly. But Jin-soo dodges cars and walks off in the other direction, though he pauses to look back at them and flash a grin their way.
That smile? You’ll get familiar with it, real fast.
A sudden spring shower hinders the employees’ efforts to track down Jin-soo, and they miss seeing him in the nearby cafe, into which he ducks to escape the downpour. Looking up from her book, Seung-yeon shuffles over to take his order, and he requests a cappuccino.
She sees that a piece of tissue that he has been using to mop up the rain has stuck to his face, and she picks it off for him. That touch startles her into awareness, and she recalls that this is just the type of guy she’d been fantasizing about in her manhwa books! In fact, now she looks at him anew, in a different, glimmering light.
On the plane, Eun-young is recognized by her seatmate, who is reading a magazine that has a feature on her. She enjoys the flattery he heaps upon her, as he marvels at all her professional achievements.
She uses the in-flight phone to check in on the book signing, and blows a gasket to hear that Jin-soo ran off. She had warned her employees to stick close to him, knowing his tendency to thwart them. Stewing at her impotence, Eun-young goes to the lavatory to vent her frustration on Jin-soo’s book — the next user finds Jin-soo’s shredded photo in the toilet — then emerges after collecting herself and psychs herself up to deal with this.
Seung-yeon is making Jin-soo’s cappuccino when her ex-boyfriend storms in angrily to pick a fight over being dumped via text. The fight escalates, and Seung-yeon locks herself in the bathroom while continuing to yell. After the ex storms out, Jin-soo quietly knocks on the door to ask about the cappuccino. Recollecting the customer, Seung-yeon jumps up to get back to work…
…only the door is stuck. The lock is malfunctioning, and she can’t get out. He calls her family members on her cell phone, but nobody picks up, so he offers to call for a repairman.
While Seung-yeon waits, a wave of ajumma customers comes in and makes their orders with Jin-soo, assuming he’s a worker. As it turns out, he’s actually really good at this and perfectly competent at making their drinks.
His friend DO-SANG arrives at the cafe, and it turns out that they’d arranged to meet here. Do-sang suggested the place because he knows Seung-yeon, who is a hoobae (younger schoolmate) from college.
When the repairman arrives, Seung-yeon is on the toilet dealing with some unfortunate tummy troubles, and, well, we all know where this is going, right? (Sigh, Korean dramas and their love of toilet humor!)
She’s caught with her pants down (literally), and comes out shamefaced as the two men are leaving. Do-sang greets her cheerily (we can tell that he’s got a thing for her, though she doesn’t see it), and Jin-soo tells her he left the ajummas’ money on the counter for her. At this generous gesture in the face of her humiliation, she is completely awed.
She also finally realizes where she recognizes him — he’s the famous author!
At home, the family gathers for Seung-yeon’s mother’s memorial rites. Seung-yeon is dismayed when her family brings home food that’s clearly in bad shape — the jelly’s all mushed, the dried fish battered, the watermelon cracked. Grandma hastily says that it’s all the same when it’s cut up and served, but Seung-yeon finds out the truth when her angry ex calls.
Apparently her family had been walking home from the store with their food purchases when they’d seen the ex making out with another girl in the street. And here’s where I fall in love with these bumbling three, because they had proceeded to attack the cheater (or so they thought him) with their food items, mashing his face into the jelly and so on.
Seung-yeon explains to her family that she’d been the one to dump the guy, so there’s no need to feel sorry for her.
Eun-young returns to work to hear that her office has still been unable to track down Jin-soo. He called once from Ulleungdo — an island way off in the sea to the east — and that was it.
When Jin-soo comes back home, he has a voicemail message from Eun-young, which states in clipped professional tones that he will be sued for breach of contract. She has sent over legal paperwork detailing every single interview he’s blown off, every event he has not attended, and every violation of his contract of the past year.
At first Jin-soo’s surprised at her move, and as he listens, Eun-young’s cool speech turns into gleeful laughter, as she exults that he ain’t gonna win, no way — and by the way, how long did he think she’d put up with his crazy behavior? Rather than being offended to be called rotten trash, Jin-soo lets out a little laugh, as though grudgingly respecting her bold move.
At the office, Eun-young pops a bottle of champagne and toasts. Her employees stammer uneasily that losing Jin-soo as an author isn’t something to be celebrating, but she’s practically giddy at the idea of washing her hands of him.
Jin-soo arrives just as they raise a toast, and we can see that there’s a complicated dynamic between these two — there’s a lot of half-affectionate, half-antagonistic history there. Jin-soo calls her bluff — surely it’s a bluff, and she can’t end their business relationship this way — and says that he wrote a synopsis while he was away, and it’s really great. Producing a piece of paper, folded in the shape of an airplane, he sends it flying over. It lands in a cake.
Everyone freezes — gauntlet has been thrown! Surely they’ll read it, right? After a moment of surprise, Eun-young puts on her bravado face and tells him to take it to his next publisher. After all, it’ll take him, oh, three years of hard work before anything comes of it, and who knows, a single idea might not amount to anything.
But he dangles it in front of her, saying that this one’s a really good idea — and it’s even great for a movie. This gives her pause, but she sticks to her guns, twisting up the paper without opening it, and dropping it into her champagne flute.
Jin-soo’s legitimately shocked, and utters that that’s his only copy. Yikes! But Eun-young’s pot-committed now and can’t afford to back down, so she continues to swirl her glass around carelessly. She tells him airily that that’s just too bad.
The instant he leaves, everyone scrambles to save the document. Unfolding the paper, Eun-young starts to read it, and slowly her reaction grows excited — he was right. It’s AWESOME.
Later that night, Jin-soo finds his rescued document taped to his door, with a Post-It note from Eun-young telling him to finish the manuscript in six months. The first Post-It says in dire tones that he’d better finish within the allotted time… but the second adds cheerily, “You can do it. I believe in you. Writer Lee, fighting!”
Seung-yeon gets word from her sunbae Do-sang about a possible job opening, which gets her entire family excited. It turns out to be a secretary position for Jin-soo, and of course she leaps at the chance but also finds it puzzling that he’d hire her, with her lack of experience. Everyone wonders about it for a moment, but they’re too excited to give it much thought. A job is a job, manseh!
Seung-yeon nervously shows up at Jin-soo’s apartment the next morning, ready to work. He starts by outlining the details — since he has six months to produce his manuscript, her job will last about that long, and he can pay her daily. He’s so charming and generous that she is wowed yet again and finds him perfect — he’s smart, good-looking, kind, modest, and well-mannered. Maybe her luck is turning, to be blessed with such a great job and boss.
Next, Seung-yeon talks to the publishing house’s employees to acquaint herself with Jin-soo’s quirks. For instance, he doesn’t have a car — he gets around on bike and Segway. Nor does he have a cell phone, which makes it difficult to get in touch with him. And when he writes a manuscript, there are two things she needs to prepare: ten sharpened pencils, and drip coffee.
She approaches those two tasks with gusto, making coffee and sharpening pencils. He takes a sip and lies that her coffee is great, but it clearly sucks. The pencils she has prepared bother him. And her typing is distracting.
To keep her occupied and out of his hair, he sends her off to summarize a book for “research” purposes, which she can do at the book cafe downstairs. He tells her to work there, but rather than saying that it’s because he finds her distracting, he smiles charmingly and says it’s because the book has to stay at the cafe.
Happily, Seung-yeon heads out, excited to be given her first big task. But when she turns back to retrieve something she’d forgotten, she sees Jin-soo dumping her freshly sharpened pencils in the trash and sharpening a new batch himself with a knife. He throws her coffee out and brews his own batch.
Downstairs, Seung-yeon finds to her dismay that the book he asked her to read is a huge reference tome on fossils, and because it’s in English, progress is extremely slow.
This turns out to be Eun-young’s book cafe, and she greets Seung-yeon warmly. The instant she hears about Seung-yeon’s task, she knows what Jin-soo’s up to and laughs to herself. But it’s not her place to disillusion the poor girl, so she just sympathizes that it’ll take a long while.
Seung-yeon stays there all day long until Jin-soo finally calls her back, having lost track of time while working. She says apologetically that she barely got through five pages, but he smiles (again, that dazzling big grin) and says that’s fine. She can continue tomorrow. He pays her the day’s wages and sends her home.
With her first paycheck, Seung-yeon buys her family dinner that night, reveling in her new, cushy job, hoping it extends years and years.
And yet… as the week goes on, she finds herself growing more dissatisfied (and confused). She approaches her two very simple tasks with determination, but still, every day Jin-soo pours out the coffee and tosses away her pencils. And every day he pays her with that maddeningly cheery smile despite the fact that he has not asked her to do any work and thrown out the only things she has actually done for him.
This bothers her, so Seung-yeon calls her sunbae to ask what the deal is. What kind of secretary is she to get paid for doing nothing? Do-sang just laughs, not seeing the problem, and says that Jin-soo actually has a totally nutty personality as though that explains everything.
That doesn’t satisfy her, so during the taxi home, she shares her discontent with her driver. The driver first speculates that the guy must like her, but she dismisses that as ridiculous. So then, the driver advises her to simply ask the guy directly.
Fortified with courage, both from the driver’s comments and the soju variety, Seung-yeon decides that is a fabulous idea. Turn around — back to the apartment!
She bangs on Jin-soo’s door, then bursts in all flustered, demanding to know why he doesn’t make her do anything. If he doesn’t like her coffee, he could just say so. Or he could tell her to quit. Why is he making a fool of her?
Jin-soo laughs. Isn’t her job pleasant and easy? She retorts that no, it’s not! Why does she have to read that huge book? And then she thinks of the driver’s comments, and thinks… maybe… then… IS he interested in her? Haltingly she asks, “Do you… like me?” Did he perhaps fall in love at first sight at the cafe?
Jin-soo looks at her incredulously, which brings Seung-yeon back to her senses, arguing that it’s only because his behavior is so ridiculous that she’d even entertain such a crazy possibility. So what is his deal?
Jin-soo tells that he was going to pay Do-sang approximately 10 million won ($8,000) for doing some work for him, but Do-sang had told him to give it to Seung-yeon instead. The job was created as an excuse, as a favor to Do-sang.
Perplexed, Seung-yeon wonders why, and Jin-soo smiles and replies, “You should know why.” When it finally connects that Do-sang has a crush on her, Jin-soo ushers her out and tells her to take it up with her sunbae, as he has a lot of work to do.
She starts to head out, but another thought occurs to her, and she turns back, banging on the door as second time. Bursting into his apartment again, Seung-yeon tells Jin-soo that he still didn’t answer her question. If he hired her as a secretary, why does he not give her any work? Isn’t it a waste?
Jin-soo replies that she can’t match his tastes — he’s quite picky, you see, more than you’d guess. Seung-yeon protests that she could try to match his tastes, but he answers with certainty, “You can’t.”
She presses the matter, asking why not. So Jin-soo says with a little laugh — not meaning to be condescending but being condescending nonetheless — “What could I expect of an amateur?” He doesn’t say this to be hurtful, and takes a matter-of-fact approach to his answer, which is no less hurtful because it’s true.
Jin-soo relates the first day he met her at the cafe, and now that we see it from his point of view, it’s clear that he’s hardly the smooth, gentle, sparkly prince-type manhwa hero that she’d pictured. There was so much wrong with the cafe that he knew right away that she was an amateur — not in a career sense, but mentally. Does she understand now?
Ouch. Seung-yeon claps her hands over her ears, assuring him that she did indeed get his message, loud and clear. She apologizes, but Jin-soo says with his friendly smile that there’s no need for apologies — since the money is going to her through Do-sang anyway, they can continue their arrangement. And if she doesn’t like the book, she can pick a different one to read. You almost get the sense that it would be kinder to be cruel, because his nonchalance is almost more embarrassing to her.
Seeing that she’s still flustered and a little bit drunk, he offers to make her a cup of coffee before she goes. But now when she looks at him through her disillusioned eyes, he neither sparkles nor impresses with that damned infuriating smile.
Despite the title and the media’s attempt to associate this drama as part of a “House” series, Coffee House has nothing at all to do with Full House. Not in the setup, the plot, the characters, or even directorial style. While I thought the directing in Full House was standard stuff — neither good nor bad — PD Pyo Min-soo has been evolving through subsequent dramas. He did What Star Are You From (which was meh), took on a weightier and introspective tone in Insoon Is Pretty (which dealt with a woman re-entering society after serving time for committing an accidental manslaughter in her teens), and the entertainment-industry-centric The World They Live In (which is my favorite of his dramas, style-wise). This drama takes the flair of the latter and applies it to the romantic-comedy genre, and the result is a breath of fresh air. Not quite Coffee Prince, maybe, but with that kind of light, deft touch.
What had me smiling was the characters, from each of the leads down to the minor characters like Seung-yeon’s family, particularly Dad and Little Bro. As you probably know, despite Eun-jung’s pop-star creds, she’s actually got a bit of acting experience in her earlier years and brings an engaging charm to Seung-yeon. She plays a familiar archetype in this bumbling type of heroine, but for once she’s not a slapstick klutz who bubbles with forced energy like a hummingbird on crack. She has a natural air, and her acting actually reminds me of the late Jung Da-bin (RIP), which I mean in a good way. Down-to-earth rather than over-the-top.
As you all know, I love me some Kang Ji-hwan. However, I think I’d have the same reaction to this drama if his role were played by someone else, and that’s saying something — I was drawn in right away, and smiled throughout the entire first episode. That isn’t to say he doesn’t add to the role, because it’s Kang Ji-hwan and I just know he’s got all sorts of comedic and dramatic talents just waiting to be tapped into (they haven’t been used that much yet), but the character is intriguing enough that I’d even be interested if he were played by a lesser actor. (Of course, Kang Ji-hwan DOES make it better.)
Jin-soo is a character I don’t know that I’ve seen before, or at least not in recent years. I don’t know about you all, but I’m a little tired of the whole Mr. Darcy craze, despite loving practically every incarnation of the uptight, irritable and misunderstood hero that comes my way. It’s just that it’s time we moved away from that type, because you can only sit through so many Grumpy Heroes With A Heart Of Gold before you tire of it. And I love that Jin-soo is a difficult guy, but that he’s entirely capable of pouring on the charm. When he cares to. What’s the source of his erratic behavior? It’s not self-destructive, so we’re not dealing with a damaged Gu Jun-pyo here. Is he just quirky? Or is there a greater reason for it? I want to know!
And, surprise of all surprises, I find Park Shi-yeon quite endearing and very cute in this. Who knew? As I’ve said lots of times before, I like to base my judgment of an actor’s performance on the work itself rather than making excuses for subpar work like “Come on, it was just a first role” or “At least s/he tried.” So I don’t feel bad about disliking her for a legitimately bad performance in My Girl — but I sorta feel bad for Park, because I feel like she had a few things stacked against her that made fans decide to dislike her from the start, regardless of performance. For starters, the Miss Korea contestant tag is often slung around with some condescension, and it didn’t help that around the time she made her acting debut, she was dating one of the hottest kpop stars around (Eric) and was known as The (Hated) Girlfriend more than anything else. Girl never had a chance.
But she’s steadily improved, and while I didn’t love her performance in Story of a Man, it was much better. And now, as the vivacious Eun-young, she positively radiates. She sparks onscreen, and I really want to like her. I do like her.
Can’t wait to see how this one turns out.