[In Defence Of] Coffee House.
- If you're not planning on watching Coffee House , because you should. I think it's best to go into it blind tbh.
- You're planning on watching Coffee House and you don't like kdrama tropes being messed around with (because that way it's better to know.)
- Never. It's 4700 words of drama fanwank which includes everything from Boys Over Flowers to The Heirs, why would you even.
So here is a post about something that no one will care about except me (I'm not even sure anyone I know has seen it, BUT IT'S MY JOURNAL, I'LL POST IF I WANT TO ETC.), but I have exams in a week and I need to be freaking done with this line of thought because I am obsessing over it and I am an obsessively obsessive person who can't function otherwise.
So. I watched Coffee House and I fucking loved it. Let me reiterate that; loved it. It is well written, fantastically acted for the most part, genuinely funny, gorgeously angsty in the right moments and it has, what I've decided is one of my favorite female characters of all times. Not that it doesn't have many faults, because it does. So, the bottom line is: yeah, I personally adored it. And then I went on the internetz and it turns out that lots of people disliked it? (Although,tbf, I think a significant more portion of people watching liked/looooooved it, but if you check out a random site about the show, a majority of the people will be like "wtf?") At first, I was legit flabbergasted, how could there possibly be a person who doesn't like the show? Or specifically, how could there be a person who doesn't like the show for the reasons that they've cited? aka my favorite parts were the ones that did not appeal to them, which made me O______o
But post-comment-reading, I was basically: of course they didn't like it.
See, Coffee House does something unexpected for a kdrama romantic comedy; it does something different. And then it does something mean; it does something different without telling the audience it is doing something different.
The thing about us, as kdrama rom-com viewers is, that we've by-and-large come to understand the formula and, regardless of whether we want to or not, that formula affects the way we perceive the show. When you're watching The Heirs you know that Kim Tan is going to Get The Girl. So the analysis of his character and the self-awareness of the narrative re: the potential of his character to be an abusive, manipulative asshole, is going to be judged with regards to that. Which, hilariously enough, leaves us free to ship all the ships that are more openly problematic,
This is the general case with all second male lead/female lead dynamics, since the female is largely unaffected by the interest/advances of the second lead and practically unwavering in her love/loyalty to the male lead. (Which, to be honest, as a part of an Asian culture myself, I understand. When the entire narrative of the OTP is about love and all the insane odds they have to fight, you also need to convince the audience that that love is worth fighting for, which would be undermined if there were equally eligible candidates for the heroine's affections around, who she could get together with without the drama.) This, for obvious reasons, is harder to do with an OTP, especially when you add to it the fact that they're talking about love in (mostly) absolute terms. As in, getting together is a Happily Ever After and mostly happens when you're resolved all the conflicts and there isn't (much) space for dissent on whether the OTP itself is portrayed as a wrong!ship even post the end, unless that's what the text is about (in a makjang for instance).
The point being, that your judgment of a dynamic or a character or a relationship is largely built around what you've already guessed from the application of the general formula in the text. You might get a deviation, as in Coffee Prince, where the female second lead never fell for the male lead at all and it had been entirely unrequited beginning to end, even though everyone had assumed that she was flirting with him because that's what Female Second Leads do, but that deviation isn't by itself strong enough to actually make a difference to the opinion of the people. Or you may get a drama like Dream High (which I haven't seen, but will, I swear, Lizzie!) which also changes your idea of the OTP, but usually in kdramas, the male second leads are fairly well-developed and though you know that it's never going to be realized, the potential for the female lead going for the male second lead always exists because their characterization is such. It's never realized mostly only because that's how kdramas work and the female lead will almost never be interested, not because the narrative doesn't allow for the possibility at all. Male Second Leads are paragons of virtue, wealth, endless patience and niceness. Female Second Leads are largely bitchy, ironically self-aware, largely selfish, given to going to great lengths to break up the OTP (although, all this, when it's not caricatured as in the case of In-hee in Personal Taste, who was kind of unbelievably awful really, very interestingly leads to some of the best female characterizations of a drama). And while you might get some very different characterizations as well, like Hee-jin in My Name Is Kim Sam Soon, or these characters may become more relatable as Hye-won in Full House or Jae-kyung in Boys Over Flowers or even Hae-ra in Playful Kiss, you're always aware that, unlike perhaps the Male Second Lead re: Female Lead, they never really had a shot in hell at the Male Lead.
And then a show like Coffee House comes along and throws a wench in this stable dynamic.
I think Coffee House made me realize something fundamental about my kdrama viewing (which I was telling Alex, and she has no idea what I'm talking about because I brought it up cryptically, as it is with us in general, lmao): I have a tendency to read kdramas not according to narrative, but rather according to tropes. It's not that I can't read the narrative, it's just that I don't trust it because of my pre-set expectations from the text.
And it also made me realize something else; this is a development that happened post lots-of-kdrama viewage, not something that existed beforehand.
Boys Over Flowers is one of those shows that is almost universally hated and universally loved. Like, everyone agrees it's awful and everyone agrees that everyone else must watch it. It was also the third kdrama I ever saw (and one of the others aka Reply 1997 taught me nothing about kdramas-in-general because it was so ridiculously unique and not-cliche), so I wasn't already familiar with a lot of tropes that BOF would teach me. But, it's only now that I've realized that my dislike of certain aspects of the show is significantly different from a lot of other people's dislike of the show, because we were reading the text differently the entire time. (Note: I'm only talking about shipping here, because it's not like BOF had much to offer apart from that.) Ji-hoo and Jan-di spent practically all their time in the series, literally beginning to end, together, while the OTP (Jun-pyo/Jan-di, for the uninitiated) largely angsted from afar. So, most people hated the show because they felt an inordinate amount of time and narrative space was given to developing the secondary ship of Ji-hoo/Jan-di, while leaving the OTP out in the cold (and in different countries most of the time, let's face it.) While I hated the show because the ship that was given an inordinate amount of time and narrative space to develop, bizarrely enough, turned out not to be endgame.
These are clearly fundamentally different ways of reading. Not knowing that there was a formula at all changed my expectations of the text. For me, the Ji-hoo/Jan-di narrative was a gorgeously constructed OTP narrative because of the sheer amount of narrative space it took up, and how well-developed I thought it was. While, for the initiated then, Ji-hoo/Jan-di was a horribly constructed Second Lead narrative because it was breaking up the actual OTP narrative by taking time and space away from it.
So clearly it is possible to identify leads and OTPs even pre-watching, because you already have a set of characteristics and dynamics in mind and the characters that fit those dynamics are the ones that are the Leads and form the OTP.
The general identifying markers of a female lead usually are:
1. She's the first female you shall probably interact with in the drama.
2. She has certain characteristics depending on the character-type or the drama-type that you're familiar with.
3. It's a story about her, largely, in a set-up you're familiar with.
4. She gets the lead guy. bcz that usually tends to be the most important part.
These are obviously essentialist characteristics put in the most basic way, but they largely hold true. And it's in this regard that Coffee House does something radical, it uses the standard tropes of a genre that everyone watching is familiar with and then inverts them. This is not a What Happened In Bali, where it became fairly clear fairly early that it wouldn't really be a romantic-comedy, even though the initial set-up seemed to indicate it. Besides WHIB had a fantastically developed triangle, yes, but involving two male leads, which, as I've mentioned, is always a narrative possibility. Coffee House on the other hand, is about the female leads. It, in fact, does away with the concept of the female lead and second lead entirely. Instead, you get two female leads. And in doing so, it betrays its viewers because you're watching it with all the baggage and expectations built over many dramas, and it turns out, this isn't the story you think you know. And the sense of betrayal is compounded the fact that you were so convinced you knew exactly where this was going, you may, in fact, have chosen to watch it for the familiarity.
What I find particularly brilliant about Coffee House is that it does all this through the narrative itself. There are no sharp turns or confused storytelling to make a point about what I'm saying here, because they aren't trying to make a point. It's only after I'd finished the series that I realized I'd been reading the text all wrong, because I'd been concentrating on the tropes that it was making making use of, rather than the absolutely clear narrative structure. And when I did follow the narrative, I kept expecting something to happen out of the blue, to set the story back on track to what I had initially believed it to be, so I could classify it in the categories that I had gotten used to since those initial BOF days. Which never happened, because the narrative itself had always been coherent, it had been my expectations of it that had led me (and everyone else, it seemed) into a completely false reading of the text. Not that there weren't red-herrings, because there were, but it wasn't constructed in such a way as to mislead, so much as to build an equal story. Park Si Yeon's Eun-young Got The Guy because that was where the narrative had been leading all along, it was her love story. Ham Eun Jung's Seung-yeon's narrative, on the other hand, always had been about professional success. It's only because I expect the Seung-yeon type to be the female lead that I automatically assumed that she must be so. She was introduced first, her family is introduced, she's the bumbling, kind-hearted, forever klutzy, slightly boyish, but forever-determined type, so clearly the female lead of the Go Mi-nam (You're Beautiful) variety. Eun-young seemed like the fairly typical female second lead in that she was the successful business woman, slightly bossy, friends with the male lead. Of course, she was oddly grounded and ridiculously charming, which was strange, but clearly that would be ~rectified in the later part of the series when she would obviously become the jealous, bitchy antagonist keeping the OTP apart.
Which never happened.
What CH also did was expose my near-misogynistic expectations re: the female characters for what they were. Because would I be revising my initial impression of the text to pass the mantle of "female lead" onto the character who I'd believed all along to be the female second lead (Eun-young) because the other character (Seung-yeon) fit so well within the typical characteristics of a kdrama female lead? And would that be based solely on the fact that she got the guy? To be honest, the possibility crossed my mind, like "oh, she was the lead", and since she was my favorite, I wasn't even questioning my thought-process. But, the fact is, the show clearly told me that I was wrong, that even if Seung-yeon did not Get The Guy, that was never what her narrative had been about anyway. Her narrative was about growing older, growing up, the first job, developing a crush on the awful boss, family dynamics, professional goals, dating, success, being a catalyst for the romantic arcs. So clearly she was the female lead, her failures and successes and pain and joy were important to the narrative. But in no way was Eun-young the female second lead either, because she had a solid back-story, she was given the space to be neurotic and bossy, but also vulnerable and emotional, strong and angry and unforgiving, as well as kind and silly and selfish and young and giddy, and every single thing practically that it is a possible for a person to be. She has her moments of petty jealousies, as well as magnanimities, sometimes all together. She screams in bathrooms in frustration and she's poised in business meetings. And she Got The Guy (which, let's face it, is important in a ~romantic comedy.) So clearly, she was also female lead. And the show basically was like: okay, so yeah, you get two well-constructed female leads, what is your problem?
The comments that I've read re: this show range from the absurd to the thought-provoking. There's the usual, "but why should the hot one get the guy? that's lame." Because pretty successful girls are, for some reason, not easy to project upon? Don't deserve to fall in love? Don't deserve to be loved? Don't have emotions worth depicting? No, seriously, this is so ridiculous (and so prevalent), I can't. All of the actresses playing the "average-looking" female leads in dramas are gorgeous, okay. Park Si Yeon
There were valid complaints too, people who were genuinely taken-aback by the set-up because the show didn't set any prior warning or red-flags, and I guess it can be annoying if you just want to enjoy a straightforward drama, think you know where you're going with something like Coffee House and then, instead, end up with a deconstruction instead. (Although, ngl, that thought is pretty amusing to me.) But also, it's clear through the comments that most of it is not the fault of the show; because comments about that publisher woman re: Eun-young make it amply clear to me that it's mostly a case of biased readings leading to thwarted expectations. I can't exactly blame the biased readings, because they are also clearly a result of watching variations of (mostly) the same thing over and over and practically unconsciously accepted by now. But "that publisher woman" just makes it obvious that the person(s) in question never really bothered to look at Eun-young as a character at all, but rather Quintessential Female Second Lead a.k.a. not worth paying attention to, which is why all her development or narrative probably escaped them and the ending was upsetting for them. That is the first result of any pre-conditioned reading of course, that you tend to concentrate on particular aspects. And selective reading leads to an interpretation of the text that the text as a whole may not subscribe to. Like, obviously if you're looking at something as an OTP narrative, you'll pay more attention to their comic/romantic set-ups as more romantic than comic even if the drama means it to be comedy, viewing all their interactions thorough a romantic lens, which fundamentally alters your perception of the narrative as a whole (as Community so effectively depicted through this gloriousness.) It can lead to not paying attention to everything else going on that may be affecting that set-up because the belief in it being a particular kind of text is so strong. And that belief/specific reading eventually makes it seem like the show does not make sense because the reading of the individual scenes and their interpretation in the light of a colored perspective don't add to the text itself. This applies equally to me, because, considering I wasn't even shipping the "OTP", I still viewed all their interactions in a romantic light, because I've so been conditioned to looking at OTP narratives that way. I read every moment of theirs furthering an eventual romantic arc, even if an alternative reading was obvious. So ascribing blame to others for "reading the text wrong" would be a moot activity since my reading was equally colored, even if my feelings differed. However, that does not change the fact that the drama took the conventions head-on and deconstructed them to reveal their functioning. The show is not responsible for how my expectations of it led me to read it.
Further, not only that, the text also had actual respectful interaction between the female leads who liked the same guy. LIKE, DO I REALLY NEED TO POINT OUT HOW RARE THAT IS? They weren't friends, and they never became friends or ran in the same circles and were sometimes unable to understand each other because of their personalities and class difference, but they always made the attempt to understand the other and they had a gloriously normal, healthy relationship of people kind-of working together making no oblique comments on Female Friendships or Female Solidarity or Female Envy whatsoever. (Also how much do I love that it's Eun-young- aka the girl who Gets The Guy- who's a little petty re: Seung-yeon with her "damsels in distress" remark when she feels she's losing her friend to the other girl, because that is so relatable. Seung-yeon doesn't have to be the bitchy one just to make Eun-young more "lead" or Eun-young doesn't have to be less petty to be "lead". And to think the first time I saw the scene, I was all "shit, they're going into Second Lead Female territory, now that the meanness re: the Female Lead has started, it's all downhill from here. Eun-young will now become a plot device to keep the OTP apart. KILL ME NOW.") Seung-yeon too is never defined by her get/not get the guy status, and if the only reason people feel ~sorry for her is because of that, then it's a waste of an amazing, fully-realized character. Especially one with a relationship with the lead male, which, if that's your thing, is also fully realized and beautifully developed. They learn each other, they have fun together, she's the catalyst for a lot of his character-realizations because she forces him to look at scenarios in a different light, like the exchange where she said that explaining what you felt may not change the action, but it could change the thought behind the action, which is an entirely different thing.
Further, even if the usual divisions of Female Lead/Second Lead are applied, I take the fact that people wanted Seung-yeon (if they consider her the second lead) to end up with Jin-soo, or Eun-young ending up with Jin-soo (if she's seen as the second lead) as a victory for the show. As in how many female second leads have you actually wanted to end up getting the guy/actually end up getting the guy? How many times has anyone sat through a drama and thought, "hey Hae-ra was so much better suited for Seung-jo in Playful Kiss because they were on the same wavelength." Or "Uee should have gotten Tae-kyung in You're Beautiful because she was so feisty with him?" or wanted Se-hyun to key her way into Gong-chan's heart again. (I would exclude Jae-kyung from this analysis because lots of people did think she was pretty suited for Jun-pyo. But Boys Over Flowers is generally just plain bizarre in this regard, imo. Also, because the more dramas I watch, the more I realize that Ji-hoo/Jan-di is possibly objectively a kdrama OTP narrative with their piggyback rides and wedding pictures and taking care of each other when the other's ill; very specific kdrama OTP traits. So either the show genuinely had no idea what the hell it was doing, or it changed trajectory at the end to please the audience.) But in general, no matter how many times you get Second Lead Syndrome re: the male second lead, it is far, far more uncommon, possibly almost inexistent, in the case of female second leads. In which case, regardless of shipping preferences, Coffee House is a radical departure from the norm.
The thing about disliking Coffee House based on these factors is that the dislike is stronger because people feel entitled to an ending, since the uncertainty re: the events in the text leads to new expectations from it. Nobody says they hate You're Beautiful because Mi-nam chooses Tae-kyung over Shin-woo; not because lots of people aren't equally into Shin-woo and would prefer him as part of the OTP, but because they already knew the endgame. So when you're shipping the second lead, you're aware that you're shipping the second lead, which is a doomed ship as it is, and you get the space for enjoying your ship while being resigned to the fact that it's never actually going to sail. But what it does is provide a frame-work for reading the text, because then your interpretation of the action (if not your feelings for it) are largely aligned with the text's. You might not like an OTP narrative, but you can be fairly certain that it IS an OTP narrative. While Coffee House throws this basic structure and assumption out to the wind, and tells you to go with the narrative instead of the tropes, which seems particularly hard to do. And on top of it, it does it while using conventions of the genre and lulling you into a false sense of security.
But all this is pretty much why I feel Coffee House is criminally underrated and mostly misunderstood. Because it never set out to mislead, it's the pre-determined expectations of the audience which misled them.
Maybe I'm biased. I went in, not knowing the set-up, yes, but pre-disposed to like Park Si Yeon anyway since she's pretty much my favorite kdrama actress since No Such Thing As Nice Guys (even more so post CH, she's resplendent in CH.) And my ship ended up together despite all conventions and beliefs so I'm particularly in love (although tbh it wasn't so much as my ship as what the show was going for anyway. I shipped the OTP thinking it the secondary couple, but I never thought that I was second-lead shipping because it was a second-lead narrative, but rather that something dramatic and inorganic would happen to put what I imagined was the OTP, at the forefront and crush my ship.) I went in with expectations too, but I went in with a different set of expectations from the text and a different set of expectations for my reactions. By some strange, stunning coincidence, they both coincided. Although I'm going to have to watch the show again and enjoy it completely, because the first time round, I was so ridiculously anxiety-ridden about the way it was going and whether some Kdrama Law would suddenly assert itself, that I couldn't enjoy half the things I should have.
Also, I have to say this: my OTP was glorious. It's a ridiculously well-written, well-constructed, adult dynamic, that is one of the most realistically depicted kdrama relationships I've ever seen. I, for once, absolutely agreed with the Dramabeans analysis of the ship and the show and I can maybe save some time and just paste that here:
Javabeans: And while [Jin-soo] has a dark side, I appreciate that this drama doesn’t glamorize it as a bad boy in need of a good woman to “fix” him; his depression is crippling, destructive, and hinders his ability to connect with people in a meaningful way. I appreciate the layers that were built into his character, even if I didn’t always like him.
But surprisingly, it was Park Shi-yeon who won me over with her Eun-young character. She was a careerwoman who wasn’t coldly ambitious, was loving but not about to lose herself in an unhealthy relationship, a loyal friend who could call her friend on his bullshit — she wasn’t a cookie-cutter heroine who ticks off all the boxes on a Cliche-o-Meter, like so many heroines.
Their romance was also one of my favorites of the year, because it’s one where I felt for them. Oh, there were lots of couples that I found absolutely adorable this year, but most of them were in the “cute” category; often I felt their romance mentally, but not in a real, gut sense. With Jin-soo and Eun-young, it’s a combination of the unconventional setup — friends for years, but kept apart by the memory of his dead ex-wife — and the actors’ chemistry that brought the bond to life. When they kissed in the rain, you felt her yearning, and later, when they kissed at the train station, you had a palpable sense of his.
Girlfriday: Thankfully, I stuck around, because when the drama shifted gears and put Jin-soo’s relationship with Eun-young (Park Shi-yeon) in the foreground, I discovered a magnetic couple. The great thing about Eun-young is that she makes every nutty thing about Jin-soo tethered to reality, because they have a history, and she has two feet firmly planted on the ground. So when he does something outrageous, when she rolls her eyes and laughs, or cries in frustration, we have a compass. A compass of sanity, as it were.
Coffee House actually got better as it went along, which if you think about it, is pretty damn rare in the k-drama landscape. Most dramas in the live-shoot system blow all their awesome on the first set of episodes, and continue a downward spiral ending in either lunacy or mediocrity; it’s the rare drama that ends better than it began. But Coffee House really hit its stride later on, when Jin-soo’s feelings for Eun-young began to put a real dent in his armor.
Jin-soo was a character that I enjoyed immensely because he was SO whacked out, but that also kept me from ever being fully with him. I saw that he had his own internal logic; it just didn’t resemble Earth logic, so while he always surprised me and made me laugh, he also frustrated me when he purposely shoved people out of his life, or shut down when faced with any sort of conflict.
I know this drama had one of the great ‘shipping wars of the year, but for me the two-heroine dynamic mostly took away from what it could have been, if Eun-young had been the central focus of the show.
The tone of the show often gave me whiplash, but when they went dark, or moody, or angsty, it was breathtakingly raw and intense, due to the stellar acting from Park Shi-yeon and Kang Ji-hwan. Their longing for each other, their inability to get past years of barriers, was gripping. What this relationship was doing in the same drama as the wacky zany secretary shenanigans is beyond me, but I’m glad I endured the one for the other.
Also, Eun-young is now one of my favorite female characters ever. And this is when I knew I was completely sold on her (not particularly spoilery- unless you think it spoils her character??- besides perfect, so outside the cut, but you can skip it if you don't want to be spoiled at all):
Eun-young: I'd like to stay [at the hospital] a little longer then. You've never looked after me like this before. I've figured it out now, writer Lee Jin-soo has two weaknesses: tears and sickness. If I'd known this, I'd have cried and been sick a whole lot more. But I've never been familiar with this sort of stuff, which is why you've never treated me as you are now.
Jin-soo: You shouldn't cry or be sick. What is the point of receiving care like this from me?
Eun-young: What is the point?
Jin-soo: If you were like that you wouldn't have your unique, cool charm. That cool charm is Seo Eun-young's strong suit. If you spent each day weak or ill, you'd have lost your charm.
Eun-young: Is that so?
Jin-soo: It is.
Eun-young: So, in order to retain my charm...I have to pretend to be strong when I'm ill, and hold it in when I feel like crying? What is that supposed to mean? I feel aggrieved.
Eun-young: I've got to hold onto this concept of being cool to maintain my image. Life seems unfair.
This was all playful banter mostly, and EY being petulant because she's bedridden (although PSY's disgruntled expressions in this were amazing) BUT HAS THERE EVER BEEN A BETTER ARGUMENT MADE AGAINST STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS (TM)? BECAUSE I HAVE YET TO SEE ONE. Damn, I just adore the hell out of her.
I'm afraid to even check to see how many words this is.
ETA: Kim Woo Bin Face Day tomorrow. Bring it.