Happy New Year! Although I don’t think it’ll be much different from the previous 730 days of restrictions, quarantine and widespread pessimism, hoping that 2022 will be THE year costs nothing, so let’s hope for the best, personally and globally.
In the spirit of such unchanging times, I’m back with a new entry of my K-List, the little space in my brain not besieged by obscure baseball statistics, and a special one: with this I want to celebrate what was in my opinion the best KDrama of the past year, and arguably the brightest rom-com in a long time.
As 2021 deemed to a close, KBS2 delivered a gem: today I’m going to review a classic in the making by the name of Dali and the Cocky Prince.
- Genres: Comedy, Romance, Drama
- Eps: 16
- Runtime: 1hr+
- Leads: Kim Min Jae, Park Gyu Young
- Storyline: a self made businessman, master of survival and money-making but lacking knowledge, and the daughter of a known rich family, elegant but lacking social skills, have a faithful meeting in the Netherlands and end up entangled in the shady world of art galleries and real estate.
- Tropes? Not again!
By now the Korean drama industry has said all it could about romances, a genre in which KDramas excel but one that lacks in novelty, amounting for the most part of yearly productions with plots, situations and characters resembling each other more often than not, as to construct what are the tropes of a rom-com as every KDrama fan knows.
Dali may seem like another chip off the old block: a lot of the events are exactly what you may already have seen in another romance or two (hundred), the problems our leads face are usual, from families being unsufferable to love enemies and money hindering their sweet moments together…BUT!
That’s where this series kicks in and kicks out all others, doing it the right way: by means of clever writing. What rom-coms usually lack is common sense: we all know the leads are destined to be together and somehow they always find a way to screw things up. Misunderstandings, breakups and heartbreaks stem from a sole issue: lack of communication. What happens is that either one or both hide their feelings, can’t explain a situation or just don’t act until late eps in which everything magically connects for a happy ending.
Not in Dali’s house! While our leads may be complete opposites, from their upbringings to their skills and lacks, what they show from ep.1 is a masterclass in how to speak to each other: openly, honestly, sometimes even raising voices, with anger but never, never hiding anything, even when speaking up could hurt the other person.
That is how this rom-com trumps them all: while our leads face all them tropes, they come out on top each and every time by simply talking to each other, planning together and sticking by the other’s side in bad and worse.
Ride or die, and boy do they ride, the rarest rom-com where leads never doubt their love for each other, from their first meeting to their last quarrel, a peaceful, angst-free romance that is bound to calm your boiling spirits.
- Art is in the eyes of who looks
One of the most interesting sides of Dali, as the name itself foretells, is the scenario in which the romance is born and grows steadily: between galleries and museums, this drama delves into the rarely explored world of art and uses it wisely.
Paintings and sculptures, and knowledge about them, are the occasion to show how different our ML and FL are: while the latter loves and knows all about it, displaying passion and sense, the former couldn’t be bothered except for the monetary worth of those products, incapable of seeing more than face value and ignorant about pretty much everything involving art.
While this may sound like an obstacle for their love story, it’s actually what makes it so good: our FL may love those paintings but has no idea of how to run a gallery and make money with them, and that’s where the ML shines; he may be a shrewd businessman but is so oblivious to feelings and emotions, to that the FL provides opening his eyes to the meaning behind such operas, and his heart too in the end. They fit so well together in such an environment it’s impossible not to root for them and their troubled romance.
But the art world is also full of dark corners and dirty secrets: in Dali there’s more than just the value of a painting and no punches are pulled. Money laundering? Of course! Drugs? Sure, while we’re at it! Real estate speculation? Obviously!
All these behind-the-art-scene affairs end up smacking our leads’ faces, trials they have to confront together to keep the gallery alive and kicking, a reminder that even in a world full of beauty such as art, there’s always a rotten side to it and looking the other way is not the answer.
- United we stand
What makes Dali such a refreshing piece of art in a templated and boringly patterned genre such as romantic comedies is that for both ML and FL “colors don’t run”: amidst the ugliest scandals and possible obstacles their love and trust in each other never once wavers.
That’s because, simply put, they are two damn good characters that make each other even better, both developing emotionally as the drama progresses thanks to their interactions, a give-and-take where nobody asks for anything and both receive so much more than your standard ups, downs and finally together ending.
The ML is a man who made his own fortune from scraps, now the director of a chain of restaurants he’s no short of business smarts and has guts to sell, metaphorically, so that he’s rash, uneducated in most things apart those surrounding money, an irritating albeit toolsy prince, weathers all storms and comes out with a profit.
What a change of pace for Kim Min Jae! His last role was a great one, a talented pianist in Do You Like Brahms, and here he’s completely different, from his loud tone to his demeanor he exudes confidence even when he’s out of his comfort zone because he knows how to survive and eventually thrive. KMJ’s appearance, a smaller ML than usual, fits the underdog recipe and his former rapper voice makes his rants perfect, whereas his low whispers are well suited when it comes to being romantic.
He’s rightly won awards for his performance in this one and with what is now a series of successes he’s bound to be a household name in the near future, with a wider range than your usual lead and a versatility that makes him appetible for roles in both romances and thrillers, a rare combination of looks, traits and acting prowess he showed off here more than in any previous work.
Copy and paste for the FL: Park Gyu Young never had a chance at a leading role before and sure she’ll have aplenty after this one. Her appearance, from a short haircut to a pure ASMR voice and a smile that heals everything, is simply ethereal: “born-rich”, she never had to worry about bringing home her due and with that she focused on studying art around the world to be the next director of her family’s gallery. That also means she has no idea of how cunning and deceiving people can be, nor she knows how to value things outside of the art spectrum.
PGY looks and acts the part masterfully, a role that garnered her a well deserved ROY award and a note in my list of actors/actresses to watch out for.
A pairing of such characters is perfect, a pairing of such actors is the gift that keeps on giving: rare chemistry in all aspects, fiery hot with the right amount of sexual tension as they grow closer; calm and sweet as they make sure of each other’s feelings, their relationship is nothing less than life goals and it’s so believable you have to remind yourself this is just fiction.
It’s not that simple, you can’t just pick two of the best in the business and make it work, not here nor in any other field, sport, whatever. You need those two to do their part alone and mostly together, pieces of a puzzle that has to come out picture perfect. KMJ and PGY are stand-alone great but together they raise the bar even higher, they really seem to like each other’s company and it shows on screen, a couple among the best in modern KDrama history and one that I’ll sorely miss.
- Two and out
While our leads are well designed, they carry the entire drama on their shoulders.
Secondaries are mostly non-factors, particularly a SFL that has few and scattered screentime, if not bad: as much as Dali evades tropes, it cannot avoid the usual horrible SML, this time even worse as he turns out to be possessive, entitled and almost criminal in the way he “pursues” the FL.
Another common trait of rom-coms we can find here is the absurdity of parents and families in general: while that of the FL is more problematic than anything, the source of all scandals regarding the gallery, the ML’s parents are just abysmal human beings, not only stupid but actively putting the ML in danger with their nonsense, and the drama trying to give them a better light in the final eps was underserved to say the least.
There are also some positives in the ML’s secretary and workers, a bunch of simple minded individuals that make for most of the comedic relief with timely jokes and hilarious reactions to the ML’s tomfooleries, and the FL’s “brother”, finally a male friend and not another love interest, a trap that the writing smartly avoids adding a fun, much needed bromance with the ML that helps the romance between our leads and softens the atmosphere.
- When it rains it pours
Dali is a rom-com in all sides and shapes but sometimes it seems to unneededly pile on the FL’s misery, constantly adding to her sadness and desperation: pretty much everything around her crumbles, from her gallery being targeted by debtors and speculated on by influential people to her ex boyfriend, the SML who left her in tears, somehow thinking she has to go back to him, from her family stabbing her back to her own employees turning against her, she has no escape apart from the ML.
In that sense, I recommend to be patient with him in the first eps as, after their first faithful encounter in the Netherlands, he comes back with a vengeance, angry at her he’s quite rude, yelling and shouting at her face. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s the ML’s nature as he was born and raised by the wolves of business and trust me, he’ll grow and mature in a respectful, and smitten, man.
Dali is a unique rom-com in the KDrama landscape, a romance that doesn’t go through the normal rollercoaster of ups and downs between the leads and their relationship, a communication display with few equals, if anything it makes all other rom-coms look foolish.
With one of the best ML/FL combinations in a long time this is a classic among the genre, a resounding example of how smart and common sense writing can really make the difference, so that all your tropey shenanigans, push and pull dynamics inserted to create drama and delay the couple’s rekindling to the last two episodes are not needed when events are believable and people act as decent, at least normal, adults in love.
Acting is well on par with the writers, a solid performance by both KMJ and PGY, a confirmation of talent for the former and a breakout showing for the latter, with preternatural chemistry overflowing from scene 1, both actors clicking on all cilinders to make for a dreamy couple that is bound to be in your favorites for a long time.
It’s a leads-heavy drama, whereas all secondaries seem to be there to make both ML and FL look better without actually providing for much if not a laugh or two, which the series needs when it gets a tad too heavy, burdening the FL to a degree. The plot is steady, from start to finish Dali never falters and builds up a one of a kind romance that deserves all the accolades and considerations it won as 2021 came to a close.
And as 2022 starts so do I. I’ll be back for more baseball, more KDramas, more nonsense as you’re accustomed to, waiting for the MLB season to start, hopefully, and for more quality rom-coms to show up, although it’ll be a long time before another Dali comes out.