[Review] Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo
Some days ago, I just ended watching a beautiful drama: Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo.
I would describe this show as cheerful, sweet, engaging, and easy to love.
The conflicts and character journeys all feel relatable and real, with poignant coming-of-age struggles taking center stage. The friendship-to-romance is treated with sensitivity and good humor, and the search for meaning and identity underscores everything with a lovely heartfelt poignancy and the excellent cast makes everything pop.
Totally and absolutely binge-watching-worthy.
This drama just makes my heart so full and makes me feel like hearts are leaping out of my eyes, pretty much all the way through, as I’m watching. And I loved it.
- Drama: Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo (literal title)
- Revised romanization:Yeokdoyojung Kimbokjoo
- Hangul: 역도요정 김복주
- Director: Oh Hyun-Jong
- Writer: Yang Hee-Seung
- Network: MBC
- Episodes: 16
- Release Date: November 16, 2016 – January 11, 2017
Kim Bok-Joo (Lee Sung-Kyung) is a promising collegiate female weightlifter. Her father runs a small chicken restaurant and her uncle wants to become an actor. She has a bright personality and strong sense of justice. Kim Bok-Joo and her friends on the female weightlifting team are not popular with the guys and they don’t have boyfriends. The weightlifting team and the rhythmic gymnastic team also don’t get along at all.
Meanwhile, Jung Joon-Hyung (Nam Joo-Hyuk) is a collegiate swimmer plagued with numerous false start disqualifications. He is 21-years-old and has a free spirit. His uncle and aunt raised him along with his cousin Jung Jae-Yi (Lee Jae-Yoon).
One day on campus, Kim Bok-Joo bumps into Jung Joon-Hyung while he is riding his bicycle. Her face looks familiar to Jung Joon-Hyung. After he leaves, Kim Bok-Joo picks up a handkerchief left behind by Jung Joon-Hyung. The handkerchief is very important to him and he begins looking for it.
Later, Kim Bok-Joo cleans and irons the handkerchief. She goes to the school’s swimming pool and gives back his handkerchief, but he explodes with anger when he sees that she cleaned it. Kim Bok-Joo then falls into the swimming pool and Jung Joon-Hyung jumps into the pool to save her. At that moment, Kim Bok-Joo and Jung Joon-Hyung realize where they have seen each other before. When they were both children, Kim Bok-Joo saved Jung Joon-Hyung’s life by catching him before he fell to the ground.
Kim Bok-Joo and Jung Joon-Hyung’s relationship now begins. ( via asianwiki.com )
From the moment I read this drama’s synopsis, I felt like this show would be right up my alley.
What surprised me is just how much I ended up loving this show. Within a few quick episodes, my heart had graduated eagerly from strong like to solid love. And it wasn’t too long after that, that I found myself flailing, melting and squeeing over the friendship-to-romance, while my heart lurched, deflated and inflated along with our characters.
Here, I distill – or at least, try to distill – the main things that just made this show work for me.
The people and story feel real
While a lot of dramas are full of fantastical and unusual set-ups, this show’s charm lies in just how ordinary its setting is and how ordinary and relatable its characters are.
There are no life-and-death stakes, no chaebol prince, no candy girl, and not even the usual noble idiocy in this show, and somehow, in all of its ordinariness, it just works. I love how the conflicts that our characters deal with are so every day that we can all easily relate and identify.
Like in episode 6, the joy that Bok Joo (Lee Sung Kyung) feels at being able to squee over her crush Jae Yi (Lee Jae Yoon) is so relatable.
Likewise in episode 14, when Joon Hyung (Nam Joo Hyuk) and Bok Joo face the awkward coming-out of their relationship to their friends, the discomfort and embarrassment feel completely real and believable.
I love that the writer brings struggles so palpably to life, especially in small details, like in episode 14, when Bok Joo tries her best to hide a pimple on her nose from Joon Hyung. The emotion feels painfully true-to-life, even if the manner in which she tries to hide from him feels a little far-fetched.
I love that while our characters face a reasonable amount of angst, it never gets drawn out for too long. It says a lot about this show, that its penultimate episode, despite needing to cover every drama’s requisite angsty stretch, leaves my heart feeling full and content, instead of uneasy or worried. The angst is dealt with in a heartfelt, earnest manner, and isn’t dragged out to maximize the pain. We spend just enough time on it, to appreciate what that pain is doing in our characters’ lives, and then we move on. Honestly, I consider this one of Show’s biggest narrative strengths.
Lee Sung Kyung as Bok Joo
I’ll admit that it took a little while for Lee Sung Kyung’s interpretation of Bok Joo to settle, for me. At first, I found Bok Joo’s facial expressions overly exaggerated and her body movements, unnatural but, once I accepted that Bok Joo really was a person who was that gawky and ungainly when she walked and who really couldn’t help scrunching up her face into a pout on a regular basis, I grew to love her.
Bok Joo is such an everygirl that it’s easy to relate to her struggles, from dealing with self-image to crushing on boys, to finding meaning in what she does.
Precisely because Bok Joo is so relatable, I often found myself living vicariously through her.
A perfect example of secondhand embarrassment is Bok Joo’s crush on Jae Yi. Every effort that Bok Joo made toward pursuing her crush, was suitably amusing but also painfully secondhand embarrassing to watch.
In episode 3, the running gag of Bok Joo seeing visions of Jae Yi everywhere, resulting in her thinking the real him is a vision, was too much for me. I mean, it’s funny, but how embarrassing, to be found poking your imaginary crush on the cheek, only to realize that he’s real.
On the other hand, I do love how strong Bok Joo is when push comes to shove.
In episode 9, I loved that she powers on to win the match, even though her head and heart are overwhelmed at how embarrassing it is to be seen by Jae Yi at her most unwomanly. I loved that demonstration of inner strength and felt so proud of her for prevailing through it all. Her tears afterwards are just so heartrending. I could literally feel how much the effort had taken out of her and that she’s just about ready to crumble into a million pieces.
In particular, I liked that show explores what weightlifting means to Bok Joo via her slump at around the 11-episode mark. I appreciate that Show demonstrates that Bok Joo is a whole person who is much more than a girl in love with a boy. I particularly love Lee Sung Kyung’s delivery of the moment when Bok Joo breaks down and tells Dad that she hates weightlifting; she comes across as so vulnerable and honest and poignant. I totally believe her and just want to hug her and tell her it’s going to be ok.
Perhaps above all, I love how Bok Joo cares deeply about the people around her. Her connection to her dad is clear and I found their fierce daddy-daughter bond very sweet.
In episode 15, we see Bok Joo coming through to put Joon Hyung before herself as well. When Joon Hyung was at his lowest point, she loved and supported him while encouraging him to do good things.
Long story short, I ended up liking Bok Joo a whole lot.
Nam Joo Hyuk as Joon Hyung
I’ll be honest, that was the first drama that I’ve seen with Nam Joo Hyuk annd it’s difficult for me to appreciate an actor having seen only one drama but this show’s taken my Nam Joo Hyuk appreciation to a whole new level. Here, he makes Joon Hyung feel layered and nuanced, which I loved so I started loving him as well. Add to the fact that he also makes Joon Hyung very melty, and I was a very happy fangirl indeed.
As a character, I love what a decent guy Joon Hyung is, in spite of his birth secret complications. When we first meet him, Joon Hyung’s nursing quite a lot of sadness and pain, mostly from his mom basically abandoning him, and also from his earlier break-up with Shi Ho (Kyung Soo Jin). Yet, despite his inner struggles, we only see how earnest and decent Joon Hyung is, as a person and as a sportsman. I had to admire that about him.
As Joon Hyung became friends with Bok Joo, I loved how he would bend over backwards to look out for her, and cheer her up, and help her.
In episode 7, I loved that at the end of an entire night spent cheering Bok Joo up, Joon Hyung looks satisfied and happy and when he says out loud, out of her earshot, that he had fun too, he looks like he means it.
I loved that he cared about her this much, as a friend.
I almost love this more than the idea of him liking her romantically. It just feels purer, somehow.
…Which leads to my next favourite thing: Joon Hyung’s melty gazes. From early on in the show, we get glimpses of this, when Joon Hyung’s gaze turns a little thoughtful when he’s looking right at Bok Joo. Even as early as episode 3, we see this, and it’s like something about Bok Joo moves him, deep within, and it’s pretty intense and quite melty.
Understanding as athletes
One of my favorite things about this OTP, beyond the fact that they’re friends, is that they understand each other so well.
Their affection and appreciation for each other goes deep and is well-established before the romance kicks in, and I like that a lot.
As fellow athletes, they are able to truly understand each others’ struggles and encourage each other in ways that really count.
In episode 6 I loved Bok Joo’s gift to Joon Hyung of the origami toad to comfort him about losing the race that day and to encourage him to keep going. Without words, she said everything that needed to be said, through that simple gift.
I loved watching Joon Hyung and Bok Joo become friends and they cared deeply about each other. I loved that many times, there was understanding without the need for words.
Like in episode 9. In each situation with Jae Yi this episode – first the awkward lunch, then the competition – Joon Hyung immediately knows exactly why and how it’s uncomfortable for Bok Joo, and cares deeply enough to want to make a difference.
Always in the same episode, when she grumbles that she doesn’t know anything much about him, he doesn’t even hedge or hem and haw, struggling to get the words out; he just tells her, the biggest secret of his life, and trusts her with it.
As their friendship deeped, I loved how it showed in the way they interacted with each other.
I loved that moment in episode 8, when Joon Hyung refused to let go of Bok Joo when they’re snuggled on the open-air double-decker bed. The way he looked at her, at that moment, was so gentle and tender.
I loved that all of this affection was just pure affection.
He was not looking to make her like him, or gain a girlfriend; he didn’t even know he might like her. He just holded her, affectionately, and I really appreciated it.
They were just so comfortable with each other, and I loved it.
The healthy relationship
One of my favorite things about this couple was how healthy their relationship was.
As much as they cared for each other, they also respected each other’s individuality.
Like in episode 13, when the weightlifting team insisted on staging an outdoor hunger strike in the middle of winter, Joon Hyung was worried sick about Bok Joo but, he didn’t try to force her to stop. Instead, he brought her heat patches and warm clothes and spoke gently to her.
I love that in friendship and in love, these two continued to encourage each other in their athletic pursuits.
The fantastic skinship
Once the romance kicks into gear, there was a wonderfully giddy quality about our OTP interactions that I simply couldn’t get enough of.
Bok Joo and Joon Hyung were ridiculously cute together, all handsy-grabby thrilled giggles when they were together, and all play bashful-gleeful when they were alone. It was awesome.
These two were just too cute, seriously.
STUFF I DISLIKED
With a show that I loved this much, it feels petty to pick out flaws. But, for the record, here’s a quick spotlight on the things that I liked less in this show.
Where's the logic?
This didn’t show up all that often, but there was definitely an occasion or two when things didn’t make sense.
Like in episode 5, when Bok Joo was allowed to compete on the swimming team, when the weightlifting team that she was part of, was also in the competition. This completely baffled me.
Coaches and adults
Generally speaking, the coaches in this drama world are really harsh: instead of correcting a problem or looking for the root of the problem, all they do is yell at their charges to get it together and do better. How is this helpful?
At the same time, I didn’t like how violent the coaches (and adults in general) tended to be.
Like in episode 7, instead of talking it out with Bok Joo to find out why she’d do something like go to a weight-loss clinic, both her dad (Ahn Kil Kang) and her coach (Jang Young Nam) reached to hit her with a stick. After Nan Hee finally spilled the beans, Coach talks to Bok Joo nicely, but I was still smarting on Bok Joo’s behalf.
Plus, all the forced eating that the weightlifters had to go through made me wince. I couldn’t help thinking, “Surely this isn’t healthy weight gain?”
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
What a feel-good ending to a feel-good show.
While I would have happily taken the end of episode 15 as a warm, open-ended-tending-very-positive ending, I am actually more pleased that we get to peek at how Bok Joo and Joon Hyung navigate their relationship through Bok Joo’s entry to Taereung, and, time-skip later, even witness their graduation from college and now-more-seasoned relationship.
I was not at all surprised at the foibles and misunderstandings that Bok Joo and Joon Hyung had to work through once they went long-distance, and the way it all panned out felt believable and relatable. That is the sort of stuff that a long-distance couple would have to go through, and that is the sort of bump in the road that any couple needs to learn to take in stride, as they continue to build trust and continue to choose to believe in each other.
I loved getting to be a fly on the wall as Bok Joo and Joon Hyung graduated, and I legit got a little teary-eyed as Professor Yoon, himself also kinda teary-eyed, stuttered through his goodbye speech, commanding the kids for doing well, and telling them they can come back to talk to him anytime, when things get rough.
I loved that we got to see Joon Hyung quasi-propose in a way that is so them; that if he gets a gold medal at the Olympics, would she marry him? Augh. These two. I luff them.
I love having joined these two and their hodgepodge crew of family and friends, as they journeyed through those important coming-of-age years. I loved watching them find each other and grow to love each other. I loved watching them make good, wise, mature decisions, even amid the less wise, less mature ones. And I love leaving them in a place where I feel confident that they will continue to grow and be awesome, individually and together.
On a personal note, I made some decisions in my coming-of-age years that I do regret, and while I honestly wouldn’t want to turn back time and live my life all over again, watching Bok Joo and Joon Hyung navigate those same years with their feet more on the ground than I had had, and making better decisions than I had made, kinda-sorta makes me feel like I’ve re-lived those years better, vicariously, through them. And that’s precious and stirring and affecting, in just the best way possible.
FINAL GRADE: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟