K-drama review: Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo

I think this might be my favourite K-drama so far. It’s another one recommended to me as having a kickass female lead, and this time I actually agree. It’s not perfect, but it has a lot going for it.

The setting is Haneul Sports University in Seoul. Our lead characters are 21-year-old athletes from three of the university’s sports teams: swimming, rhythmic gymnastics and weightlifting. There’s swimmer Jung Joon-hyung (Nam Joo-hyuk) who would be the best swimmer on the team but he keeps getting panic attacks at competitions. There’s his ex-girlfriend Song Shi-ho (Kyung Soo-jin) a rhythmic gymnast who has just come back from the national training centre after losing her place on the national team. And of course Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung), the star weightlifter in her year.

Bok-joo is quickly established as a good daughter, a good friend and a defender against bullies. She helps her father and uncle at the fried chicken restaurant they run and goes to as many of her father’s dialysis appointments as her training schedule allows. She spends her free time with besties and fellow weightlifters Jung Nan-hee, a very girly girl, and Lee Seon-ok, a straight shooter who tends to hide her emotions. Bok-joo herself is a tomboy, which is working well for her until her first big crush, when she becomes self-conscious about the fact that she weightlifts and doesn’t have a traditionally feminine appearance.

It’s a K-drama so of course there’s a love triangle. Bok-joo and Joon-hyung bump into each other and realise they know each other from early childhood. They strike up a friendship based on teasing banter and playfighting. He both helps and hinders her with her crush, which gets awkward when he discovers that the object of her crush is his older brother Jung Jae-yi (Lee Jae-yoon). Jae-yi is a super nice, handsome doctor who pays Bok-joo compliments on her appearance – a new experience for her, but one rooted in being a gentleman and spectacularly un-self-aware on his part. Joon-hyung calls Bok-joo “Fatty” (at least that’s how it’s translated in the subtitles on Viki), which does not do her confidence any favours, but of course he’s also falling for her.

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo montage
This show is really all about the relationships.

The sports training looks realistically tough, to the point of being uncomfortable at times to watch. Weight is a big issue – losing it for the rhythmic gymnasts, maintaining or gaining it for the weightlifters – and this makes food key in a different way from the usual K-drama role it plays. There is also corporal punishment, which in a series made and set in 2016–2017 is not easy to accept, but quite possibly realistic.

This show definitely felt like the most realistic K-drama I’ve watched so far. No-one is super rich. Some of the athletes’ families are shown struggling to support their children financially. These 21-year-olds get drunk and go clubbing but are then shouted at by their coaches for jeopardising their careers. They struggle to balance family, friendship and romance in the small space left to them by their training schedules. And none of the characters is a stereotype or cardboard cutout.

I’m still a little unsure about the casting of Lee Sung-kyung as Bok-joo. She’s a great actress (already familiar to me from Doctors) but she’s really skinny, which makes it a little hard to buy her as a weightlifter. Her haircut and wardrobe are designed to make her look larger than she is, but the only way it comes close to working is that Sung-kyung carries herself as a heavier person.

The highlight of the series is the growing friendship between Bok-joo and Joon-hyung, which is so adorable I almost hoped it wouldn’t turn into a romance, as in other K-dramas I have watched that has tended to be the point when the tone switches from fun to serious. But this show bucked a lot of those trends. It stayed light and fun while somehow not making light of the serious issues that it touches on. I even liked the ending!