Review: Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo

THE SHORT VERDICT:

Cheerful, sweet and engaging, this show is easy to love.

The conflicts and character journeys all feel relatable and real, with poignant coming-of-age struggles taking centerstage. The friendship-to-romance is treated with sensitivity and good humor, and the search for meaning and identity underscores everything with a lovely heartfelt poignance. The excellent cast makes everything pop, and Nam Joo Hyuk is more melty – and more excellent – than I’ve seen him, ever.

Totally and absolutely marathon-worthy.

THE LONG VERDICT:

I seriously wish I could just fill this entire page with only heart emoticons – sprinkled liberally with hearts-in-eyes emoticons – and call this review done. Because honestly, that pretty much sums up how I feel about this show. This one 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 loves it. So Freaking Much. ❤️

OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE

Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.

STUFF I LOVE

From the moment I read this show’s synopsis, I felt like this show would be right up my alley; I mean, coming-of-age underdog story of an ordinary everygirl who excels in weightlifting? Count me in.

What surprised me, though, 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-cum-budding-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.

1. The people and stories feel real & relatable.

While dramaland is full of shows with 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 everyday that we can all easily relate and identify.

[MINORISH SPOILERS]

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 feels completely real and believable.

I love that writer-nim brings the coming-of-age struggles so palpably to life, especially in the small details, like in episode 14, when a horrified Bok Joo tries her best to hide the 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.

[END SPOILERS]

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.

2. 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.

At the heart of it, 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. Sometimes, that resulted in tasting sweet victory, and more often than not, it also resulted in a healthy helping of secondhand embarrassment.

[SPOILER ALERT]

A perfect example of secondhand embarrassment, is Bok Joo’s crush on Jae Yi. Gah. Every effort that Bok Joo made towards 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 OMG how embarrassing, to be found poking your imaginary crush in the cheek, only to realize that he’s real. *faints vicariously from secondhand embarrassment*

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, though, 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 for 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.

[END SPOILERS]

3. Nam Joo Hyuk as Joon Hyung

I’ve had a soft spot for Nam Joo Hyuk ever since School 2015, but I hafta say, this show’s taken my Nam Joo Hyuk appreciation to a whole new level. Here, not only does he retain the same warm onscreen presence that he had in School 2015, he’s upped his acting game by what feels like many levels, and he makes Joon Hyung feel layered and nuanced, which I love. Add on the fact that he also makes Joon Hyung very melty, and I was a very flaily happy fangirl indeed. ❤️

[SPOILER ALERT]

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 love 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. Aw.

I just love that he cares about her this much, as a friend. I almost love this more than the idea of him liking her romantically. It just feels more pure, somehow. But of course, my heart wobbles when he has his moments of hyperawareness.

…Which leads to my next favorite 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.

Like so:

As the two become close friends, there’s so much unadulterated affection and loyalty and love – not necessarily romantic, but love, for her very person – that is held in that gaze. Augh, I love it, so much.

Melt.

And of course, that soon evolves into tender, romantic gazes that I just couldn’t get enough of.

Like so:

Flail. Puddle. Swoon.

I love it. I love that Bok Joo doesn’t need to be anything or anyone other than herself, to inspire this kind of loyalty, affection and head-over-heels lurve in him. ❤️

On another note, major props to Nam Joo Hyuk for nailing even Joon Hyung’s most difficult scenes. The episode 15 scenes where Joon Hyung was overwhelmed with anger, bewilderment and heartbreak were delivered really well, and I fully bought into Joon Hyung’s pain.

I would even say that Nam Joo Hyuk managed to add a nice amount of nuance to his delivery, not just in the difficult scenes, but in the smaller moments when Joon Hyung’s awkwardly interacting with his mum. I can feel him trying to be good and and trying to maximize the time that he has with her, while still feeling incredibly awkward about it, and trying to tamp down years of bottled-up neglect.

Really nicely done indeed.

[END SPOILER]

4. The OTP connection

This OTP is ❤️ – seriously.

Credit to writer-nim, for teasing out the development of this OTP relationship in such a detailed, believable way. We get to see these two go from frenemies, to genuine besties, to hearts-in-eyes romantic, in detailed, everyday glory, which just makes it feel extra organic and believable.

Credit too, to Nam Joo Hyuk and Lee Sung Kyung, who share an amazing amount of chemistry in this show. The reason I say “in this show” is because I’ve seen some photos and footage of the two in other contexts – magazine shoot, awards show – and that same glorious spark just isn’t there. I think there’s some true fairy dust in Weightlifting Fairy, coz in the context of this show, while in these roles, Nam Joo Hyuk and Lee Sung Kyung are simply wonderful together.

In fact, I am in slight disbelief at how insanely comfortable Nam Joo Hyuk and Lee Sung Kyung are together onscreen, in this show. I really feel like Joon Hyung and Bok Joo share a deep and easy friendship, with a comfort and ease with each other born out of spending a lot of time together, in close proximity. The skinship feels so natural and easy, I feel like they’ve cuddled a lot before, and I’m completely blown away.

I just couldn’t get enough of these two, honestly. ❤️

[SPOILER ALERT]

1. The understanding as fellow athletes

One of my favorite things about this OTP, beyond the fact that they’re friends, is that they understand each other so well, as fellow athletes. 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. I loved Bok Joo’s gift to Joon Hyung of the origami toad in episode 6, 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.

In turn, Joon Hyung regularly gives Bok Joo the best pep talks whenever she’s feeling anxious or nervous about a competition, saying exactly what she needs to hear. Not only is he a fellow athlete well-acquainted with the pressures of competition, he’s also her closest buddy and biggest supporter. Which I love, So Much. Aw.

2. The friendship

I loved watching Joon Hyung and Bok Joo become friends who 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. I love that.

I love too, that Joon Hyung, who’s much more guarded about himself, opens up to Bok Joo quite readily. In episode 9, 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. Aw.

As their friendship deepens, I love how it shows in the way they interact with each other.

I love this moment in episode 8, when Joon Hyung refuses to let go of Bok Joo, when they’re snuggled on the open-air double-decker bed (eee!). The way he looks at her, in that moment, is so gentle and tender (melt).

I love that all of this affection is just that – pure affection. He’s not looking to make her like him, or gain a girlfriend; he doesn’t even know he might like her. He just holds her, affectionately, and I swoon. ❤️

These two are consistently super cute together, like they are here in episode 10, playing on the beach, and getting all handsy without feeling awkward about it.

They are just so comfortable with each other, and I love it.

3. The healthy relationship

One of my favorite things about this couple, is how healthy their relationship is. As much as they care for each other, they also respect each other’s individuality.

Like in episode 13, when the weightlifting team insists on staging an outdoor hunger strike in the middle of winter, Joon Hyung is worried sick about Bok Joo. But, he doesn’t try to force her to stop. Instead, he brings her heat patches and warm clothes, and speaks gently to her, and I melt.

I love that in friendship and in love, these two continue to encourage each other in their athletic pursuits. I love that when Bok Joo gets accepted to Taereung, that Joon Hyung is completely supportive, even if it means that he will see much less of her. Better yet, I love that he uses that as motivation for himself, so that he will do even better, and be accepted to Taereung right along with her. That’s just so wholesome and healthy and mature, and I simply love it.

4. The fantastic skinship

Once the romance kicks into gear, there is a wonderfully giddy quality about our OTP interactions that I simply can’t get enough of.

Bok Joo and Joon Hyung are ridiculously cute together, all handsy-grabby thrilled giggles when they’re together, and all flaily bashful-gleeful when they’re alone. It’s awesome, and I lap it all up eagerly.

These two are just too cute, seriously. ❤️

[END SPOILERS]

5. The friendships

I love that Bok Joo’s got two besties in Seon Ok (Lee Joo Young) and Nan Hee (Jo Hye Jung), and that the three of them are really tight. We definitely need more strong female friendships on our screens, and the tight-knit closeness that these three shared was heartwarming goodness. I loved that no matter what came between them, that they would always end up crying together, then making up, before rocking out together all over again.

So endearing, and yes, so full of s-wag. 😉

Special shout-outs

1. Shi Ho’s arc

I like Kyung Soo Jin as an actress, and thought she did a very good job of the role of Shi Ho. From the get-go, I felt a sadness about Shi Ho through Kyung Soo Jin’s restrained portrayal, and found Shi Ho intriguing as a character.

Credit to writer-nim for giving Shi Ho a meaningful personal arc, rather than simply making her part of a typical love triangle.

[SPOILER ALERT]

I found Shi Ho’s struggle with her circumstances extremely poignant, once we were given insight into her situation. What a burden to carry, knowing that your gymnastic talent is running your family’s finances into the ground. Even worse, is the fact that your gymnastic talent feels like it’s fizzling out on you. How awful. It’s no wonder that Shi Ho was so sad all the time.

I thought Shi Ho’s predicament was a thoughtful showcase of the plight of many athletes. So many athletes show talent at a really young age, and become committed to a vocation by their parents before they’re old enough to really make a huge life decision like that.

It was saddening to watch Shi Ho basically run herself into the ground, while seeking control in her life. But it was heartening to see her gather the strength to make a stand for herself and no one else. By Show’s end, I was happy to see a happier and healthier Shi Ho, who had made fresh inroads into a life that she did want to lead.

[END SPOILER]

2. Jae Yi’s loveline with Ah Young [SPOILERS]

I will admit that for a portion of the show, I was rather frustrated with Jae Yi. I mean, he’s a nice guy, but he can be so very clueless. Like in episode 10, after he realized that Bok Joo had been nursing a crush on him. I couldn’t believe he then set up an appointment with Bok Joo, and proceeded to embarrass her further. It was so mortifying to watch Bok Joo have to muster up a non-committal facade to get through her meeting with Jae Yi.

Similarly, Jae Yi was completely clueless about the feelings that Ah Young (Yoo Da In) had for him. His initial attempt to make things work between them was so hollow, that I had to admire Ah Young for her response. I mean, she’d liked him for so long, that it would’ve been understandable if she’d grabbed the chance to date him for real. But, girl’s got her head in the right place, and I love that she loved herself enough to turn him down.

In the end, I’m glad that Jae Yi had to work to show her that he really did like her, and that he had to pretty much earn her heart back. I felt a nice amount of vicarious satisfaction for Ah Young, that she eventually got her happy ending, and never settled for less, in the process.

STUFF I LIKED A LITTLE LESS

With a show that I love 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.

1. Occasionally, logic takes a beating

This didn’t show up all that often, but there was definitely an occasion or two when things didn’t make sense. [SPOILER] Like in episode 5, when Bok Joo is allowed to compete on the swimming team, when the weightlifting team that she’s part of, is also in the competition. This completely baffled me. In what world can you explain that away? [END SPOILER]

On a complete tangent, Tae Kwon (Ji Il Joo) dressed up in a cheerleader’s outfit totally reminded me of Ji Sung in Kill Me, Heal Me. Which is a genuine compliment to Ji Il Joo, in my books.

2. Coaches and their training methods

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. Um. How is this helpful?

At the same time, I didn’t like how violent the coaches (and adults in general) tended to be. [SPOILER] 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. [END SPOILER]

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

Ahh. 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 quasi-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, commending 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.

THE FINAL VERDICT:

Earnest, heartwarming, heartfelt and just plain Good.

FINAL GRADE: A+

TEASER:

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[…] and this PD did a good job directing Nam Joo Hyuk, back when he was still a little green, in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo, and I loved Nam Joo Hyuk in that show, […]

A Reviewer
A Reviewer
8 months ago

Awesome show… sought this out because of your A+ rating. We really enjoyed this show. OTP chemistry was out of this world. I really loved the scene on the rooftop with the OTP in the hammock. They were so cute together, and very very comfortable with each other.

Gloglo
Gloglo
9 months ago

I really loved this show, kfangirl. Thanks for recommending it. I agree with your completely when you say that its particular narrative strength is not prolonging the angst. I do like angst in other shows and sometimes, it is a welcome element, but this wasn’t that kind of show. I also loved how the younger generation acted so maturely, how the portrayal of their individual athletic dilemmas and conflicts was given so much room to breath, and how the transition from friends to lovers was treated with so much care and respect.

I also agree in the puzzling behaviour of some adults in this show, and I’m unsure at times about how to read it… it feels like the burden of most athletes in this drama was frequently brought upon or made worse by insensitive coaches and terrible parenting. I understand that sometimes the show was making that point clear. Others, it felt that casual parental or hierarchical violence is tolerated out of respect for your elders… it made me wonder about generational conflicts in the Korea of today (in so many ways not dissimilar to those in many other parts of the world.) This show made it seem like the young generation is very forgiving of their elders’ sins… I’d say that a little bit too much even… But then again it wasn’t the purpose of this drama to criticise or confront the older generation’s shortcomings, but rather expose them as part of the life of a Korean young athlete, which was interesting in itself.

I also had a bit of a problem with the way sport’s weight gain or loss was portrayed here. Kdramas are usually at their weakest when they introduce social or medical issues, like body image and eating disorders, and they don’t fully commit to their message. To use a conventionally attractive model to portray a female weightlifter is a problem in itself. I understand that in these kind of shows the audience is supposed to see the “not so good looking” heroine with the sympathetic eyes of the hero (thence casting a very thin and attractive actress for a not so thin and not so attractive part), but having the image crisis of the heroine not supported by the actress’s physique somewhat deprived the show of honesty. The show also explores the issue of sport’s weight gain and weight loss with a fair amount of detail, and it seems to only educate or lecture about weight loss (through Jae Yi’s expertise on the matter and Shi Ho’s cautionary tale) while completely making a mockery of weight gain and muscle building… (all that shoving food down Bok joo’s throat was a bit distasteful.)

This are small flaws though. At the very least, this show is successful in starting a conversation about body image, and about how a woman’s body has uses beyond the “looking gracile and pretty”. It is also a great heartfelt story about friendship, growing up, deciding your path and falling in love. An A+ from me too 😊.

Eric
Eric
1 year ago

Thank you for this. I would not have watched it without your review and would have missed out. I love how … ordinary … everyone was. No psycho killer. No billionaires. No exotic sets. Just a great story that could happen to normal people. It also seems like there were maybe 20 times when the writer could have gone for cheap drama with an obvious trope – especially “I won’t talk about my feelings with the person I love and this leads to drama”, “male lead is cruel or embarrasses female lead before falling in love”, “cinderella make over”, ones. You sometimes see these coming and then – surprise! – the characters just trust each other, act decently early in the relationship, tell each other the truth, talk honestly about how they feel. The big secret reveal in Ep9 that you mentioned is a great example. It’s funny that this drama about very young, not super smart characters who are supposed to be immature – so often shows such a mature and healthy sort of relationship. Meanwhile the older chaebols, doctors and lawyers in other dramas act like lunatics or children.

One funny point I noticed that others have mentioned as well – why the heck does a college student have so many coats? Shouldn’t he have one? You can find a ridiculous photo montage if you google. Is this some kind of product placement gone horribly wrong? Wardrobe got bored trying to dress them like regular college kids? In this area it would totally make sense for a fashionista heiress, idol, the Goblin, or a dashing CEO to dress like this – but seems silly for a college swimmer. Maybe if his parents owned a clothing importer or something? Just google the name of the drama and How many COATS does a guy NEED for a giggle.

Solid A for the show.

NJH is currently in “School Nurse Files” on netflix… psychedelic and odd but fun.

Freya
Freya
1 year ago

Your reviews really stand out. I used to think they were long and winding. But seeing how you put into detail what you think about the characters, the plot and everything in between, reading your reviews are so worth it mostly because you are honest.

Shirsha
1 year ago

I love reading your reviews. I take them very seriously. You somehow manage articulate some of my thoughts into your reviews in a way that I never could. Thank you for your reviews.