Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo

TV comedy without the sit-com

By Michelle Sinclair

Longtime readers of Media Matters might remember my love of Korean dramas (self-contained 16-24 episode TV shows), and a recent series was so much fun I wanted to revisit the topic. Don’t be turned away by the silly-sounding title. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo is a delight from beginning to end, subverting clichés and mining comedy from some of the most relatable parts of growing up.

The title is a play on a piece of Korean culture, applying the word “fairy” to a female star of any stripe. For example, the South Korean women’s figure skating champion Kim Yuna (known as Yuna Kim internationally) is sometimes called “Figure Skating Fairy” in her home country. No one naturally conflates the words “weightlifting” and “fairy,” so right there you see the drama’s sense of humor. It’s also one of the main character’s central struggles—can strength be feminine?

Kim Bok-joo (family names come first in Korean) attends a sports university with a major in weightlifting. As a college junior, she’s at the point in her career that she’s starting to garner national attention, winning gold in competitions and seriously becoming a contender to join the South Korean National Team. Bok-joo loves weightlifting—the smells, the sounds, the simplicity of pitting your own strength against the weights. She also relishes the mountains of food she has to/gets to eat as part of it. To top it off, she has great friends and family.

But when she develops a crush on a doctor who runs an obesity clinic, she grows ashamed of her (only slightly) bigger body and her identity as a weightlifter. She lies about her identity and enrolls as the doctor’s patient—trying to lose weight she doesn’t need to lose (and that she needs for competing) just so she can see him. Meanwhile, a boy whose life she saved in elementary school has grown up to become a competitive swimmer. Jung Joon-hyung is delighted to get reacquainted in college, pestering her at first, then supporting her through the misery of her crush, all while falling in love with who she really is—weightlifting strength and all.

Why do I turn to these shows again and again when there are so many high-quality English-language TV shows being produced? Because even with all the variety, there is an absolute dearth of light-hearted, fun, character-driven storytelling. Modern Family (188 episodes to date) and New Girl (134 episodes) fit in this category somewhat, but they’re still episodic, usually telling a different story every week. I have developed an intense dislike of—and impatience with—“let’s see where the series goes” storytelling because it takes a) way too much time to watch it all, and b) isn’t nearly as satisfying as exploring characters in depth through a well-planned plot. Things are starting to change—Netflix and others have begun producing one or two season shows that are short and written entirely in advance, but they are mysteries, action, or high-stakes court/political/rich family drama. Where’s the comedy?

I love intense drama, mystery, and action as much as the next person, but at the end of the day, don’t we also want to laugh? Smile? Love?

In a story like Weightlifting Fairy, you don’t get only laughter—you also get to really know these characters, including their deepest flaws and struggles. Not only does Kim Bok-joo have trouble with honesty—falling back on lies to hide her embarrassment or pain—we also see it’s a habit she gets from her father, who frequently tries to hide his own health problems from his daughter, creating more problems in the end. By contrast the male lead Jung Joon-hyung has had it with his own family members lying to spare him pain. His honesty, and these two characters’ willingness to talk everything over (no Big Misunderstandings drawn out over several episodes here!) is part of the series’ refreshing nature.

Best of all, there’s a warmth at the heart of the show that seems absent from anything American-made since the Little House on the Prairie or The Walton’s days. American TV audiences seem to have confused genuineness with corniness and sweetness with snore-inducing. I love intense drama, mystery, and action as much as the next person, but at the end of the day, don’t we also want to laugh? Smile? Love?

 

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo is available to stream for free (with commercials) on Viki.com. It is subtitled in English. I’d rate it PG/light PG-13.

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