Sometimes, a Korean drama (K-drama) arrives and defines its time period. For the late 2000s, that could easily be “Coffee Prince,” a show that transcended its original audience and became part of how the world viewed Korea itself. It is often a surprise, but a powerful one. Such is the case with the recent K-drama “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo.” It revolves around the love story of a female weightlifter named Kim Bok Joo and a swimmer named Jeong Joon Hyung at Haneul Sports University. It’s a show that has made global stars of its lead actors, lifted countless hearts and even launched an internet meme. It is also the new best way to introduce newbies to the unforgettable realm of K-dramas. Check out five great reasons why.
The cast is awesome. Or as the weightlifting girls like to say, the cast is “SWAG!” The casting is an extraordinary feat from top to bottom, beginning with the titular character. Kim Bok Joo is model Lee Sung Kyung’s first lead role. Her distinctive look (check out that angry face), impressive height and generous acting make the weightlifter awkward, adorable and believable at the same time. She isn’t some porcelain doll; she’s utterly sensitive, quotable and memorable, even if she can lift 185 kilos. Sung Kyung had to gain five kilos to play the part. She shares remarkable onscreen chemistry with the swimmer Jeong Joon Hyung, played by Nam Joo Hyuk. Nam, who like Sung Kyung won an award for their roles on this show, balances Joon Hyung’s deeply rooted vulnerability and his outward haughtiness. At 6’2”, he’s also a truly long drink of water out of the pool. But when they’re together, Sung Kyung and Joo Hyuk have an easy, enviable rapport that makes viewers want to be back in school. But “Weightlifting Fairy” also shines in casting the supporting roles especially Kyung Soo Jin as Joon Hyung’s troubled gymnast ex-girlfriend Song Si Ho, the grumpily lovable Ahn Gil Kang as Kim Bok Joo’s father Kim Chang Gul, and, of course, the affable Lee Jae Yoon as Joon Hyung’s older brother, Dr. Jeong Jae Yi. This space isn’t big enough to mention everybody else, but Kim Bok Joo’s kooky weightlifting teammates deserve a shout-out as well. But put it all together, and you get a seamless ensemble bannered by two stars who will no doubt be remembered most for their turns as Kim Bok Joo and Jeong Joon Hyung.
It’s both a usual and an unusual K-drama. Like many Korean dramas, “Weightlifting Fairy” is less than 20 episodes long, in this case, exactly 16 episodes long, with each episode track at just under an hour. It’s so binge-watchable, you’ll wind up trying not to finish all the episodes so you would have episodes left to watch. But it’s also a jock drama, an unusual conceit, where the athletes are portrayed as real people with real problems instead of one-note steroidal bullies. Even the choices of sport (weightlifting, swimming, gymnastics) are unusual choices that have not been seen much on any country’s TV dramas. The sports also aren’t token elements. The competitions play an important part in the plot. The show also deviates from other K-dramas in that it is loosely based on the life of an actual weightlifter, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist Jang Mi Ran. Bizarrely, the show consistently rated last in its original broadcast run on MBC from November 2016 to January 2017 (not surprising since it was locked in a competitive 10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday slot opposite shows like fellow K-drama “The Legend of the Blue Sea” which starred Lee Min Ho). But subsequent streaming and screenings have turned “Weightlifting Fairy” into an international sensation.
It has a really catchy soundtrack. From its last-song-syndrome-inducing theme song to the little vignettes that play whenever certain situations come around (“Clear,” “A New Start” and “What??”), the music of “Weightlifting Fairy” is a pleasant, amusing version of the earworm. The featured songs from acts like Kim Jong Wan (the main theme, “You & I”), Han Hee Jung (the romantic theme “Dream”) and Standing Egg (“I’ll Pick You Up”) will have you humming endlessly. The suites and soundtrack pieces from Kim Joon-suk and Jung Se-rin will make you feel like you’re in your own romantic K-drama. You can check out the playlist on Spotify.
It is where the “Do You Like Messi?” meme came from. If you ever wondered where that viral phenomenon (the girl in the accompanying image is, of course, Kim Bok Joo) of asking someone you like if they liked Messi, it came from the show. Originally spoken by Bok Joo’s best friend Nan Hee, the question is deployed thusly: You ask a crush if they liked Messi to see if you have shared interests, such as football, hence Messi, referring to the Argentine superstar Lionel Messi. It became a meme after Bok Joo asked Dr. Jeong the same thing. The meme has now mutated; when you ask someone “Do you like Messi,” you’re asking him or her if they like you (“Messi” standing in for “me.”) That’s why you want a “yes” as an answer.
It’s a good vibes generator. While it has its share of complex subplots, “Weightlifting Fairy” is mostly about Kim Bok Joo’s quest for happiness in many aspects, and the series is lighthearted and goofy almost the entire time. There isn’t anything here that will haunt you or depress you. Instead, “Weightlifting Fairy” will put a kilig smile on your face when you watch it till the end, and then—same wide smile in place—you will immediately want to watch it again from the start. It is the kind of show we need these days. The brightly uplifting “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo” is that rare show that will make you thankful you watched it. All together now: “SWAG!”
“Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo” is available for free streaming on the Viu app and website www.viu.com.