Weight loss stories, in general, tend to rub me the wrong way. Perhaps it’s the unrealistic standards of beauty in K-pop (and beyond) and the terribly unhealthy way that many go about achieving it; or maybe it’s because of the way that weight loss has been presented in the past. Female characters typically reveal their “beauty” once it is no longer constrained by all those pounds (or some nonsense) but for some reason frequently owe it to someone, typically a male someone. In that vein, KBS‘s Oh My Venus doesn’t break much new ground.
Kang Joo-eun (Shin Min-ah) may be interested in getting back her beauty by losing weight, and she may do whatever it takes to get it, but there is very much this undercurrent that none of this is her doing. Instead, unusual amounts of praise keep going to Kim Young-ho (So Ji-sub), also known as a Hollywood personal trainer under the (assumed to be his American) name John Kim.
The Hollywood aspect, especially this whole character of Anna Sue, is hilariously unrealistic and so easy to overlook, but the amount of praise heaped onto Young-ho as the all-powerful transformer of looks — just a step below God according to some reality show about weight loss — is incredibly frustrating. While Young-ho is at least humble and kind, the notion that Kang Joo-eun and every other woman he’s helped lose weight owes him everything is unfair.
In fact, the women seem to lose their agency in losing weight, something they choose to do themselves. Young-ho may be helping Joo-eun in her quest to lose weight, but she is the one that actually is putting in the time and effort to make it happen. Even if Young-ho is in her head telling her how to eat and handle herself, she is choosing to commit to this, and that self-discipline should be the focus. Instead, we get Young-ho saying that he “owns” Joo-eun’s body, which is creepy, to say the least.
On the more positive side, though, at least Joo-eun doesn’t seem to define herself by her weight. She considers herself just as intelligent and great a lawyer as before she gained weight. It’s sad that she believes that she’s lost her beauty because of gaining weight, but at least that’s not the focus of the show.
In fact, I’d argue that this drama isn’t trying to make it seem like Joo-eun will suddenly get her beauty back by losing weight. This is paralleled through Oh Soo-jin (Yoo In-young), who has already completed the transformation from overweight law student and former friend to Joo-eun to thin, glamorous lawyer and now supervisor to Joo-eun, with a great car to boot.
Despite finally getting all the things she wants, Soo-jin is still unhappy with her life. She may be set up as the villain, but I mostly feel sorry and want to cheer for her. She clearly has personal issues that she’s taking out on Joo-eun, such as the misfire with her crush back in college and her persistent love-hate relationship with food, and she needs to come to terms with them. The same can be said of Joo-eun, who is ambitious and sharp-tongued — a nice set of characteristics to see in a female main character — but also still battling her own issues in discovering that her true beauty is more than superficial.
The female characters aren’t the only ones dealing with these issues, as Young-ho obviously has a lot of emotional trauma to overcome after his own health issues as a child. Osteosarcoma is the most common type of bone cancer, and typically found in children and adolescents. It is definitely traumatic as the treatment of surgery requires resecting the entire section of bone that has become cancerous, which can lead to amputation if it’s not discovered early enough. Young-ho clearly managed to escape cancer with all of his limbs, but it’s left him with neurosis and emotional scars. This explains his obsessive focus on maintaining physical fitness and helping others with it. He almost lost the ability to even be able to walk and doesn’t take it for granted, nor does he want others to.
This also makes his impulse to help Joo-eun more believable. The timing may be unrealistic, as all types of situations in K-dramas are, but at least his desire to help her makes sense. It’s also great that he’s more concerned about Joo-eun’s health, particularly when he finds out that she has hypothyroidism, than her supposed beauty that is to be reclaimed.
What bugs me, though, is that he claims to feel this impulse to help the weak, but he’s so eager to shake Joo-eun off. Before he realizes that she has hypothyroidism, in her first attempt to lose weight with “John Kim,” or Kim Ji-woong (Henry Lau) pretending to be him, he gives her all these exercises to exhaust her and not actually help her. It’s a tool for humor obviously, but it also makes for inconsistent characterization that gives him more of a jerk appearance than he’s supposed to have.
Speaking of jerks, Im Woo-shik (Jung Gyu-woon) is undoubtedly my least favorite character. While he’s considered one of the leads, I just can’t stand him because he’s clearly established himself as a jerk: First, he breaks up with his supposed first love Joo-eun on their 15-year anniversary (!); then, he lies to Soo-jin, with whom he was sneaking around before his break-up (!!), so that he can sneak around to spy on Joo-eun after he’s broken up with her; and finally, through all of this, he has the gall to act as though he has some right to both of them (!!!). I want him to end up alone as he deserves neither female character, so a quick exit stage left would be ideal. But that’s unlikely if we follow dramaland laws. Instead, he’s probably going to “redeem” himself in some unbelievable way. Ugh.
At least the chemistry between Shin Min-ah and So Ji-sub is believable. I’m not totally sold on it yet, but I definitely see why their characters are interested in each other, Young-ho in particular. He seems to be quite good at hiding his emotions. Both Jang Joon-sung (Sung Hoon), also known as MMA fighter “Korean Snake” whom Young-ho is training, and Ji-woong, Joon-sung’s manager, don’t seem to realize something is off. Joo-eun, though, does.
Her skilled perception of who he actually is, such as that he doesn’t allow himself certain pleasures, is thus attractive to him — she can see right through to him. So that kiss, their first genuine one, at the end was kind of perfect. I’m also glad it didn’t happen in some over-the-top situation as their accidental first kiss did.
As we move into the second act, I’m ambivalent about Oh My Venus. I’d like to see more character development from pretty much everyone except Young-ho. Even Joo-eun’s motives could use more fleshing out. I’d particularly like to get more about Joon-sung and Soo-jin, who’ve remained on the sideline and in the role of villain, respectively. There’s a lot to mine from these characters’ back stories that could add more depth and keep them from being flat filler or stereotype characters. Of course, with the focus on Joo-eun and Young-ho, it’s hard to say how much use the drama will make of them.
I also really want to see them push this whole notion of weight being a superficial factor that has nothing to do with true beauty. This may be a weight-loss-transformation drama, which requires Joo-eun’s change, but that doesn’t mean it has to be so objectifying or shallow and can pursue a larger meaning.
I’ll at least hope that Ji-woong will stop calling Joo-eun “ma’am” soon because I’m not sure how much more of that ridiculousness I can take.
(KBS, National Cancer Institute)