Why it’s okay not to (always) be okay

Published August 11, 2020, 3:49 PM

by Jordan Tan, Abigail Villafuerte and Wendy Chen

An in-depth not exactly spoiler-free review of Netflix’ hit Korean drama series It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

It’s okay to not be okay, especially in these crazy times.

We just finished watching It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, and we can’t get over it! The anticipation toward weekends, when we would catch the latest episode of the Korean drama, was suddenly brought back to life. Our group chat became 10 times chattier—what used to be filled with our own opinions in business and politics was suddenly buzzing with speculations for plot twists, deep character analysis, and favorite lines.

It’s Okay To Not Be Okay (IOTNBO) tells the story of the three main leads overcoming past traumas and healing from their emotional wounds. It also tells of an unusual love story between a man who has no time for love—not even for himself—and a woman who does not understand love and relationships. It started streaming on Netflix on June 20 and ended on Aug. 9, with a total of 16 episodes.

OKAY? OKAY Stars of the show Seo Ye-ji and Kim Soo-hyun

It’s okay to be different

‘Is being different something to be afraid of?’

We love that while clichés are necessary in romantic K-dramas, IOTNBO was unafraid to introduce fresh elements and twists that will keep you on your toes while you binge.

Fresh from his military service, Kim Soo-Hyun makes a headturning comeback as male lead Moon Gang-Tae, a community health worker in a psychiatric hospital. Blessed with good physique, wit, compassion, and patience—almost as incredible as his looks—he spends most of his life caring for the needs of his patients, especially his elder brother with autism, Moon Sang-Tae, who is masterfully played by veteran actor Oh Jung-se. What’s refreshing for us is that, despite the character’s struggle to control his emotions, Sang-Tae seems to be capable of navigating the world on his own. He isn’t helpless. In fact, his main struggle throughout the series was not his autism but his having to overcome a past trauma. The message here is sobering and, dare we say, game-changing: Societies should stop looking at those who seem different—especially those with special needs—as people who need our pity and fixing. What a feat to capture the ever-blooming independence and understanding of a person with autism. Oh, Oh Jung-se, bravo!

ANTI SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE Seo Ye-ji plays a peculiar character—read on

Another breath of fresh air would come from lead actress Seo Ye-ji, who must be the face of K-beauty. She plays the role of the wildly impulsive fairy tale writer Ko Mun-Yeong who struggles with empathy, due to having antisocial personality disorder. We love how her popularity, elegance, and style destigmatized the antisocial personality. We mentioned style, so let’s talk about that briefly. Let’s be honest; some of us are on our toes, keeping up with the drama, because we just can’t wait to see Mun-Yeong flaunt her next intelligently curated look. But here’s another truth unveiled in the show: Mun-Yeong’s dramatic-eccentric fashion also narrates her character’s defense mechanism. Some people keep what’s outside loud enough to drown out the loneliness inside.

Aside from the fresh takes on the lead characters, we also noticed that while most romantic Korean dramas begin with “charming guy meets cute girl,” leading to some dramatic conflict, IOTNBO jumps straight into the conflict instead, as the two leads confront each other in the middle of a crazy situation. And within the crazy and the conflict lies the attraction.

Equally irresistible is the role reversal portrayed by Mun-Yeong, being the headstrong, independent woman that she is, pursuing her love interest, Gang-Tae, with her aggressive charm and intense eye-contacts. Instead of giving in to the temptation of exploiting the chemistry of the leads, the show also chooses to stay true to its theme of “human healing” by focusing on the broad spectrum of mental illnesses and emotional struggles of all the other characters—each with a story to tell.

It’s okay to take your time to heal

‘Your body is honest. When you’re in physical pain, you cry. But the heart is a liar. It stays quiet even when it’s hurting.’

LOVE HEALS The series’ poster has the two protagonists in the solace of each other’s company

As the show progresses, Gang-Tae, Sang-Tae, and Mun-Yeong discover some of the pains experienced by each other: the abandonment, the trauma, the abuse. As each was moved to progress in their own struggles, we were moved too! When they were sad, happy, and in love, we also felt sad, happy, and in love. This is the power of healing as one. But in the oneness also lies the danger of rushing the healing process, mostly because of a self-imposed pressure to completely recover, as if emotional pains and mental illnesses are acute in nature and can be written-off once and for all.

Everyone is broken or messed up somehow and you can’t keep on blaming your circumstances for that.

Also part of the “human healing” that the show wants to talk about is understanding the complexity of how people with dementia, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, multiple personality disorder, and other mental disorders cope in their own ways. Forcing someone to heal “prematurely” may lead to tragic relapses. This was sweetly taught in the story of Jeong-tae, the patient admitted for alcoholism, who chose to stay under hospital care despite having a chance to elope with his one true love.

FLOWERS WITH A KISS A scene from episode 9

Healing often takes a while and, very often, the slow progress may go unnoticed. Not all those who are hurting cry loudly. If we weren’t too distracted by Kim Soo-Hyun and Seo Ye-ji’s on-set chemistry, we might notice that their characters’ strongest expression of understanding and love for each other rested in their intense, heart-racing, eye contact. The long stares. The sweet caresses. We must listen with our eyes.

The writers cleverly used originally written, well-known, and even local Korean fairy tales to make understanding the complexity of the heart and mind easier. They also served as relevant reminders for adults about life’s important lessons. We especially love this quote from the show that says, “Fairy tales aren’t hallucinogens that give us hopes and dreams. They’re stimulants that make us face reality.” For example, their healing journey parallels that of Dorothy and her companions in their quest for the wizard of Oz. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends each had something taken away from them, which is why they looked for the wizard, hoping he could give them back what was taken from them. In the end, however, we see that they found what they were looking for but somewhere they least expected.

It’s okay to not be okay

‘When you’re tired, get some rest. When you’re sad, go ahead and cry. It’s okay to take a break. Then one day, there will surely come a day when you’ll be able to run again.’

Sad Korean Drama GIF by The Swoon - Find & Share on GIPHY

That’s how OK Psychiatric Hospital’s director Oh Ji-Wang simply puts it.

Something undeniable with IOTNBO’s storytelling is that it hits at the core of society—the family. Suddenly, we are brought back to our own homes and we know that human imperfections can destroy relationships. But here comes the healing power of the show, gently whispering to us that leaning on imperfect people you can trust is not a bad way to overcome pains and fears. Similar to how Dorothy and her companions eventually became a “family” in their own right, and defeated the Wicked Witch of the West. In these crazy times, it is only natural to feel down. Social distance can be quite lonely in high doses, too. But that doesn’t mean we should start pointing fingers—on others, on our past, and on ourselves. If there’s one thing we’d love for you to take away from this drama, it’s that the world is a big OK Psychiatric Hospital with many patients out there who are not dressed in hospital gowns. Everyone is broken or messed up somehow and no one should keep putting the blame on circumstances for that. We have to learn to live with it courageously and understand that where there is brokenness, there is also room for healing—for our souls to grow. Be a friend because, most important, it’s not good to isolate yourself. Even the strongest of personalities need people, too.