‘It’s Okay to Not Be Okay‘ is a South Korean romantic psychological drama released in June 2020 that aired every Saturday and Sunday on tvN for 16 episodes and held the prime-time slot of 21:00 KST. It was simultaneously released on Netflix worldwide, gaining a large global audience. Starring Kim Soo-Hyun, Seo Ye Ji, and Oh Jung Se, the series has been directed by Park Shin Woo of Jealousy Incarnate and written for the screen by a fairly new Jo Youg.
Kim Soo-Hyun, marking his first full-time project post-military-enlistment, plays the character of Moon Gang Tae, a caregiver for psychiatric patients. His life revolves around taking care of his elder brother who is on the autism spectrum and he has little time for anything else. Seo Ye Ji of Lawless Lawyer fame plays Ko Moon Young, a Children’s book author, generally considered to be an anti-social, foul-mouthed woman who gets immediately obsessed with the objects of her desire. Oh Jung Se plays Moon Sang Tae’s older brother with his character name being Gang Tae, and he is a huge fan of Ko Moon Young and her books. Despite many hardships related to his Autism, he aspires to be an illustrator.
When talking about It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, one cannot forget about the stellar supporting cast of the series. Park Kyu Young plays Nam Ju Ri, a nurse who has an unrequited crush on Gang Tae and Kim Mi Kyung plays Kang Soon Deok, Ju Ri’s mother and the brothers’ landlady. Kim Chang Wan plays Oh Ji Wang, the director of OK Psychiatric Hospital, where they all work. Jo Jae Soo, Gang Tae’s best friend, is played by Kang Ki Doong. Kim Joo Hun plays Lee Sang In, the CEO of the publishing company that makes Ko Moon Young’s books and Park Jin Joo plays Yoo Seung Jae, the publishing company’s art director. Ko Daw Hwan, Ko Moon Young’s father, is played by Lee Eol and Jang Young Nam plays the role of the head nurse of the hospital.
Ever since they became orphaned after their mother’s murder – when they were young, the Moon brothers have been on a constant run, moving from one city to another every year. Ko Moon Young, too, has had a troubled childhood, and grown up to be an isolated and lonely individual. Although vehemently claiming to be an orphan, her father is in a psychiatric hospital with dementia and her mother has been missing for many years, registered as dead.
After a few random and mostly unfortunate meetings between Moon Gang Tae and Ko Moon Young, coupled with some flashbacks from when they were young, Ko Moon Young becomes obsessed with Moon Gang Tae while he wants to avoid her at all costs. This time, the brothers and their friend Jae Soo move to Seongjin City, where Gang Tae finds work at OK Psychiatric Hospital. Moon Young, having followed Gang Tae, moves into her childhood home, a castle-like house set in the middle of the forest, also in Seongjin City – the hometown she shares with the brothers.
‘It’s Okay to Not Be Okay‘ is packed to the brim with outstanding performances. Kim Soo Hyun has outdone himself, completely transforming into Moon Gang Tae – the efficient, tolerant, and kind caregiver with so many repressed emotions that he has become essentially non-reactive. The evolution of his character is un-subtle and poignant – from not flinching even at a knife wound, all the way to snorting and sniffling, laughing, and crying when he receives a family t-shirt. Seo Ye Jin as Ko Moon Young has unleashed her full potential as an actor. Moon Young is so unabashedly herself, whether it be when she imagines herself as a giant, picking up the little Gang Tae off the street because she wants him or when she barges into Ju Ri’s house unannounced and reminds Kang Soon Deok of her promise to feed her. Even during the nightmare scenes, Moon Young’s terror feels realistic enough to send a chill down one’s spine. The gradual blooming of her emotions has been captured by Seo Ye Ji with such intricacy, it gives off the sense of watching a child growing up.
Oh Jung Se, playing Moon Sang Tae, has done a brilliant job of portraying a person on the autism spectrum. There’s a fine line between accurately depicting and exaggerating the behavioral patterns when showing autism on screen. The glances, gestures, repetition of words, and even the distress-reactions of Moon Gang Tae seem to flow naturally, without there being hints of a forced attempt from the actor. Among the supporting cast, Kang Soon Deok shines through, like the veteran that she is. A mother-figure to the Moon brothers, Ko Moon Young, Jo Jae Soo, and even the publishing duo Lee Sang In and Yoo Seung Jae, she warms up the screen that is otherwise so full of strained family relationships and childhood trauma. Even Ko Moon Young submits to her intimidating maternal hold and pickled quail eggs.
‘It’s Okay to Not Be Okay‘ is a visual masterpiece. The opening credits itself is such a delight to watch, it almost feels like a waste to skip the intro. The beautiful stop-motion animation and sketch illustrations that go along with every fairy-tale are also well thought out, providing a foil to the maximalist set design and colour schemes that otherwise dominate the screen. The framing is uncluttered– whether it is cherry blossom covered mid-shots of the protagonist couple or the horror close-ups of the nightmare scenes.
The original soundtrack of the series is a great accompaniment to the storyline. ‘Sketchbook’ by Janet Suhh plays as the opening theme of each episode and creates a beautiful little gateway into the drama. ‘Breath’ by Sam Kim, a soft number that generally plays when Moon Gang Tae and Ko Moon Young are together, perfectly captures their connection and their unconscious longing for each-other. Another soulful song by Janel Suhh, ‘In Silence’ very sensitively reflects the emotional turmoil that the characters go through in ‘It’s Okay to Not Be Okay‘. Like a ray of sunshine, CHEEZE’s ‘Little by little’ cuts through the mostly subdued musical scape of the drama. A light-hearted ballad about the experiences of falling in love, it really brightens up the blooming relationship between Gang Tae and Moon Young. A special mention here should be the song ‘Clementine’, a western folk song that plays a major role in the storyline.
CONCLUDING REMARKS –
The treatment of fairy-tales in this drama is particularly interesting because Korean dramas have often received flak about their “fairy-tale” plots. ‘It’s Okay to Not Be Okay‘ promises a fairy-tale in its trailer and then takes a completely unexpected road towards the happily ever after. The series explores a very atypical conceptualization of fairy-tales – cautionary tales for the education of children in order to help them fit better into society. Often riddled with grotesque imagery and unsavory narratives, Ko Moon Young’s children’s books seem somewhat inappropriate for their target audience, and for that matter, for anyone else, till their life-lessons play out into the characters’ lives and help them grow. This is an almost scholarly commentary on the early days of fairy-tales, when they were considered part of folk-knowledge – community-centric philosophical stories coming from pre-literate quarters of society, meant for both children and adults.
‘It’s Okay to Not be Okay‘ is full of meaningful dialogues and quotes that are insightful and wise. Almost every fairy-tale that features in the series has its own moral lesson. But apart from that, the major storyline also boasts of some powerful messages. The ending of one of Moon Young’s stories serves as the basis for the healing process that the characters go through and is repeated at multiple points in the series – “So don’t forget any of it. Remember it all and overcome it. If you don’t overcome it, you’ll always be a kid whose soul never grows.” It warns people not to try and forget their traumas, but to face them and overcome them, in order to grow emotionally. Another impactful line said by Moon Young is – “The one who neglects and turns a blind eye to the abuse is worse than the abuser.” This talks about abuse being related not only to an act but also to an environment that passively nurtures that abuse. Upon coming face to face for the first time with Gang Tae, Moon Young says, “Who cares about destiny? If someone shows up when you need them, you call that destiny.” She then promptly discards her cigarette in Gang Tae’s coffee, using him to fulfill her need – an ash-tray. Little does she know that this is just the beginning, as far as her ‘need’ for this man is concerned.
The portrayal of mental health issues in media has always been tricky business. Korean Dramas, too, have had their hits and their misses on the subject. The commendable thing about ‘It’s Okay to Not Be Okay’ is that it chooses to portray a path of personal healing, instead of treating mental illness as an event, resolved by the occurrence of another event (namely, romantic love). The series takes a mature and sensitive path, as the characters recognize in themselves the need to keep working on reaching, and more importantly maintaining a state of mental well-being. It portrays the treatment of mental health issues as a journey, instead of a destination, dotted with little acts of holding on and letting go.
In the end, do the masked boy, emotionless princess, and box ajusshi find their happy ending? Well, they are on their way.
IMAGE COURTESY – tvN Drama, CJ ENM