I watched It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020 Korean drama) several months ago back when it was first released, but didn’t get around to posting this review until now!
I’ll admit, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay was only on my radar because of Kim Soo-hyun, but there are so many reasons to watch this drama that don’t involve Kim Soo-hyun. He may have been the reason I started watching, but the show’s strength is in its topic matter and in the performances of his co-leads, Seo Ye-ji and Oh Jung-se.
Netflix is on a roll with airing Korean dramas that break the mold. It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is incredibly original in all the ways that matter. It features a neurodivergent character as a lead character, and tries to destigmatize mental illness and humanize those who suffer from mental illness. It is a romance and a drama and has plenty of typical K-drama shenanigans, but where it shines is in all the ways that it isn’t a typical K-drama.
One of the main stories in It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is the star-crossed love story of Moon Gang-tae (Kim Soo-hyun), a caregiver who works in psychiatric hospitals, and Ko Moon-young (Seo Ye-ji), a children’s book author who specializes in grim fairy tales and carries many emotional scars. Seo Ye-ji is particularly compelling in her role as the enigmatic Moon-young, but even she is overshadowed by Oh Jung-se’s performance as Moon Sang-tae, Gang-tae’s neurodivergent older brother. (The more commonly-used term is “autistic,” but I’m choosing to use neurodivergent because autism is often pathologized. For more on this, I suggest looking up “neurodiversity.” Wikipedia can be a good place to start.)
Sang-tae and Gang-tae have a fascinatingly complex relationship. They were orphaned at a young age — Sang-tae was witness to their mother’s murder — and have stuck together ever since, with Gang-tae feeling responsible for his brother’s well-being. Growing up, Gang-tae occasionally felt bitter toward his brother; their mother always seemed to favor Sang-tae and take extra special care of him, and Gang-tae has always felt like he existed only so that there is someone to take care of Sang-tae. As an adult, Gang-tae tackles life with an unbelievably calm demeanor, but it soon becomes clear that there’s a lot simmering beneath his placid surface.
Life with Sang-tae can sometimes be difficult — he has trouble holding down a job — but he is an incredibly talented artist. Even though the drama primarily focuses on Gang-tae and Moon-young’s relationship, it’s really Sang-tae who is the star and his journey over the course of the show is the most important one.
Neurodiversity and mental illness are stigmatized in most societies across the world, to varying degrees. Having a multi-faceted character like Sang-tae in such a visible role goes a long way in destigmatizing neurodivergent individuals, but something I found really important in his portrayal is in how he’s treated by the main characters in the show. Sang-tae visits the psychiatric hospital, but is never hospitalized. He goes to the hospital to address his PTSD — not his neurodivergence. This is so important because it specifically demonstrates that his neurodivergence is not a disease or disorder that needs to be “cured.” Instead, what does need to be addressed is his PTSD because it often cripples him, and even that is something that can be addressed without being explicitly hospitalized.
There are a lot of other things going on in It’s Okay to Not Be Okay in addition to tackling mental illness: it’s part murder mystery, part fairy tale (complete with cursed castles, evil villains, and true love), and part rom-com. Some of those parts are a little better executed than others. (Someone tell me why Gang-tae always goes for the sharp object instead of the wrist.) I could talk more about the slow parts or the lovable side characters or the plot twists or Gang-tae’s internal struggles or Moon-young’s complicated emotional traumas or how much I loved each grim fairytale story. But what really sets It’s Okay to Not Be Okay apart is Sang-tae, and it wouldn’t really be fair to let anything else distract from him.