It's Okay to Not Be Okay: Initial Impressions & Halfway Review
I've been putting off this review, but it's about time I finally feature one of the best dramas I've seen so far in 2020. It's already got the hype, but unlike the disappointment behind other hyped up shows (ahem, The King Eternal Monarch), this one fully deserves it. There's a freshness and zaniness to the writing and characters that's so refreshing to see in a Kdrama, and I can honestly say I find every character in this drama endearing in their own way. The leads are stunning but more importantly have blazing chemistry and a love line that's both unique and well-matched.
As the title may imply, the story centers around psychological issues in a myriad of forms. Kim Soo Hyun's character, Moon Gang Tae, is a caregiver who has spent his career working across multiple psychological institutions (the main one being Ok Psychiatric Hospital where the story takes place). His older brother, Moon Sang Tae (played by the amazingly versatile actor Oh Jung Se who I enjoy in everything) suffers a severe form of autism and has relied on Gang Tae to take care of him over the course of their lives.
Our heroine, Ko Mun Yeong, is played by the lovely Seo Ye Ji and while I've always liked her in dramas (ranging from Night's Watchman to Last), this is probably her most iconic role to date. Mun Yeong suffers from an antisocial personality disorder and is haunted by the demons of her parents, which leads to alternately tragic and hilarious behavior. She latches on to Gang Tae (and frankly, who wouldn't!) as her "safety pin", aka the person who can relieve her stress and control her "bomb" like tendencies.
What I love about this relationship is the gender-flip dynamic, where our heroine and hero take on the roles that usually the opposite gender inhabits in a typical Kdrama. Normally male leads tend to be the antisocial chaebol jerks who slowly warm up to the hard-working and financially struggling heroine. Here, Mun Yeong is unabashedly cold (she has zero qualms about attempting to stab a guy in episode 1) and has amassed her wealth as a famous children's author, while Gang Tae is the patient and upbeat hero who is continually struggling to earn enough income to support him and Sang Tae.
It creates a refreshing dynamic as a long-time viewer of dramas, and indeed seems to be emblematic of the recent trend for Kdrama leading ladies to be the ones who are powerful, cool and in control (think Crashing Landing on You and Itaewon Class). More so than the other Kdramas, I like that they don't hold back in painting the eccentricities and at times cruelties in Mun Yeong. She does what she wants and shamelessly says what she thinks, including boldly pursuing Gang Tae to his new town of residence and admitting that she wants him because he's pretty.
Seo Ye Ji is so perfectly cast as Mun Yeong, balancing the nuances of her character and making her seem sympathetic and likeable despite her strange tendencies. Her voice is also a freaking dream - its deep tenor adds this extra layer of gravitas to everything Mun Yeong says. As the drama even calls out, Mun Yeong is like a character straight out of the Addams Family, with her long black hair, her porcelain complexion, and her iconic long gowns (plus that drool-worthy Swarovski black umbrella that she drags around). Her perfectly coiffed updos and stunning earrings are so drool-worthy and I confess to putting my own hair up more to try to somewhat mimic her look.
The overall Tim Burton-esque aesthetic to the show, including the stop-motion intro to episode 1 and the dark, philosophical telling of Mun Yeong's stories adds a level of depth to the show that further amplifies its story. Unlike the shallow rom-coms or purely fantastical ones that have dominated the scene, each episode of It's Okay to Not Be Okay plays out like a lesson, where you come away musing over its message and story.
In fact, I've loved this drama so much that I confess to rewatching the first 6 episodes while waiting for 7-8 to air, and thoroughly enjoyed the rewatch. You can observe the subtleties to Mun Yeong and Gang Tae's deliciously fraught relationship, including the clear recognition in Gang Tae's eyes for her from the very first scene. I've never found Kim Soo Hyun all that appealing before despite his hyped dramas, but here I finally get it. I love the subtleties of emotion he is able to convey through his expressions, giving glances at her that clearly contradict the severity of his words.
Now that we're in 7-8, Gang Tae has finally been won over, which makes me worry a bit about how the writer will fill out the remaining 8 episodes. I've loved Sang Tae and the complex sibling dynamic to date, and I do fear they may turn him into a deterrent to the love story. I hope he exists for more than that, as the strange partnership that emerged between him and Mun Yeong has been one of the most compelling relationships in the story. It's endearing to see how much he regarded and fan-worshipped her, to the point of recognizing her from afar and memorizing her signature. I'm of course on board to see what great creation their partnership will create, and I sure hope the story is able to deliver on my high expectations.
For now, I highly recommend you watch this drama if you haven't yet, and especially if you're craving a darker and meatier drama than the other options on Netflix.