“It’s Okay, That’s Love” is a gutsy and outstanding story despite its bland title.
Never judge a K-drama by its promotional ads. The poster image of Gong Hyo-Jin and Jo In-Sung in a bathtub is supposed to look cute. In fact, it looks chilly and uncomfortable. Of course they’re wrapped around each other—that porcelain’s cold.
The script for “It’s Okay, That’s Love” is better conceived that the bathtub ad campaign. Director Kim Kyu-Tae, writer Noh Hee-Kyung and lead actor Jo In-Sung collaborated eight months ago on the acclaimed “That Winter the Wind Blows.” Previously, Kim directed hit romance “Padam Padam” (also written by Noh) and the high-energy action thriller “IRIS.” So the bar was high for “It’s Okay, That’s Love.” Although the poster suggests it will be a romantic comedy, the show is also a melodrama, crime thriller and medical procedural. The mix of elements draws viewers into a surprisingly deep story about damaged people and mental illness.
K-dramas often shift back and forth between comedy and tragedy. Here the tone shifts feel more thoughtful and deliberate than usual. If we move from comedy towards tragedy, it isn’t because director Kim doesn’t understand the story. Rather it’s because Noh’s script stays true to the lives of complicated characters.
Jo In-Sung plays Jang Jae-Yeol, a bestselling mystery writer, radio DJ and general celebrity. Although writers and DJs hardly require movie star looks, Jae-Yeol is attractive and charismatic, with a fan club at his heels. He also has a brother in prison who wants to kill him, for reasons the story reveals with tantalizing slowness.
Jae-Yeol’s cool and popular. He’s also smug and self-congratulatory about it. But Jo In-Sung is a talented actor. He gives Jae-Yeol layers and a sense of hidden depths, even before we learn about the writer’s insomnia and odd work habits. Jae-Yeol will develop a great deal in 16 episodes. Thanks to Jo’s portrayal, Jae-Yeol’s hard-won growth is convincing and emotionally powerful.
Gong Hyo-Jin is his equal as Ji Hye-Soo, a young doctor working on her psychiatry fellowship. On hospital rounds, she’s thoughtful, talented and sympathetic. She works with psychological issues that most of us rarely encounter. One of her patients with severe depression is a transgendered woman bullied by her family, and another is a young artist with a compulsion to draw genitalia as his sole subject material.
Off-duty, she has a diagnosis of her own—a lifelong anxiety disorder. She grows ill at the thought of a physical relationship with her boyfriend of many months and to hide her panic, she plays complicated emotional games. She believes she’s determined to overcome her fears, but she still has blind spots. For instance, her anxieties cause her to despise Jang Jae-Yeol rather than realize she’s attracted to him.
When the two meet on a talk show to debate the psychology behind his gory crime thrillers, they immediately disagree about everything. Here’s where “It’s Okay, That’s Love” starts to introduce the thoughtful themes that make it more than a romance. Are human beings intrinsically good—or bad? Can people change for the better? How much hope can we really have for people who seem crazy?
Their mutual attraction brings out the worst in them, making them fierce antagonists at first. Jae-Yeol acts superior and condescending. Hye-Soo gives as good as she gets in their debate, then turns her back on Jae-Yeol every time she runs into him. Luckily for plot advancement, he’s looking for a place to live and Hye-Soo’s landlord offers him a place with their eccentric group of housemates.
The couple’s arguments bristle with emotional energy. They’re so smart, ambitious and independent-minded that they’re either perfect for each other or they’ll damage each other deeply. And they’re self-aware enough to understand their dilemma. Perhaps no couple since Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers’ 1938 novel Gaudy Night have put this much thought into whether or not romantic love is worth it.
The relationship that develops is cerebral and sexy. It could almost stand on its own as a story, given how much these two need to learn if they are to stay together. But in “It’s Okay, That’s Love” the relationship is the spine supporting a richer story about childhood trauma, Jae-Yeol’s damaged brother and the human mind. Before the conclusion, mental illness will threaten the relationships and lives of our main characters.
Despite the seriousness, the script keeps the energy high with large doses of dramatic irony. Viewers enter the characters’ private worlds and the tension between their public and private faces. Jae-Yeol may be a swaggering playboy in public, but at home he’s a workaholic with a case of insomnia that forces him to sleep in the bathtub. He keeps friends and family at a distance. One of the few people he talks to frankly is his teenage fan Kang-Woo (played by D.O., lead singer of K-pop band EXO). The young man wants Jae-Yeol to help him become a famous writer too. But Jae-Yeol is suspicious of the young man’s motives and doesn’t always appreciate the hero worship.
The dramatic irony ramps up at the same time as Jae-Yeol and Hye-Soo’s affair begins to grow sweet—even corny. Long before the characters realize anything is wrong, viewers know that an important character is behaving strangely. Potentially sappy scenes thus have a dark undercurrent.
Writer Noh Hee-Kyung constructs the narrative like a magician’s sleight-of-hand trick. By the time the optimistic romance transforms into wrenching drama, we’re hooked. Even if we may feel nostalgia for the cheerful early episodes, the gutsy plotline about psychosis grows organically out of the characters’ histories. We discover new sides of Hye-Soo and Jae-Yeol. In fact, they continue to surprise us even in the last episode. The second half of the series may veer close to tragedy, but the tone shift is so well done that it isn’t a horrible shock but a beautiful surprise.
“It’s Okay, That’s Love” focuses consistently on the characters rather than their mental illnesses. Even secondary characters like Soo-Kwang, Hye-Soo’s housemate with Tourette’s syndrome, have three-dimensional lives. Illness is just one piece of the puzzle. As a result, “It’s Okay” manages to mostly avoid the pitfalls of “serious” drama—preachiness or pedestrian story-telling. The production is glossy and well-done, too. This is mental illness dressed in high fashion, with a punchy soundtrack and gorgeous, intimate cinematography.
The symptoms of severe mental illness may be new to viewers, though, so the show tries to cover some basics. When new words like “dissociation” or “shared psychosis” come up in dialogue, the director flashes them on the screen with a short definition. It’s psychiatry Cliff Notes. In addition, Hye-Soo’s supervisors provide some exposition. These senior psychiatrists are the most likely characters to serve as Greek chorus, but we still have to suspend disbelief when they state things simply for our benefit.
As for the handling of mental illness, it’s deft and unsparing. Writer Noh doesn’t attempt to give a comprehensive picture. She focuses closely on a few lives. But viewers with experience of mental illness in themselves or loved ones will recognize the emotions shown here. And viewers new to the subject will gain some perspective and sympathy. They’ll probably also be left with a few unanswered questions.
What Noh does best is show how it feels to live with mental or neurological illness. Everyone in “It’s Okay, That’s Love” has something. Even when they know what’s troubling them, they don’t find it easy to think clearly. Noh invites us to empathize and realize everyone’s brain is delicate. It’s hard for us to understand our own minds—no matter how smart we think we are. Kim, Noh and the cast suggest how hallucinations and delusions are deeply convincing and even beautiful to someone experiencing psychosis.
The story’s climax hinges on the psychiatric mystery experts call “insight,” the ability to notice our own weaknesses. But how can we use our own minds to understand our minds? The writer, director and actors dive into this subject no psychiatrist or neuro-scientist can explain. The resulting conclusion is satisfying emotionally and intellectually.
In “It’s Okay, That’s Love” a framework of standard romance elements holds up an innovative story. The title might translate better as “That’s Okay, It’s Love,” or even “I’m Okay, It’s Love.” But the title would still be misleading, a magician’s cloth that hides the tricks happening underneath. The boy meets girl formula here is just a gateway to tricky questions about the mind. And viewers are in good company asking those questions. With Jo In-Sung and Gong Hyo-Jin on board, the central boy and girl are as smart, good-looking and compelling a pair as any in recent film or fiction.
- Overall: 9/10
- Writing: 8/10
- Acting: 10/10
- Production & Directing: 8/10
Reasons You Might Want to Watch:
- Sexy romance in which leads have great chemistry
- Follows the romantic comedy formula to draw us into drama that is anything but formulaic
- Varied soundtrack that includes Korean R&B, European dance tracks and indie folk in English.
- Quirky, emotionally complicated characters
- A rare K-drama in which adults talk about sex and related subjects.
Reasons You Might Want to Skip:
- The soundtrack gets a lot of play, so if you don’t like the OST, you’re in trouble. It does appear to be a love-it-or-hate-it OST. (I’m on the loving it side.)
- Some hilarious, distracting, awful product placements
- It may feel too educational or pedantic at times. For instance, one minor character has no role except to be a sample schizophrenia patient.
- The last episode does some crazy time jumps, not unusual for a K-drama but more jumps than any reasonable viewer expects
- A dubious boater hat appears in episode 8. I wouldn’t skip the series to avoid the hat, but it’s egregious enough that I had to dock them a point in production & directing for it. Who’s in charge of wardrobe?
Alternate titles: Gwaenchanhah, Sarangiya. Can be translated many ways, thanks to the vagueness of Korean grammar. The most popular variations appear to be “It’s Okay, This is Love,” “That’s Okay, It’s Love,” and “It’s Okay, It’s Love.”
Linguist’s notes: “Gwaenchanhah” is an everyday phrase used to respond to “Are you okay?” or “Can I get you something?” It means “I’m fine” or “That’s okay.” “Sarangiya” could mean “It’s Love,” “This is Love,” “That’s Love,” or even “There is Love.”
The ambiguous grammar makes the Korean title more interesting than its English translations. In Korean, the listener has to decide how to attribute the phrases. And viewers may change their minds over the course of 16 episodes. What’s okay? Who’s okay? Are you really fine or are you just saying that because it’s the polite answer? And given that love hurts these characters as much as it helps them, whose love are we talking about anyway? Is this love or is that love?
It’s still a kinda boring title, but at least you have to think about it more in Korean.
Also recommended: Viewer opinion was divided about this series, but we can probably all agree it isn’t quite like anything else. Despite incorporating lots of standard elements, it sets out in an unusual direction for a K-drama. In the US, we also don’t tell many stories about mental illness that include romance—especially corny romance. The attractive stars, quirky (sometimes abrasive) characters, and difficult but tender relationships somewhat recall 1993 surprise hit “Benny & Joon.” If someone made a scarier, less whimsical “Benny & Joon,” in which schizophrenia genuinely threatens lives, it might look something like this.