“It’s Okay, That’s Love” (Series Review)

“It’s Okay, That’s Love” is a gutsy and outstanding story despite its bland title.

It's Okay that's love promo poster jo in sung gong hyo jinNever 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.

thats okay its love jo in sung dj
Jang Jae-Yeol (Jo In-Sung) may be wealthy, successful and arrogant, but he’s not our typical K-drama hero.

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.

gong hyo jin its okay thats love
Ji Hye-Soo (Gong Hyo-JIn, center), her colleagues and students and the woman with the invisible baby. This show does a great job presenting the daily oddities of a psych hospital without sensationalizing or condescension.

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?

its ok that's love episode 1 talk show gong hyo jin and jo in sung
Dr. Ji Hye-Soo (Gong Hyo-Jin) squares off on live television with author Jang Jae-Yeol (Jo In-Sung).

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.

its okay thats love episode 4 cigarette lighter jo in sun gong hyo jin
“It doesn’t take a thousand years of light to get rid of a thousand years of darkness. It just takes–” a cigarette lighter. Jang Jae-Yeol (Jo In-Sung) and Ji Hye-Soo (Gong Hyo-Jin) have intense chemistry even when Hye-Soo is barely controlling her panic.

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.

its okay thats love kang woo exo jo in sung do exo
Jae-Yeol feels responsible for encouraging teenage fan Kang-Woo (played by K-pop idol D.O., on left), perhaps because the young man has an abusive father.

“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.

its okay thats love episode 5 jo in sung gong hyo jin bathroom
These glamorous, successful characters are talented at hiding their problems, until they get caught. Hye-Soo (Gong Hyo-Jin) finds Jae-Yeol (Jo In-Sung) trying to sleep in the only way he knows how.

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.

kwang soo its okay thats love
Supporting characters have strong stories here as well. Soo-Kwang (Lee Kwang-Soo, left) is a barista with Tourette’s syndrome and a crush on So-Nyeo (Lee Sung-Kyung, right), who has her own history of behavioral problems.


  • Overall: 9/10
  • Writing: 8/10
  • Acting: 10/10
  • Production & Directing: 8/10

(What’s up with my ratings?)

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.
its okay that's love jo in sung gong hyo jin kiss waterfall
Several of the kisses in this series will be contenders to appear on K-drama top ten lists for years to come.

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?
its okay thats love gong hyo jin episode 13 later
I refuse to publish a photo of the afore-mentioned boater hat. Civilization is precarious enough.

Full cast information here at Drama Wiki and here at Asian Wiki. Note there are many variant titles (see linguist’s notes below).

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.

I’m okay, you’re okay. Jo In-Sung and Gong Hyo-Jin make this a genuinely romantic K-drama romance.


9 thoughts on ““It’s Okay, That’s Love” (Series Review)

  1. Thanks for the review. I had to comment just to say I completely agree about that hat. I had erased it from my memory but your words instantly brought it back like a bad dream. My only other complaint about this show was the ALS storyline. It was awful and inaccurate. For me it brought the entire show down several notches. There is no happy ending for ALS. (unless I somehow missed someone saying that character only thought he had ALS but in fact did not)

    • Aargh, that hat! Sorry to bring back the memories. Ugh, I’m shuddering. The ALS thing was totally random. It does [SPOILER] get explained briefly (in episode 14?) that it was NOT real. It was part of JJY’s psychosis–he believed Kang Soo had a terrible illness, just like he was continually anxious Kang Soo would be hit by a car. It was a distraction from the otherwise well-done picture of psychosis (lack of insight, loss of cognitive function, anxieties, “negative” symptoms). Showing the obsession with traffic accidents captured the constant fear that comes with psychosis well, and the ALS fear was unnecessary. In real life, I’ve met people with psychosis who have some pretty strange fears, and ALS could probably be one of them, but in terms of telling a story that made sense, I agree 100% it shouldn’t have been there.

      • Thanks for the explanation. I watched it on netflix and their translation sometimes leaves something to be desired so I was never sure that I had not missed it. But best of all is finding a site that I think has reviews I can relate to. I have not watched that many korean dramas and was looking for something to watch. Since I have already seen this show it was a good review for me to read. As soon as I saw the hat comment I knew there was likely a good match here for me 🙂

        • Your comment made my day! I started blogging here because I discovered Asian TV via Netflix, and then discovered Google makes it really, really hard to find good information and reviews. And with K-dramas, it can hit or miss. This month I hope I’ll get a few more reviews posted for shows that I think are worth it. Enjoy!

  2. Prompted by a comment from Odessa that nothing is worse than the boater hat I ended up speed re-watching this show last weekend. I ended up with enough random thoughts that I thought the most appropriate place to comment was here despite this being an old thread. While I went looking for the hat I ended up skimming because of the music and watching key scenes carefully because of Jo In-Sung.

    This was only the first k-drama I watched that was set in current times. The quality of the music was evident on first watching but now that I have seen many more dramas it really stands out as being excellent. I enjoyed it so much I started listening to the playlist on 8track.com that has 53 of the songs.What an eclectic and wonderful list it is. I am thinking of purchasing the CDs. If only Ex GF club would put out their music in the same way.

    When I first watched it I was pretty sure it was the weirdest thing I had ever seen. Sexiest (and longest) PSA pretty much summed it up perfectly for me. The medical diagnoses seemed suspect at best and possibly dangerous. Everything outside of the hospital vignettes was exceedingly odd to me. On second watching some of that behaviour no longer seems odd, it just seems Korean. but what is left is still pretty weird but no less compelling. And I think a lot of that has to do with Jo In-Sung’s performance. I think he is perfectly cast even if the acting is not 100%.

    As for the clothing. I found short pants again. Sigh. Hae-Soo’s outfit’s were often awful but that did seem to fit the character. Similarly the debonair and confident jae-Yeol looked pretty snappy. With the exception of the boater hat. And it is not just the hat. The hat is paired with a shirt that makes everything worse. If you search for images of Jo In Sun – Its okay, that’s love you will find many of him looking cute and/or handsome. The notable exception are ones with the hat. I swear to god his face is grimacing in them all. it is probably because the actor is recoiling at having to wear the getup. I think I have to bow to Odessa and admit “NOTHING is worse than the Boater Hat.”

    • “Still pretty weird but no less compelling” is well-put. And though I haven’t rewatched this show in many months, I still listen to stuff from the soundtrack all the time.

      Sigh. That Boater Hat. I wish it wasn’t true. (And I’m sorry our earlier discussion forced you to rewatch and see the Hat again!) But your comment makes me realize a big reason it’s so bad is the accompanying shirt. I shudder at the memory. Jo In Sung manages to look like a human being in the short pants and man sandals. But no one can look like a human being in the Boater Hat Ensemble of Doom. On a lesser star, that outfit would have been career-ending. Or at least completely self-respect shredding. But one thing JIS does do well is take risks for his profession!

  3. This was a drama where I got to watch Jo In Sung and Gong Hye Jin for the first time. Why didn’t I watch their dramas earlier is beyond me.
    This drama hit all the right spot: of loving someone with a serious mental disorder, acceptance and support from close friends and finally triumph of the human mind and spirit over suffering. I don’t think any K-drama has ever addressed this taboo subject as sensitively and gently as It’s Okay, That’s Love.

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