K-drama Review: It's Okay, It's Love

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A curious example of an un-melo melodrama. It's Okay, It's Love manages to find a pleasing balance between humor and tragedy, delivering the emotional weight in a way that resonates with the viewers while not completely drowning them in sorrow. For it also deals with a topic that's rarely discussed in K-drama, the series proves to be an engaging experience, albeit not a perfect one.

Jang Jae Yeol (Jo In Sung) is a charming and witty mystery novelist and a radio DJ who also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

When ongoing construction near home disturbs his writing, Jae Yeol decides to share housing alongside Ji Hae Soo (Gong Hyo Jin)a first-year psychiatry fellow, Jo Dong Min (Sung Dong Il), Hae Soo's work sunbae and first love, and Park Soo Kwang (Lee Kwang Soo), Dong Min's patient with the Tourette syndrome. 

Although Jae Yeol and always opinionated Hae Soo have a rocky start to their acquaintance, they soon become attracted to each other and begin a relationship, yet things take a turn for the worse when Jae Yeol's friendship with the mysterious Kang Woo (EXO's D.O.) awakens tragic memories of the past, revealing deep unhealed wounds and leading to a crushing revelation. 



The topic of mental illnesses. 

Mental health is said to be a taboo topic on South-Korea. And indeed, South-Korea today still struggles with issues relating to stigma against the mentally ill, with very few dramas and even movies taking serious interest in discussing this sensitive subject. 

While I'm not suggesting It's Okay, It's Love is the right show to educate people about mental illnesses (because obviously it is not), I do think the first step towards working on the issue is actually talking about it. The drama certainly isn't the epitome of medical accuracy, but what it's good at is providing the audience with a different point of view. Those who are unfamiliar with the subject matter may take interest in researching it, while those who have personal experiences with mental health issues may have a poignant moment of recognition. 

At the very least, the drama attempts to give more insight into the problems people with mental disorders face every day. So while the show fails at informing audiences from the medical aspect, I can get behind the message its trying to convey.

Jae Yeol's personal journey. 

Jae Yeol's personal journey is fascinating for we rarely get a look inside one's mind and see how it may attempt to deal with intense emotional trauma to keep pain away. 

There's almost a fantastic element to how his mind copes with tragic life experiences, creating an alternate reality in Kang Woo, not realizing that Kang Woo is a mirror of himself - a manifestation of his most scarring memories. Meanwhile, the desire to help Kang Woo seems to be Jae Yeol's subconscious desire to help himself. After all, Kang Woo appears because Jae Yeol is too traumatized by the past to cope with the present. It's the desperate attempt of a fragile mind to restore a sense of order. 

Yet, even though viewer learns early on that Kang Woo's a hallucination, it doesn't make Jae Yeol's bond with him any less meaningful nor touching. This brings us to the tragically beautiful part of Jae Yeol's illness: that while Kang Woo exists only due to schizophrenia, their friendship feels real to both Jae Yeol as well as to the viewer. It's a strange moment where the main character essentially befriends himself as Kang Woo is a reflection of Jae Yeol. 

But most of all, Jae Yeol's journey seems to be about accepting a painful past and finding closure. In Jae Yeol's case, the past is just as consuming and dangerous as his schizophrenia, so him being able to overcome it and move on in the end, shows that he's finally strong enough to fight his illness and find a way to recovery. 

Jo In Sung as Jang Jae Yeol

If there's one thing that I was thoroughly impressed with, it was Jo In Sung's performance in the show. I've never had the pleasure of watching him in a drama series from start to finish, so it came as a surprise that his portrayal of the charismatic, witty and deeply broken Jang Jae Yeol became my favourite thing about the drama. 

While Jo is incredibly charming and handsome when we first meet Jae Yeol as the famous mystery writer, the true talent of his acting becomes apparent when we begin to unriddle Jae Yeol's tragic past. As the story starts to hint that things are not alright with Jae Yeol, we get to witness an entirely different side of him - damaged, guilt-ridden, self-loathing - and Jo makes sure that the realization of how unwell Jae Yeol really is going to hit us hard. 

The true highlight of Jo's acting, however, is in episode 14 when Hae Soo gets to visit Jae Yeol in the hospital for the first time (by far, the best scene in the series). The sight is heartbreaking. Heavily drugged Jae Yeol is completely unlike his articulate self: scared, despaired and unable to put together a coherent sentence. The desperation in his voice as he begs Hae Soo to let him out and the unfocused look in his eyes is painful to witness. It's a flawless scene and a flawless performance by Jo In Sung. I admit, I choked up and cried there.


Ji Hae Soo. 

It would be harsh to say that I disliked Hae Soo, but I definitely had a love-hate relationship with the character. 

One the one hand, I loved Hae Soo's confidence and self-reliance, both in work and personal life, and I was thrilled to have a female lead character that was so unlike like most K-drama heroines. One the other hand, though, I found her extremely high-maintenance and couldn't understand how Jae Yeol was able to put up with her constant hissy fits. Most of the time, she just picks a fight with poor Jae Yeol just to test him. And if it's one thing I hate watching, it's watching people fight.

Perhaps it was an attempt at making the character more flawed and realistic, which is fine, but couldn't we at least be saved from her endless nagging?

The pacing and lack of focus. 

The pacing of a drama is crucial for a good story flow.  Unfortunately, IOIL was rather close to losing its audience along the way due to uneven pacing.

There's a compelling conflict at the centre of the story, but the show takes its sweet time to get there and instead kills time with relationship issues that become increasingly more annoying to watch. While establishing a strong bond between the main couple is also important to the story, it mostly steers toward fanservice (or obvious product placement, *cough* Okinawa trip *cough*) that doesn't contribute much to the plot. No doubt, there were more interesting aspects of Jae Yeol's illness and past that could have been explored and which would have added more depth to the story. 

Sadly, for a good part of the series, there remains a distinct lack of focus on the most engaging issues and several times I found myself fighting the urge abuse the fast-forward button just to get through the bland parts. 

Inaccurate depictions of mental illnesses.

Like most medical K-dramas, IOIL tries hard to appear professional and educated about the subject matter by throwing complicated medical terminology into the dialogue and adding many characters with various conditions into the story, yet it is clear that background research was scarce and superficial. That being said, I've learned not to become frustrated with false depictions of the medical in K-drama, on the condition that it makes sense within the drama's universe. IOIL was not fully successful at that.

Surprisingly though, I was the least bothered by the depiction of Jae Yeol's schizophrenia. I liked that we were able to see his illness from his perspective, how deceiving and utterly realistic delusions can be and how difficult it can be to come to terms with the fact that what you're seeing is not real. In fact, several things hit quite close to home for me as a person dear to me has previously experienced severe psychotic episodes and I know how scary they can be for that person as well as their loved ones. So when it came to the emotional, I felt that the drama did a fairly good job. 

Still, Jae Yeol's delusions were a lot more friendly than they are for real-life schizophrenics, who usually experience intense paranoia and delusions that are of hostile or supernatural nature. To me, it seemed that Kang Woo was more reminiscent of an imaginary friend rather than belonging to any of the common types of schizophrenic delusions. But I guess there may be some wiggle room there, considering that schizophrenia is an illness where each case is different and the things that trigger psychotic episodes can also vary a lot.

The same, however, cannot be said about Jae Yeol's obsessive complusive disorder, which made no sense at all. His OCD was frequently brought up, yet we never really witnessed any obsessions about order, cleaniness or fixed routines. I've seen characters in other dramas who weren't even acknowledged as being diagnosed with OCD having more obsessive compulsive tendencies than Jae Yeol ever exhibited in this show. Similarly, So Nyeo's (Lee Sung Kyung) alleged conduct disorder was never explored or explained either and therefore felt entirely unconvincing as well. 

But most of all, I was bothered by the portrayal of Hae Soo's phobia of intimacy. I never quite understood what was meant by that and how exactly did physical closeness cause anxiety to her. Supposedly, she was very traumatized by her phobia, yet there was little explanation why would that be. To top it all off, Hae Soo was conveniently treated from her fear of intimacy not by therapy, but by having sex. Either Jae Yeol has curing loins or Hae Soo overreacted the whole time.

Lastly, the elephant in the room: almost every character in the drama suffers from some kind of disorder or mental illness. It doesn't sound very likely that each character personally knows at least five people with different mental disorders, does it? So, rather than trying to cover as many mental conditions as possible, I would have liked more in-depth depictions of the ones our main characters had.

The ending. 

How expected that I did not like the ending. In fact, the final episode was probably the weakest episode in the entire series, at least in terms of writing.

Firstly, Jae Yeol and Kang Woo's "goodbye" scene. While I liked the moment from the emotional aspect, my brain kept disagreeing with me from the logical aspect. Knowing what I know about psychosis, I find it hard to believe that a patient can make their hallucinations disappear by will. It definitely helps the treatment a lot if the patient is able to acknowledge that their delusions are not real, but that's very difficult to achieve through a simple heart-to-heart talk with a person in psychosis. 

Secondly, the noble idiocy. For the life of me, I cannot find a good reason why the OTP would have to break up in the finale. Hae Soo's family opposes? Fine, they'll get over it. They adored Jae Yeol and they'd surely come to terms with his condition over time. I don't believe for a second that they'd disown Hae Soo if she continued dating Jae Yeol. Further proving my point is the fact that three magical time skips later, they're all happy and nobody's having a problem with Jae Yeol's illness whatsoever. There's no explanation for that but we don't need one because, duh, they got over it.

Thirdly, the writer missed an opportunity for a good bittersweet ending. As much as it's nice to have the characters live happily ever after, the ending for the drama is both unfitting and unrealistic. The drama leads us to believe that Jae Yeol is completely cured from schizophrenia, which is bogus because there is no cure for the illness. Schizophrenia can be treated yes, but it's not curable. Medication keeps the patients from relapsing into psychotic episodes but medication can also have serious side-effects and that can make the patient's life still challenging. Hence, I would have loved a bittersweet ending where there's hope for Jae Yeol to continue leading a normal life but not without difficulties. It would have been much more meaningful to see the support from friends and family being what helps him to adjust and learn how to live with the illness. 

On that note, considering that Hae Soo got pregnant in the end, it would have been worth to mention that schizophrenia has a strong hereditary component, something that the parents should discuss before they start planning a family together. At the very least, the show should have addressed that possibility for a moment. 

And finally, what was up with three separate time skips in the finale? Even one time skip is usually one too many, but three is just ridiculously overdoing it. 


Plot and writing - Pro: The main story is emotionally compelling. Con: Plot lacks focus and uneven pace makes the story drag a lot during the middle part of the series. Ending is too nice and fix-it-all, therefore disappointing.

Acting - Jo In Sung delivers a fantastic performance as the charming and perceptive, yet internally tortured Jae Yeol. Gong Hyo Jin nails the emotional scenes, but sadly happens to be less likable otherwise. Idol actor D.O. is solid. Also, lovely performances by the supporting actors Lee Kwang Soo and Sung Dong Il.

OST - Although songs tend to be overplayed, I thoroughly enjoyed the selection of western indie music for this soundtrack. Among Korean tracks, EXO Chen's "Best Luck" and "Sleepless Night" by Crush ft. Punch were my favourites.

Romance - Great romantic chemistry between Jo In Sung and Gong Hyo Jin. However, the constant fighting between the couple became tedious pretty quickly and in result I never loved the OTP, even though I liked the mutual respect and support they had for each other. 

Editing and cinematography - Coming from the writer-director duo of the beautifully-filmed Padam, Padam and That Winter The Wind Blows, everything about this drama is also, unsurprisingly, gorgeous. From the locations and sets to lighting and camera angles, everything is visually arresting. 



Soo Kwang: "This is how ignorant people explain my state of mind or Hae Jin's schizophrenia: a tangled and disorganized mess. Like people who can't recognize parents or siblings, who can't recognize their loved ones. Or people who, even after hurting somebody, feel no guilt. But not everything about us is like that, most of us is normal. Only a small part of us is ill."
Jae Yeol: "I...I can't really get my words out. Walking is difficult, too."
Hae Soo: "It's because of the medication."
Jae Yeol: "I...start to miss you, but then I feel myself getting sleepy."
Hae Soo: "Be patient for just a little while longer. It won't always be like this."
Jae Yeol: "Even now...after not having seen you in so long, I just want to make you smile and laugh, but...I don't know how to do that. I can't think of the words to do that."
Hae Soo: "It'll come back to you."
Jae Yeol: "I wish I could hold you, but I don't know if I'm allowed. Aren't I so sexy right now?...Hae Soo? " 
Hae Soo: "Yeah?"
Jae Yeol: "Please...let me out of here. Being in here...I don't feel like I'm ME anymore."
Hae Soo: (reading a poem) 
"When the wind blows, let it blow through
When loneliness comes, let it go through
Pain may come and it may linger
It may stay for a while, and then leave."

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  1. This blog is not bad, but I loved your old blog, Between Wor(L)ds.

    1. LOL :D Sorry, but it was time to move on.

  2. What an in-depth analysis! I wanted to "like" this post but can't find the button? I agreed with most of what you said. I, too found Gong Hyo Jin's character a bit self-centered but kudos to the show for giving us a strong female lead. The other thing that I liked was the openness in the OTP relationship. There was no beating about the bush, hidden secrets etc. May I assume you work in the medical field? I love my share of medical dramas and of course, have no idea how accurate or inaccurate the medical procedures or terminology are, Thanks for sharing!

    1. Oh no, I don't work in the medical field. I don't even study anything related to medicine, but thanks for assuming that I guess :D :D

      However, I have had some personal experience with psychosis and I have read up on the subject of such mental disorders like schizophrenia, so I do know a little about it. Of course, I don't claim to know it all but I was able to tell when the drama took too much liberty concerning the medical. Like I said above, I don't mind it that much if it makes sense within the drama's universe but once it starts to contradict itself then I have to point it out.

      Glad you enjoyed reading it ;)


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