I debated whether I should write about It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020) at all, as I’m sure there will be many people (some who actually know Korean, I will be depending upon English subbed version at Netflix), who will be recapping this. But the quality of the production is a master class in so many ways that I wanted to write about, to talk about it. I could discuss the characters, the bromance, the music, the directing, the writing, but in the end, I want to focus on two things, fairy tales and cinematography.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020): The story of a community health worker at a psychiatric ward who lives on 1.8 million won (approximately $1,520) a month and a storybook writer suffering from an antisocial personality disorder. A man who denies love and a woman who doesn’t know love defy fate and fall in love, finding their souls and identities in the process. Moon Kang Tae is a community health worker at a psychiatric ward who was blessed with everything including a great body, smarts, ability to sympathize with others, patience, ability to react quickly, stamina, and more. Meanwhile, Ko Moon Young is a popular writer of children’s literature, but she is extremely selfish, arrogant, and rude. (Source: Soompi & Koreandrama.org)
Episode 1 Recap
The animation sequence ends with a shot of Moon Young (played by Seo Ye Ji), who hears a different voice (her mother?) saying no one will ever stay by your side and then we hear Moon Young’s voice saying yes, mother.
“No one can ever stay by your side because you’re a monster. Do not ever forget that. Do you understand?”Shadow of death
“Yes, mother.”Moon Young replies.
Back in the real world, we see a book called The Boy Who Fed On Nightmares by Go Moon Young that is beloved by Sang Tae (Oh Jung Se), the brother of Kang Tae (Kim Soo Hyun). Sang Tae had an incident where he caused a ruckus at the Daun Vocational School he attends and his brother came to talk to the people in charge. He wonders if his brother is angry, and seeing Kang Tae’s face, knows he is. Kang Tae sees Sang Tae is upset and reassures him beautifully, saying Sang Tae was never meant to stay there long anyway and they’ll find somewhere else.
Next, here’s our heroine Moon Young eating in a restaurant, dressed to the hilt. Moon Young’s lunch is interrupted by a young fan and her mom and Moon Young writes an autograph for her, but when the young girl babbles about being a princess cuz they’re pretty, Moon Young says cutting words to her, suggesting that the girl must not have read her books, because in her books, the witches are the pretty ones. She suggests the girl tell her mom she’s going to be a pretty witch, which sets the girl off. The CEO of Moon Young’s publishing company, Lee Sang In comes in as the girl and mom run off and he immediately knows what’s up as it seems like a situation he’s very familiar dealing with. As they leave, Moon Young casually steals a knife from the restaurant and puts it in her purse.
At Kang Tae’s workplace now, we get a view of various scars on his upper torso as he dresses in scrubs for his work in a mental hospital. He has to deal with a woman who is gobbling up food on the floor and elsewhere and he tries to talk to her. Eventually she hugs him, she thinking he’s her cheating hubby, but then the woman makes herself vomit all over him (presumably because said cheating hubby left her for a skinny woman). A flight of metaphors appear in place of actual vomit, an image of a waterfall and others. Kang Tae is also told of a new case, a man with an anxiety disorder who tried to kill himself and his daughter Go Eun, who is fine because she threw up the pills, but the father is being restrained.
Back to Moon Young who is headed to the hospital to do a reading of her story for the kids and their parents there. Sang In (CEO/manager) gets a call from another hospital that Moon Young’s dad stays in. Apparently, a nurse there by the name of Nam Juri (Park Kyu Young) is trying to get in contact with Moon Young to get her to sign papers as her father’s guardian so he can get a surgery. But Moon Young just says her father is dead and asks why are they trying to resurrect the dead? Juri is told by her supervisor to visit Moon Young to get the signature and we see a scene of the dad who get upsets when Juri mentions his daughter visiting him, talking about death.
A coworker asks Kang Tae about why he’s worked at so many different hospitals, changing them every year, but Kang Tae just shrugs it off. He notices that his brother Sang Tae’s favorite author is coming to the hospital and calls his brother, who immediately gets ready to go see her, but Kang Tae tells him it’s only for kids and that he’ll try to get her autograph instead. He asks his brother who’s better, he or Moon Young, but his brother hung up already and went back to his drawing.
There’s a beautiful scene when Kang Tae sees someone smoking and asks them to stop. It’s Moon Young, who of course, isn’t about to just obey orders, but makes a scene of stubbing out her cigarette in his cup.
Moon Young starts her reading and things go beautifully until the patient Kim Seung Cheol who tried to kill his daughter tricks a worker into letting him loose and comes looking for his daughter Go Eun. As the hospital workers shut down the reading and ask families to leave, the father finds his daughter and manages to shuffle off with her and Moon Young sees them. She follows after them, taunting the father he’s too cowardly to die alone and smacks him with her purse. The knife she took falls out, and both reach for it, but she knocks it away.
Eventually, the father manages to get her in a chokehold, and we see Moon Young remembering? another scene of a young Moon Young and her dad choking her. Kang Tae comes to the rescue and ties the father up, but then he has to stop Moon Young, who has the knife now and is trying to hurt the dad. Kang Tae stops the knife with his hand around the blade, cutting himself, and Moon Young tells him he overreacted, she was only going to hurt the father a little. She tells him that there are people who kill vermin like the father without most people being aware of them.
In another frame of his horrible, no good, very bad day, Kang Tae learns he’s to take the blame for the incident, and well, he probably would have left soon anyway since he doesn’t stay in the stay place long, so he’s fired. He’s waiting for the bus, when his old friend Jo Jae Soo (played by Kang Gi Doong) comes by on a motorbike and gives him a ride. His luck being what it is, of course, it breaks down and they have to push the motorbike to his home.
Kang Tae then remembers the autograph he never got, thankfully Jae Soo makes a forgery, which Sang Tae takes only one look at to denounce it as fake and goes off in a huff.
Meanwhile Moon Young gets an unwelcome visitor in Juri, who is trying to get her signature so Moon Young’s dad could get his operation. There is something uneasy between the two, Juri and Moon Young, who seem to have known each other in the past. After much verbiage from Moon Young about her father being physically alive with a dead soul and her mother dead, but her soul is alive, Juri gets her to sign and collapses outside the apartment, talking about how much she (Moon Young) pisses her off.
And in an almost throwaway clip, we get a brief shot of news saying someone died in solitary confinement. Go Eun’s father, the man who caused the incident at the reading. Interesting, no?
Bedtime, with both thinking of each other. Kang Tae starts to read Moon Young’s book, The Boy Who Fed On Nightmares. Basically the story goes as follows (paraphrasing here.) A boy was besieged by bad memories and nightmares that he wanted to forget so he went to a witch and she helped him. But the boy grew older and noticed he wasn’t happy. He meets the witch again to pay the price, his soul and tells her that, and she replies that the bad memories are what makes you grow stronger, more passionate and without them, you don’t have happiness.
In other words, what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.
Another person has nightmares as well, Sang Tae, where he’s younger and is being chased through the woods by butterflies. His screams wake up Kang Tae and his friend Je Soo who spent the night.
In the morning, Kang Tae heads out to get the autograph. He meets Moon Young of course, and she wonders what’s he’s there for? Money or even… sex? He denies it, saying he came only to see her again, her eyes that reminds him of another girl he knew, one without warmth or conscience. Moon Young asks if he was afraid of her and he tells her it was just the opposite, he liked the girl. And we see flashbacks of a boy drowning and a girl, picking flowers with the boy trailing after her. And the two stare at each other, the boy with the beautiful eyes, the girl with eyes lacking warmth.
When I was young, I discovered fairy tales. I would go to the library and check out swathes of Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books. I would go on to become a fan of Disney movies like The Little Mermaid and TV shows such as The Storyteller. But along the way I discovered something, that there was and is a big difference between the Disney versions of fairy tales and the Grimms Brothers original tales which contained more violence, sex, and many other facets of society. I started to watch more Hayao Miyazaki films such as Princess Mononoke, which contained multiple scenes of violence and gore as well as a more nuanced look at good and evil.
It’s Okay to Not be okay is such a tale. It is the darker side of fairy tales, the Grimms Bros version, that wants to remind you that there are always things hiding in the dark and it is better to face them, rather than pretend they’re not there.
We could argue about who is the princess in this drama, who is the villain, the Big Bad Wolf, the evil witch (Moon Young obviously wants this role 😁) or the prince (Sang Tae perhaps?). I could debate whether Kang Tae is the fairy godmother, the wise old man who sets the characters on the right path. Or whether he is the Big Bad Wolf. Because of all the characters in the drama, the most closed up and less unknown one is Kang Tae. He appears framed as if closed in a box, from the first shot we get of his face, to another frame shown below. Perhaps he is the sweet brother, competent worker he appears to be. Perhaps not. From fairy tales, we should know by now that the sweet old grandma could indeed be the wolf in disguise, or the beautiful polished apple is also a poisoned one.
But what is clear is that it is the fairy dust sprinkled around, the visual flights of fantasy that make this a fairy tale. What is a fairy tale that is just reality with no fantasy elements? So for vomit, we see waterfalls, we see animated trash, milk. Think of these visual flourishes as Tinker Bell’s pixie dust.
The main character, Moon Young, is a pure wonderful, glorious fairy tale creature. She wears clothes that mark her as such, acts as if she’s a princess (she claims to be a witch or monster, but only a princess is that entitled). What or rather who is the shadow of death that follows her? What parts do her parents play in this? And why do those around her end up dead? To be continued…