Surprisingly Sympathetic Korean Drama features an Autistic character

It's Okay to Not be Okay

By Claudia Casser

“It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” is a stylish Korean drama on Netflix centered on a healing romance between a warped bitch fairy tale author and a self-sacrificing psychiatric nurse. This kind of extreme-opposites-attract is a staple of “K-Drama,” which I occasionally watch despite the annoyance of subtitles.

What is exceptional about this sixteen-episode series is the sometimes flawed but surprisingly nuanced portrayal of the male nurse’s older brother, Sang-tae.

Sang-tae, a thirty-something man on the autism spectrum, is a major driver of the plot of the series. While he acts as an intermediary in the stormy romance between his impoverished, patronizing younger brother and the rich, high-maintenance fairy-tale author, Sang-tae develops from a stunted, frustrated dependent of his younger brother into an independent, professional book illustrator and “older brother” (a social rank important in Korean culture).

Along with idiosyncratic phobias related to the deep plot, Sang-tae realistically demonstrates typical “spectric” traits including difficulty recognizing facial expressions, repetitive movements, meltdowns, a passion for dinosaurs, saying exactly what he thinks, and believing that the rules of behavior he was taught as a child are absolute rules.

In the first couple of episodes I found Sang-tae off-putting and his meltdowns in public embarrassing. (Though even in the first episode Sang-tae does utter the occasional unexpected, cogent observation, such as his response to his brother’s sidekick’s belittlement of illustrated children’s books. Sang-tae sniffs, “You don’t understand art. Art is a beautiful thing.”) Later, as the story unfolds and Sang-tae’s character gains depth, I became more comfortable with Sang-tae’s particular set of autistic characteristics and coping mechanisms.

Then, in one of the middle episodes of the sixteen, Sang-tae suddenly and totally gained my attention and respect. In that episode, Sang-tae corrects some of his brother’s false memories about important aspects of their family’s life before their mother was murdered. In ensuing episodes, Sang-tae more frequently displays his perceptiveness: for example, after he says “all mothers are good” while rambling on about a dinosaur cartoon, the female nurse to whom Sang-tae is speaking asks, “Was your mother good?” Sang-tae answers: “She was a good mother to me, not to Gang-tae” (the younger brother). In one of the last episodes, Sang-tae also silently takes the drastic action necessary to save his younger brother and the femme fatale author when the series villain threatens their lives.

The autism-sympathetic script and the portrayal of Sang-tae’s capabilities despite his sensory and social challenges is remarkable given this series was produced in Korea. According to anecdotal evidence and the limited academic research I have seen, social stigma attaches even more strongly to autistics in Korea (and China) than in the United States. (Which makes cultural sense given those countries’ more homogeneous populations and stronger traditional emphasis on social conformity than in the West.)

A landmark 2011 study concluded that: “Koreans consider autism to be a stigmatizing hereditary disorder; autism (chap’ae) impugns the child’s lineage on both sides and threatens the marriage prospects of unaffected relatives. As a result, autism is often untreated, misdiagnosed as attachment disorder, or unreported in records.” https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.10101532

This series combats that stigma.

Which is not to say it is perfect. First, while the neurotypical actor playing Sang-tae did his homework, he said in an interview that what he wanted especially to portray was ASD “innocence” and “purity.” While I admit to a high level of naivete, I don’t feel that my strong predisposition to be literal and up front, or my chronic failure to presume hidden agendas during social interactions, render me “innocent” or “pure.” Second, while the actor tries hard not to look people in the eyes, he often first reflexively does look into the eyes of the people to whom he is speaking before he looks away. He also sometimes forgets his character dislikes being touched.

On balance, however, I found this Netflix series to be a well-researched and generally realistic portrayal of a man on the spectrum. I also found it highly entertaining. You have to love the K-Drama trope of the female lead’s frequent sleeping fully dressed, coiffed, made-up, and dripping with jewelry. You also have to love the skilled cutting between the past and current relationships of the characters, and the artistic entwining of some very grim fairy tales with the characters’ “real life.”

Claudia Casser (ccasser@gmail.com), a graduate of Harvard Law School, worked as an antitrust litigator and a corporate in-house counsel before retiring to write and raise her children. Claudia’s 2016 semi-comic coming of age novel, “No Child Left Behind,” celebrates neurodiversity. Visit her website at www.ethicalantics.com, and buy her novel on Amazon.

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