If revenge is indeed a ‘dish best served cold’, South Korean drama is busy piling its plates with second and third servings right now. As a theme, seeking merciless recompense on our enemies has been hyper visible in K-drama for a while. January saw Netflix’s The Glory – about a woman who becomes a primary school teacher in order to exact vengeance on her bullies – become a huge hit in and outside of Korea, with the second series on its way this week. That format joins a multitude of popular 2022 launches like Reborn Rich, Eve and The Revenge of Others, which all carry similar themes.
Apart from the obvious cathartic satisfaction provided by seeing those who have wronged us get what they deserve, why exactly is vengeance such a hot topic in K-drama right now? Well in many ways these vengeful, action-packed series are part of a wider move we’ve seen in Korea towards edgier, more thriller-like storylines.
There is, firstly, a social side to this shift toward revenge drama. Back in 2021, accusations of bullying from former classmates of K-Pop idols and Korean celebrities surfaced, beginning with the volleyball players known as the Lee sisters. The celebrity athletes were suspended following accusations on the anonymous online forum Nate Pann. Not long after, many more celebrities were outed as former bullies, from boy band singers to K-drama actresses, with apologies ranging from sincere to silent. It’s little wonder, then, that revenge dramas such as The Glory have found their time in the limelight over the past few years. This issue continues to gain traction in the media and in the educational environment, with many behavioural psychologists spotlighting South Korea’s collectivist culture as a gateway for intense, group-on-one bullying. Seeing once-loved celebrities being outed as a part of this clearly struck a chord with audiences, and so revenge dramas have become relevant and reflective of the current social climate. As Lee Hang-woo, sociology professor of Chungbuk University, puts it, “In the old days, people who suffered from abuse in school often put up with it, but people today have learned to raise their voices amid growing sensitivity for democracy and human rights [in South Korea].” And if there’s anything that can spotlight social issues effectively and movingly, it’s a gritty, unabashed TV drama.
This darker shift, we’d say, is also in large part thanks to the increasingly global audience of the K-drama. The likes of Netflix and Disney’s Korean commissions balance the creativity and playful charm K-drama has always been known for, with the more cynical, edgy tone of a lot of Western TV. That’s why we’ve seen these platforms concentrate on making a lot of spikier, more macabre shows – Squid Game, All of Us Are Dead, Hellbound – compared to the lighter, more romantic series that traditionally ruled the roost in Korea.
For a territory renowned for its high quality, well-travelled romance dramas like Crash Landing On You, it’s refreshing to see this desaturation of a romance-heavy market with the addition of edgier thrillers like The Glory. With the popularity of Squid Game, it’s proven that darker dramas do work, especially on the global stage. This has been consolidated by the subsequent success of Hellbound and All of Us Are Dead, paving the way for more series like the much-anticipated Duty After School. And there’s no sign of this slowing down either – season two of SBS’s Taxi Driver aired last month, along with Disney+’s Call It Love, which embraced both romance and revenge to critical acclaim. Expect to see many more revenge thrillers on the K-drama horizon, with the likes of MBC’s Joseon Lawyer and JTBC’s Divorce Attorney Shin arriving this month.