Payback: Korean Revenge Dramas Will Do It for You

TV
South Korean media excels at the revenge plot. Here are seven shows you can stream right now to get your fix.

At the climax of the birthday party massacre in Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite, we see Mr. Kim’s face up close, at the moment when resentment erupts into murderous rage. The Kim family has suffered indignities and degradations throughout the film. And yet it is only when the wealthy Mr. Park conspicuously holds his nose—recoiling from the smell of the indebted man who had been hiding away in his basement—that the Kim family patriarch snaps, grabs a knife, and takes his revenge.

Revenge in its purest form—distilled down to cold, primal, retributive fury—is one of the signature themes of South Korean media. Two decades ago, Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy set the tone. But in the intervening years, the revenge genre has exponentially expanded beyond film and settled into television, where it is right at home: tailor-made for both streaming services (with fewer constraints on explicit content) and TV networks (the standard K-drama format, with its sensational plot twists, keeps audiences in place for their eight-week runs).

But where to start and what to watch? These are always the questions—which we answer here with a list of seven dramas, showcasing the genre at both its darkest and its most hilarious.1


Korean dramas writ large have dominated the streaming era. As portals and platforms have proliferated, so too has the global market for K-drama radically expanded. And the revenge genre in particular can be found everywhere, and in plentiful supply, on every domestic channel and every global platform.2

It is especially prevalent on Disney+ and Netflix, where the genre “K-dramas” is itself a menu option. The format ranges from limited web series to a 100-episode daily drama (KBS’s Miss Monte-Cristo); and it continues to draw high-profile talent, from Hallyu stars like Song Joong-ki to writers like Kim Eun-sook and Kim Eun-hee. The popularity of revenge narratives is empirically supported by a tally of the shows that have emerged in the streaming, or over-the-top (OTT), era—and also by viewer and subscriber numbers, social media metrics, and, more generally, memeification, whether through parody videos or memes themselves.

What keeps the audiences for contemporary Korean revenge dramas captivated, so unable to turn away, is that the dramas, and the characters in them, are always just a little unhinged. The unhinged, of course, is to be expected in the genre: driven to existential despair and desperation, driven by spite, avengers are not generally known for their stability and restraint. But what makes Korean revenge dramas distinct is that they offer the cathartic spectacle of unbridled fury, and then pull it back, whether through laughter or romance. Their characters are also remarkably consistent in seeing things through to the end, in going beyond retaliation to total destruction. For audiences, the release is achieved through purgative vengeance offset by visual and narrative pleasures. As Shin Hye-sun’s character in Mr. Queen smugly observes, while admiring her pre-battle makeover: revenge is best served flamboyantly, with glamour.

While watching these dramas, we are going to be taken to the edge time and again—witness to overwhelming shame, humiliation, betrayal, and violence—but then brought back by someone’s antic disposition or a hint of sexual tension between the leads. The character of Moon Dong-eun in The Glory, for example, seeks a kind of absolute revenge for her victimization: a punishment that annihilates rather than restores. “There will be no forgiveness,” she declares. The ancient law of retaliation, eye for an eye: “that sounds too fair to me.” The scales are balanced in a different way for viewers: horrific scenes of the young Dong-eun’s torture in high school, on the one hand, and the visuals of Song Hye-kyo and Jung Sung-il, on the other. Likewise, one of Dong-eun’s abusers is going to be buried alive in concrete, but only after he has delivered some of the drama’s best comic lines.

Fan and industry compilations of the most satisfying bits—the slaps, big reveals, and verbal shivs—can be found everywhere online and they demonstrate the mutually constitutive relations between producers and audiences. A company such as Netflix or TVING invests in original content, and social media practices (e.g., reaction and fan-made videos) drive, in turn, subscriptions and advertising revenue. The revenge narratives in particular are great fun, as they always are, because of the artful villainy and spectacular comeuppance; retribution, when it comes, is highly stylized and transmutes horror into vicarious pleasure, ripe for sampling and remixing.


But there is something else happening in these dramas. It is not simply the tropological structure, black hat/white hat, that now facilitates viewer investments. Part of the appeal is that the genre’s common themes of class entitlement, predatory debt, school bullying, exploitation, and sexual assault embed and turn on, in the double sense, social commentary. But more broadly, revenge dramas are playing on, and playing out, a fantasy structure that takes a knife to the heart of all those whose crimes, big and small, have caused harm.

Just as the global zeitgeist turns toward the correction of historical wrongs, these dramas float idealized notions of belated punishment and vindication, of redress and repair, and of a playing field made level. These notions are of course themselves fantasy, as Park Yeon-jin, perhaps the greatest villain in our list of dramas, sneers to Dong-eun: “Why do the poor always believe in things like poetic justice or karma?

For true narrative satisfaction, then, the end game cannot simply be legal or even economic recompense. Such a resolution would be too easy, “too fair,” and too reliant on institutions that have been bent to serve the interests of power. Hence the dramatic allure of the rough justice of vigilantism or, better yet, of watching the victims and the downtrodden pick up the knife themselves.

It’s all payback, all the time—and audiences are here for it.


A selection from what is now a long list might appear to be arbitrary but there is an underlying coherence not only to the revenge genre itself as we have suggested, but also to our chosen seven. Our curation has been informed by both our subjective preferences and our knowledge of the field: these are recent dramas that have held us enthralled, and we can recommend them as exemplary for both new and seasoned K-drama viewers alike.3

Ordering is chronological, from the start of the pandemic, when global audiences for K-dramas exponentially increased. Should the need for quarantine arise again, one or more of these will help you get through it. (Platforms for each are noted.)

 

Itaewon Class

The World of the Married

Taxi Driver

Reborn Rich

The Glory

Celebrity

Revenant

 

 

Itaewon Class (January–March 2020; 16 eps; JTBC, Netflix)

Based on a webtoon of the same name, aired simultaneously on both domestic television and Netflix worldwide, and remade for TV Asahi in Japan as Roppongi Class, Itaewon Class encapsulates the new creative ecosystem’s model of creative production: one-source, multi-use (OSMU).4 It also demonstrates, and did a little bit to stimulate, the global appetite for K-culture.

The district of Itaewon in Seoul was cool before Itaewon Class, but the Halloween festivities in the drama’s second episode have to be seen in relation to the horrific crowd surge there in 2022. The broader phenomenon of the marketing of Seoul through culture has been well documented. Still, it is striking that foreign tourists who experienced the tragedy spoke of visiting the filming location because they wanted to experience the festival in Itaewon as this drama presented it.

It was not just foreign viewers, however, who embraced the drama Itaewon Class was also wildly popular among domestic audiences. Winner in the Best Drama Series category at the 25th Asian Television Awards (2021), it is one of JTBC’s highest-rated shows, with an audience share of 16% for the final episode, when the protagonist Park Saeroyi gets his revenge. It partly resonated with audiences because it brings familiar tropes (bad chaebol behavior and piggyback rides) up to date with a focus on discrimination against LGBTQ people and foreigners.

It’s a by-the-book tale of revenge but, at the same time, it poses a more fundamental question for a younger generation: Can one build a principled life in an unfair world? Park Saeroyi holds the line, skirting both nihilism and defeatism; consequently, his foes are vanquished in the end and he gets his long-overdue apology, his love, and the corporation. As cliched as it sounds, the drama works precisely because nearly all its moves are expected, as well as because of the charisma of all of its leads.

 

 

The World of the Married (march–may 2020; 16 eps; jtbc, disney+)

 

The World of the Married is a circus of a melodrama wrapped inside a train wreck. Viewers, in other words, couldn’t look away.

The World of the Married is based on the BBC drama Doctor Foster—itself inspired by the story of Medea—so you can guess at the basic narrative arc: hell hath no fury (but the son lives). The idealized family portrait carefully hung in the opening scene is the ironic tell. The portrait will come down, but the fallout from the adulterous affair, which of course includes pregnancy, is almost too chaotic to map.

It is a textbook makjang—a K-drama subgenre akin to soap opera—but well crafted and particularly well acted. Kim Hee-ae captures every nuance and inflection of rage, particularly during an epic confrontation over dinner, and Han So-hee plays the role of shameless mistress so well that audiences confused the person for the role. (Both actors notably lead two other revenge K-dramas on Netflix: Kim Hee-ae battling the corrupt chaebol family in Queenmaker and Han So-hee avenging the murder of her father in My Name.)

Today, the series’ iconic status is secured by continuous quotation, allusion, and appropriation. JTBC produced its own promotional parody, but, as used to be the case, the best jokes were on Twitter. The drama may have induced many a stress headache, but audiences fell in love nonetheless—and there is nothing wrong with falling in love!

 

 

Taxi Driver (S1, April–May 2021; S2, February–April 2023; 32 eps; SBS, Viki)

Taxi Driver: “Don’t kill yourself. Take revenge. We’ll do it for you.”

 

Even now it is unusual for a K-drama to go into a second season, yet here we are with a third season for Taxi Driver confirmed. Based on a webtoon of the same name, this procedural drama has a setup conducive to extension: a taxi company is a front for a shadow squad of vigilantes, whose individual traumatic histories compel them to achieve extra-institutional justice for victims that have reached the point of total despair.

Driven to an edge by, for example, organ traffickers, indentured servitude, or a cult that preys upon the fatally ill, victims encounter the yellow sticker advertising the Rainbow Taxi Revenge Service, exactly where and when their need is most acute. A phone call connects them to a deluxe taxi driver who listens to their stories and takes them to an arcade game narrated by, yes, the actor who stars in Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance. They are given a choice: Do you want to punish those who have tormented you? If yes, the call goes through to a motley crew working in a secret lair below the taxi company and a revenge campaign begins (an inevitable highlight of which is Lee Je-hoon going undercover).

If not for the satisfaction of seeing the tidy resolution of a crime or social issue at the center of public debate in Korea, viewers are turning out in droves for the immersive storytelling (21% for the final episode of season two). An added bonus is the extradiegetic game, spot-the-reference to the vengeance trilogy. (The Vivaldi concerto used as background music was also used in Old Boy; a fight scene with dumbbells echoes the famous hammer fight in that film, etc.)

What makes Korean revenge dramas distinct is that they offer the cathartic spectacle of unbridled fury, and then pull it back, whether through laughter or romance.

Reborn Rich (November–December 2022; 16 eps; JTBC, Viki)

The second highest-rated show on Korean television (coming in just under The World of the Married) is Reborn Rich. Based on a web novel and subsequently adapted as a webtoon, the series enacts, again in the double sense, the story of the emergence of Korea as a global cultural power.

Reborn Rich is a body swap, time travel fantasy, the fictionality of which is underscored by the disclaimer at the start of every episode. We are not meant to see the connections to actual people and events, but of course we do. It’s not really the story of Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul and his son, with a little Hyundai on the side, but the parallels are there. Along the way, the series does move into fairly uncharted waters in its incisive portrayal of the dynamics of chaebol families.
Song Joong-ki plays a loyal secretary in present-day Korea, betrayed by the family he serves; subsequently reincarnated as that family’s grandson back in 1987, he sets out to destroy them all. Armed with the foreknowledge from the future, he knows how to amass the requisite fortune for a hostile takeover of the family’s company (definitely invest in Amazon), but his hardest job is convincing his incredulous business partner to put money in Korean entertainment and a digital media city because the day will come when the “world goes crazy over Korean songs, movies, and dramas.” His partner’s skeptical question—“In Korea, which doesn’t speak English and has less than 50 million people?”—may be the best joke in the series because, indeed, this is going to happen.

 

 

The Glory (Part 1, December 2022; Part 2, March 2023; 16 eps; Netflix)

The Glory: “You’re so cool, Yeon-jin.”

 

The global popularity of Squid Game slightly perplexed Korean audiences. But The Glory—with its high production values, virtuosic acting, and intricate narrative structure (complete with Easter eggs and subtle symmetries)—made a definitive case for the creative potential of streaming series. The Glory captured the Best Drama prize at the 2023 Baeksang, Blue Dragon, and Asian Academy Creative Awards ceremonies; and, indeed, if pressed to recommend just one of the dramas on our list, we would vote for this one.

Netflix experimented with the format for this drama, releasing it in two parts in order to keep viewers on the hook for three months. Hooked they were: held not only by the story itself but also by the whole paratextual apparatus that grew up around it, from a midterm lecture and comedy sketches to endless memes.5 (Thanks to you, Yeon-jin, we were not surprised by this situation.) It was fun to play with the language; and Song Hye-kyo’s Baeksang acceptance speech thanking “Yeon-jin” after winning the best actress award was maybe the funniest play of all. But, nevertheless, the drama is actually quite brutal, portraying not only school bullying, the central focus, but also class warfare.

At the heart of the story are Moon Dong-eun’s deep wounds. In high school she is horribly abused by a gang led by the wealthy princess, Park Yeon-jin. Forced to drop out by a corrupt teacher, she is further betrayed in the process by her already neglectful mother and left to fend for herself. Dong-eun claws her way back, working in a factory during the day and studying at night, and, after survival, revenge becomes her primary drive. Fueled by an unabating fury, she spends 18 years planning the campaign that (spoiler!) culminates in the crushing humiliation, social ostracization, imprisonment, or death of every last one of her abusers.

Baduk (Go) structures the narrative but the sharper motif is that of the mangnani (the Joseon-era executioner). Lee Do-hyun plays this role in season one, at the end of which he and Song Hye-kyo set off to avenge the murder of his father, the probable narrative arc of season two.

 

Celebrity (June 2023; 12 eps; Netflix)

 

One of the more striking aspects of Dong-eun’s revenge in The Glory is that, apart from the aforementioned burial in concrete, it is almost entirely reputational and relational. The lesson of this, as for Celebrity, is that social currency backed by greed is remarkably volatile, all the more so when those in the market seek primarily to preserve their own image and follower count.

Celebrity is a truly dark, yet still pleasurable, representation of social media dynamics, more specifically of influencers and attendant strategies of mobilizing viewer affects. With episode titles in the form of hashtags, “real” celebrity cameos, a visual frame that blends with Instagram’s user interface in key moments, and recognizable luxury brands as far as the eye can see, Celebrity is a spectacle about spectacle.

On the surface, it is a riches-rags-riches story. Seo A-ri, played by Park Gyu-young, learns the formula for acquiring social media fame and rapidly transforms herself from a cosmetics vendor into a celebrity. But—live by the sword; die by the sword—she is herself subjected to anonymous trolling, and it all comes crashing down. The twist is that Seo A-ri’s revenge against her haters will be carried out through a set of alliances with friends and family. Thus, for all of the romance of wealth on display, the true fantasy of Celebrity is that meaningful social networks can easily materialize on demand.

 

 

Revenant (June–July 2023; 12 eps; SBS, Disney+/Hulu)

 

A literal translation of Revenant’s Korean title is “evil spirit.” But, in this rare instance, “revenant” works equally well, because the vengeful ghost at the center of the drama encapsulates the bloody capitalist history that has returned to haunt the present.

In the role of Korean folklore professor Yeom Hae-sang, Oh Jung-se offers this framing to his students: history is the story of those in power; folklore is the story of the people. The grandson of a family whose wealth exponentially grew in the late 1950s, he is using both his encyclopedic knowledge of the occult and his considerable resources to track down the evil ghost, a taejagwi, who killed his mother. Said ghost has newly possessed the public prosecutor/part-time delivery worker Gu San-yeong (in a jaw-dropping performance by Kim Tae-ri); the body count grows; and a divided San-yeong teams up with the professor and sympathetic detectives to unravel the mystery.

As Hae-sang will learn to his horror, the ghost was actually created in the post-war period by his grandparents, who exploited a desperately poor family and conspired with a shaman and a village in order to procure a young girl for a ritualistic sacrifice. And, lest viewers should have missed the overarching point, another plotline is dedicated to two agwi, or starving ghosts, born from humans’ insatiable desire for material possessions. Don’t open the door if you don’t know who or what is knocking: this is ostensibly the takeaway, but the real message of the story is that greed is evil.

There is an obvious irony in a global media industry selling the ideas of equity and class consciousness. And yet, perhaps this industry is also, nontrivially, helping to shape a new consensus. After all, the drama concludes with Hae-sang giving his family’s money back to society and San-yeong choosing to use her inheritance stargazing on the grass. Don’t you want to try other ideas, her friend asks, like a staycation at a five-star resort? “Be quiet,” San-yeong replies. “Don’t ruin this mood for me.” icon

This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.

  1. Tonally, these are often one and the same, as when Kim Hee-ae’s character in The World of the Married imagines herself taking a pair of scissors to the heart of the husband who has betrayed her (featured in the image above).
  2. The genre is also prevalent in Korean webcomics, as our appropriated title (from a popular manhwa by Samk and Fujoking) indicates.
  3. Our compilation ends in Summer 2023, but we note that upcoming broadcast schedules and production lineups include many more examples of the genre.
  4. OSMU is roughly analogous to the media franchise and prioritizes IP and adaptation for different platforms and media markets.
  5. Audiences for The Glory were (as one says with only ranking trackers and social media metrics at hand) seemingly off the charts, particularly in Mexico and Central and South America.
Featured image: A still from The World of the Married, featuring Kim Hee-ae as Ji Seon-u.