As a story about revenge, The Glory on Netflix offers familiar comfort. There are complicated plots and dramatic irony, lots of violence. This is a Korean production, after all, whose film industry was practically founded on revenge and produced masterpieces like Lady revenge and i saw the devil. Right in the first scene of The Gloryour lead Moon Dong-eun (Song Hye-kyo) meets her nemesis Park Yeon-jin (Lim Ji Yeon) with the broadside of a stapler and then holds the end of the deal up to her bloodied face, which bursts into cackling laughter. It’s already a couple of appearances that are reminiscent Choi Min-siks madness inside old boy. So the question becomes: how does a Korean revenge story stand out in 2022 (with a second installment of episodes in March)? At first glance it doesn’t seem like it, with a voice-over narration like Emily Thorne on the ABC show Revengeand an aesthetic hybrid of the gritty My name and the unreasonable Remarriage & Wishes, which perished in its folds of high society. And yet, The Glory is written by an industry legend Kim Eun-sookwho ensures that Dong-eun’s revenge is a new and terrible beast.
With an injured Yeon-jin laughing in her face, Dong-eun snaps back to reality where the whole staggering with the staplers was just a daydream. But what is very real: our offended heroine is distraught. Song Hye-kyo, playing against the guy, has such a stoic face that every twitch, every flicker of the eye is worth studying. She is mysterious and the show presents her at a distance. She eats little else but kimbap and apparently spends every morning having breakfast in a rooftop garden, just staring and probably making plans. She’ll meet up with a new character or engage in an activity like Go, and several scenes – or even episodes – later, the terrifying purpose will be revealed. The grand plan for revenge slowly unfolds, providing enough insight into her process to feel confident that she’s in control and always one step ahead. She appears in unexpected places and is suddenly friends with unexpected people. The “how” is always unknown, but never doubted. She’s good, she’s unpredictable. A private conference between her and one of her targets is initiated by flashes of crackling fire and a simmering pot of soup. Although she doesn’t show any physical or fighting skills, the world still feels dangerous for being in it.
“The Glory” follows a tradition of Korean revenge
So too began her search with the armed commonplace of “school violence,” which is such an epidemic problem that a discreet term is warranted. Decades ago, young Dong-eun was relentlessly bullied by a group of her classmates led by Yeon-jin. They assaulted her physically and sexually, leaving permanent scars in the form of a curling iron. It’s as painful and traumatic as the inflammatory incident of any revenge story, but the difference is that these perpetrators are children. Dong-eun drops out of school and holds back for the next few years, graduating from high school and of course plotting revenge. Meanwhile, Yeon-jin becomes a well-known meteorologist and marries a successful businessman, Ha Do-yeong (Jung Sung-il). She moved on, or so it seems. Can she really be held responsible for crimes she committed before she was an adult? Well, the bullied Dong-eun had sought help, first from the school nurse, who was touched by the girl’s plight and then disappeared. Then Dong-eun went to see a teacher who was furious at his own involvement in her abuse, so he abused her himself.
Korean revenge is often about this failure of institutions that pushes the hero down his individual path. The resulting violence may be immoral and certainly illegal, but it is their only option. School failed Dong-eun, as did her parents and almost everyone else. The school nurse’s disappearance is thanks to Yeon-jin as she and her friends are wealthy and have strong connections. The adult Dong-eun tutors a similarly wealthy teenager who wants to see her breasts. In a voice-over narration addressed like a letter to Yeon-jin, she says these people “always know”. They are clever and selective with targets, only hitting people who can’t hit back. Thus, Dong-eun empowers himself, which empowers others in need of revenge: companions like plastic surgeon Joo Yeo-jeong (Lee Do-hyun), whose father was murdered, and Kang Hyeon-nam (Yeom Hye-ran), a victim of domestic violence.
Song Hye-kyo is a cornered animal in The Glory
Dong-eun had dreamed of becoming an architect before she was pushed down this, shall we say, alternative path, and Hyeon-nam never dreamed of it until she met her. As part of assisting Dong-eun, she must learn to drive and take photos, giving her a newfound confidence. That should be revenge enough, an ideological response to the rules of South Korea’s social hierarchy. Instead, Dong-eun prefers to compare her revenge to the game of Go, in which the player systematically takes over her opponent’s built-up territory. With this very game, she becomes friends with Do-yeong unbeknownst to Yeon-jin after she managed to replace Yeon-jin’s daughter’s teacher. Gradually she infiltrates the life of her nemesis – like one parasite, maybe – an abstract victory with frightening, practical implications. As the new teacher, she levitates next to the little girl and holds a pair of scissors to her neck while Yeon-jin watches helplessly from the door.
It’s not about fighting fire with fire and thus inviting questions about looking into the abyss; Dong-eun is terrorist. Her parted hairstyle always threatens to obscure those windows to the soul like stage curtains. And yet their victims—once terrible children—never really grew up. While harming a small child is one thing, the goal is accomplished with no actual bloodshed. All Dong-eun has to do is push what’s already there, whether it’s the bond between mother and child or the sheer intolerance of this supposed group of bullies’ friends. In a revealing scene, three of them have three separate conversations in the same room, oblivious to each other’s concerns, such as the allegory of the long spoons or an episode of it’s always sunny in Philadelphia. If Dong-eun wants to sow distrust and manipulate against each other, all she has to do is expose misdeeds that have already been committed. Adultery, anger, drugs, even murder.
The Glory is a dark and rewarding K-drama
When Dong-eun meets with the school nurse later in life, she explains that she was the bystander first when the bullies attacked a girl who later died by apparent suicide, and then she was the victim. She swears that now she will be the culprit. These are the only three roles. The bullying has created a culture in her head that she can’t escape – not that she wants to. “Welcome to my own gym,” she says to Yeon-jin at a class reunion, referring to the location of her old torture. With these first eight episodes, Kim Eun-sook and director Ahn Gil-ho are establishing themselves The Glory as a gripping, cold-blooded thriller. It’s a revenge story as a meditation on power, in which the rich are forced to live with choices they believed would have no consequences.
Far too unsettling to be a pure eat-the-rich fantasy, it is, however, the fantasy of a fierce and terrifying heroine. And scariest of all? She’s just getting started.