As a story about revenge, The Glory on Netflix offers familiar comforts. There’s intricate plotting and dramatic irony, plenty of violence. This is a Korean production, after all, whose film industry was practically founded on revenge, making for masterpieces like Lady Vengeance and I Saw the Devil. In the very first scene of The Glory, our lead Moon Dong-eun (Song Hye-kyo) hits her nemesis Park Yeon-jin (Lim Ji-yeon) with the broad side of a staple gun and then holds the business end up to her bloody face, which erupts in cackling laughter. Already, it’s a pair of performances that recalls Choi Min-sik’s madness in Oldboy. So the question arises: how does a Korean revenge story in 2022 (with a second batch of episodes coming in March) stand out? At first glance, it doesn’t seem to, with a voice-over narration like Emily Thorne’s in the ABC show Revenge, and an aesthetic hybrid of the gritty My Name and the blunderous Remarriage & Desires, which drowned itself in its convolutions of high society. And yet, The Glory is written by industry legend Kim Eun-sook, who ensures that Dong-eun’s revenge is a new and terrifying beast.
With an injured Yeon-jin laughing in her face, Dong-eun snaps back to reality, where the whole staple gun altercation was only a daydream. But what is very real: our aggrieved heroine is disturbed. Song Hye-kyo, playing against type, presents such a stoic face that every twitch, every flicker in the eye is worthy of study. She’s mysterious, and the show presents her at a remove. Barely eating anything other than kimbap, she apparently spends every morning crouched in a rooftop garden for breakfast, just staring and probably plotting. She’ll take a meeting with a new character or engage in an activity like Go, and several scenes — or even episodes — later, the terrible purpose is revealed. The grand revenge scheme unfolds slowly, affording glimpses of her process enough to feel confident she’s in control, and always a step ahead. She turns up in unexpected places, suddenly friends with unexpected people. In each case, the “how” is unknown but never doubted. She’s good, she’s unpredictable. A private conference between her and one of her targets is introduced by flashes of crackling fire and a boiling pot of soup. Evincing no physical or fighting prowess, the world nevertheless feels dangerous because she’s in it.
‘The Glory’ Follows a Tradition of Korean Revenge
This is also how her quest began, with the weaponized mundanity of “school violence,” which is such an epidemic problem it warrants a discreet term. Decades ago, young Dong-eun was bullied relentlessly by a group of her classmates, led by Yeon-jin. They assaulted her physically and sexually, and left her with permanent scars in the shape of a curling iron. It’s as painful and traumatic as any revenge story’s inciting incident, but the difference is that these perpetrators are children. Dong-eun drops out of school and puts her head down for the next few years, getting her GED and, of course, plotting vengeance. In the meantime, Yeon-jin becomes a well-known meteorologist and marries a successful businessman, Ha Do-yeong (Jung Sung-il). She moved on, or so it would seem. Can she really be blamed for crimes committed before she grew up? Well, bullied Dong-eun had gone looking for help, first from the school nurse who was moved by the girl’s plight and subsequently vanished. Then Dong-eun went to a teacher, who was furious at his own implication in her abuse, so he abused her himself.
Korean revenge is often about these failures of institutions that push the hero toward their individual path. The ensuing violence may be immoral, and certainly illegal, but it’s their only recourse. The school failed Dong-eun, as did her parents, and just about everybody else. The school nurse’s disappearance is owed to Yeon-jin, as she and her friends are rich and have powerful connections. Adult Dong-eun tutors a similarly wealthy teenage boy, who demands to see her boobs. In voice-over narration, directed at Yeon-jin like a letter, she says that these people “always know.” They’re clever and selective with targets, only hitting people who can’t hit back. So Dong-eun empowers herself, which empowers others in need of vengeance: companions like the 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 being an architect before she was pushed onto this, let’s say, alternative track, and Hyeon-nam never dreamed whatsoever until meeting her. As part of her assisting Dong-eun, she has to learn how to drive and take photos, which imbues her with novel self-confidence. That should be revenge enough, an ideological riposte against the precepts of South Korea’s social hierarchy. Instead, Dong-eun prefers to analogize her revenge to the game of Go, in which the player systematically takes her opponent’s built-up territories. It’s with this very game that she befriends Do-yeong without Yeon-jin knowing, which is after she’d contrived to replace the teacher of Yeon-jin’s daughter. Gradually, she’s infiltrating her nemesis’s life — like a Parasite, perhaps — an abstract victory with scary, practical implications. As the new teacher, she hovers by the little girl and holds a pair of scissors to her neck while Yeon-jin watches helplessly from the door.
This is not a matter of fighting fire with fire, thereby inviting questions about gazing unto the abyss; Dong-eun is terroristic. Her parted hairstyle ever threatens to conceal those windows to the soul like stage curtains. And yet, her victims — once terrible children — never truly grew up. While implying harm to a small child is one thing, it accomplishes the goal without actual bloodshed. All Dong-eun has to do is push on what’s already there, whether that be a bond between mother and child or the sheer incompatibility of this supposed friend group of bullies. In one telling scene, three of them carry on three separate conversations in the same room, oblivious to one another’s concerns like the allegory of the long spoons, or an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. If Dong-eun wants to sow mistrust and manipulate them against each other, she only has to expose misdeeds already committed. Adultery, wrath, drugs, even murder.
‘The Glory’ is a Dark and Rewarding K-Drama
When Dong-eun meets up with the school nurse later in life, she explains that at first, she was the bystander, when the bullies were attacking a girl who later died by apparent suicide, and next, she was the victim. She vows that now she’ll be the perpetrator. These are the only three roles. The bullying created a culture in her mind that she can’t escape — not that she wants to. “Welcome to my very own gym,” she tells Yeon-jin at a class reunion, referencing the site of her old torture. With these first eight episodes, Kim Eun-sook and director Ahn Gil-ho establish The Glory as a compelling, cold-blooded thriller. It’s a revenge story as meditation on power, where the wealthy are forced to live with choices they believed wouldn’t have consequences.
Far too unsettling to be an eat-the-rich fantasy entirely, it is, however, the fantasy of a fierce and terrifying heroine. And most frightening of all? She’s only getting started.