2022 saw a rise in revenge k-dramas. In fact, we had at least two new revenge shows a month! That’s hardly surprising though; violence and retribution make for fascinating watches that attract many different kinds of audiences all across the globe.
But what exactly makes the ones from k-drama so binge-able? In this article, we take a deep dive into revenge k-dramas, what makes them tick, and why we love them so much.
While the modern world recognizes that the Hammurabi code of “an eye for an eye” can be brutal and problematic, it has not stopped people from voicing rather violent sentiments against perpetrators of heinous crimes. In reality, most victims rarely get justice, much less compensation, and for that, we sometimes look to literature and popular culture to distract us.
Because revenge evokes so many different responses, and its morality is often debatable, art, and literature – in this case, k-dramas – are common ways to explore its consequences, as well as allow us to imagine revenge as a collective act.
Philosophers, writers, and ethicists have long wrestled with the concept of revenge. For Aristotle, revenge needs three things: we want to cause our offender pain, we want the offender to know that he caused our pain, and finally, we want him to be aware that he is in pain because of what he did to us.
It is also important to remember that revenge isn’t just merely carrying out damage. Surprisingly, revenge has layers of important nuance. In fact, it differs from mere punishment because revenge has one other dimension: it is pleasurable. Social psychologist Erich Fromm suggested that “revenge…is often cruel, lustful, and insatiable.” It also allows us to let loose emotions that we would otherwise hide from ourselves, such as pure contempt, rage, spite, pettiness, and insolence.
We begin by dissecting the anatomy of revenge and looking at four main elements examined by J.M.C. Vos.
1. Damage to self-esteem. This need not be very literal. We start with damage to one’s self-esteem through the loss of “pride, reputation, and human life” (Wiggins). In fact, a good revenge drama ought to have a great irreparable loss to the victim. Otherwise, if the victim cannot rise above it, s/he becomes a petty character instead of a heroic avenger. The cause also needs to be worthwhile in order for the viewers to willingly support the victim to seek revenge in the first place.
Moon Dong-eun (Song Hye-kyo) suffers repeated physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her high school bullies in The Glory (2022). Captain Do Bae-man (Ahn Bo-hyun) loses his parents through the hands of a covert military plot in Military Prosecutor Doberman (2022). Kim Hui-u (Lee Joon-gi) loses his own life and gets a chance to live it again in Again, My Life (2022).
2. The belief that the damage to self-esteem is wrong. Next, the victim has to actually acknowledge victimhood. They must recognize that the crime was unwarranted and undeserved. Only then can s/he begin the next stage of the process. Han Yi-han (So Ji-sub) in Doctor Lawyer) is falsely accused of a medical malpractice that costs him his freedom, his fiancee, and his career. He then spends several years learning to become a lawyer to exact justice for himself.
Many victims quickly realize that revenge is the only way forward. The offense is too deep and the helplessness so great, that forgiveness is not an option. The judicial system has not helped. Convincing the offender to change through civil conversation is pointless. The possibility of healing and justice is unthinkable. Mercy and reason are nonexistent.
Even the philosopher Jacques Derrida was suspicious when forgiveness was granted too quickly. He suggested that hasty forgiveness would simply add to the humiliation and would leave the victim forever traumatized. Hence his controversial maxim, “Forgiveness is not, and should not be, normal, normative, normalizing.”
When taken to heart, revenge becomes an alternative source for justice and moral order.
3. The drive to restore equality of power. Victimhood already creates a binary opposition: the perpetrator and the victim. This relationship has an innate power imbalance.
But before the powerless (i.e. the victim) can attempt to restore some equality of power, s/he has to first acquire some of the power either through money, influence, physical strength, or any of its other forms. Revenge plots, after all, are never accidental. They need careful planning, strategizing, and a long-term view.
In Reborn Rich (2022), Yoon Hyeon-woo (Song Joong-ki) can only exact revenge when he finally has something that his opponent does not. In his case, it is knowledge of future events. This levels the playing field somewhat since the main object of his vengeance is a powerful, wealthy family. In Itaewon Class (2020), Park Sae-ro-yi (Park Seo-joon) must first gather some measure of success in his restaurant business before he can even begin to get back at his oppressors. In My Name (2021), Yoon Ji-woo (Han So-hee) has to train physically before avenging her father's murder.
Taxi Driver (2021) is interesting in that the team of Rainbow Taxi offers itself as the agency for restoring power. It seeks revenge on behalf of the victim who does not yet have money, influence, or knowledge to get away with it.
4. The desire to cause harm, including the risk of excessiveness and the desire to elevate oneself morally above the other. Now, this is the part where the story really takes flight. The desire to retaliate for the loss is directed at whoever took away the “self-esteem” in the first place. Some revenge plots are even planned with ultimate self-destruction in mind.
Enter excessiveness. Manipulating the law to get justice? There’s a reason revenge k-dramas are also law dramas. Check out Military Prosecutor Doberman (2022), Again, My Life (2022), One Dollar Lawyer (2022), and the like. Taxi Driver (2021) is not shy in using outright violence and illegal scams to swindle the swindlers. Money Flower (2017) and Eve (2022) use seduction and romance to even the score.
Sometimes the real “villain” in the matter is an abstract thing. In this case, proxy representatives have to do, and rage must be channeled to a single person. Even if the one who instituted the crime is an entire organization of executives and bureaucrats who are complicit in the crime, the victim only has the energy to fight individuals. He can't take down an entire ideology like capitalism.
So harabeoji Jin Yang-cheol (Lee Sung-min) must stand in for Soonyang Corporation in Reborn Rich. General No Hwa-young (Oh Yeon-soo) represents the entire military in Military Prosecutor Doberman. In King of Pigs (2022), Hwang Kyung-min (Kim Dong-wook) finds he has the savagery to hunt down his old bullies and destroy their lives. They, of course, stand in for all the cruel bullies in the world. After all, the main character isn’t just a single victim – he or she is ALL victims, and we identify with them wholeheartedly.
Because revenge k-dramas must end with the victim winning over those who mistreated him, they rarely explore another dimension of revenge: that it is exhausting and cyclical. Most other literature understand that revenge is an endless circle of wrong, and that retaliation can carry on through generations (see Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet).
What’s worse is that other innocent lives are also disrupted and harmed because of one person's stubborn refusal to step out of the cycle. As literary critic Rene Girard points out, it is this perverse fetish for endless pain that perpetuates the “economy of revenge."
K-drama, much like art and literature, allows us to indulge in our spectatorial desire for revenge, a “catharsis through vengeance” so to speak. Watching them helps us explore the evil pleasures of a revenge fantasy without becoming evil ourselves. K-drama also paints us a picture of the horrid effects revenge bludgeons on those who have hurt, humiliated, and mistreated us. It shows us what would it be like if we went on a self-destructive journey, without compromising our own private sense of morality or virtue.
Revenge stories have a timeless quality that meets our desire for balance and justice, which is why they will never go away in art and life. But as art has proven time and time again, revenge is a short-sighted solution to dealing with anyone’s persecution and maltreatment. It may be satisfying to destroy the lives of those that got in our way, but more often than not, a revenge plot also leads to the destruction of the avenger.
Fortunately, art also reminds us that there is another way out of the cycle. The journey need not be from pain to more pain. The better way, in fact, has always been from revenge to redemption.
But that doesn't really make it a fun drama to watch, does it?
What's your favorite revenge k-drama?
-- by Barrio Chaebol and Seoul-lo
Bibb, S. C., & Escandell, D. (2020). Best Served Cold: Studies on Revenge. BRILL.
Girard, R. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. John Hopkins University Press Baltimore, 1996.
Grobbink, L. H., Derksen, J. J. L., & van Marle, H. J. C. (2015). Revenge: An Analysis of Its Psychological Underpinnings. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 59(8), 892–907. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306624X13519963
Vos J. M. C. (2003). Het vragende slachtoffer en de wrekende staat. De functie van wrok in een moderne rechtsstaat [The begging victim and the avenging state. The function of resentment in the modern constitutional state]. Justitiële verkenningen/Judicial Explorations, 29(5), 31-45.
Wiggins, K. (2013). THE NEW REVENGE NOVEL. Studies in the Novel, 45(4), 675–692. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23594826