“Somebody please help me!” Dong-eun, a high school student, screams as a classmate sears a hair curler into her arm while two other tormentors hold her down.
The gruesome scene in a school gymnasium is one of the early, pivotal moments of “The Glory,” the 16-episode drama centered on bullying, social status and revenge that has become the latest in a succession of South Korean mega hits for Netflix. Its breakout sensation, “Squid Game,” became the streamer’s most popular series of all time.
“The Glory,” which was released in two parts in December and March, is now Netflix’s fifth most popular non-English television offering ever. Executives said they were somewhat surprised to see how well the show did internationally, noting that it reached the top 10 non-English TV list in 91 countries.
It was one of the Korean hits, along with “Squid Game” and “Physical: 100,” that Ted Sarandos, co-chief executive of Netflix, cited last month when he met with President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea. There he announced a $2.5 billion investment in South Korean content over the next four years and noted that stories created in the country “are now at the heart of the global cultural zeitgeist.”
Don Kang, Netflix’s vice president of content for Korea, said it had been exciting to see the show take off globally. “‘The Glory’ is a great example of a story that resonates authentically with local audiences, but also depicts themes of human psychology and social issues, which audiences everywhere can relate to,” he said in a statement to The New York Times.
“The Glory” revolves around Moon Dong-eun, who makes it her life’s mission to seek revenge on the people who bullied her in high school. Her scars serve both as physical reminders of the pain she suffered at the hands of bullies and as the motivation behind her yearslong quest for vengeance. As she ages and develops her complicated payback scheme, she transforms from victim to perpetrator.
In braiding together the themes of bullying and revenge — plot devices that have animated dramas for centuries — “The Glory” lured droves of justice-hungry viewers in South Korea and beyond, even without the grand sets and striking visuals that propelled the popularity of “Squid Game.”
Netflix officials said they were pleased to discover that a show focused on story line and characters could travel as well as it did. They said they decided early on to release the episodes in two batches in part because of the weightiness of the content.
In a country where traditional broadcasters still censor smoking, Netflix is among the platforms that have opened a path for content creators to delve into topics that have long been considered too risqué, said Yu Kon-shik, an adjunct professor of communications at Konkuk University in Seoul and part of the production planning committee at the Korean Broadcasting System.
Fans of “The Glory,” some of whom recalled their own experiences with bullying, admitted that they found it gratifying and cathartic to see Dong-eun upend the lives of her enemies, even when she did things they would never consider.
“‘The Glory’ is this slow burn of a vengeance,” said Amy Lew, of Temple City, Calif., whose children have been bullied in school. “That’s everyone’s dark side, right? You want to see the underdog win.”
There is a reason so many people can relate. Almost one in three students reported being bullied in 2019, according to a UNESCO report, which also found that the prevalence of bullying has increased in almost one in five countries. And although reports of school violence in South Korea are relatively low — about 2 percent of students report being victims, according to its Ministry of Education — the actual figures could be higher because many students are afraid to speak up, said Kim Tae-yeon, a lawyer in Seoul who specializes in the subject.
The resonance of “The Glory” and its themes parked the show on Netflix’s Global Top 10 list for non-English television for 13 weeks. (It has spent only three weeks on the list of leading non-English programs in the United States.) It became one of four Korean series among Netflix’s 10 most popular non-English TV offerings of all time, along with “Squid Game,” “All of Us Are Dead” and “Extraordinary Attorney Woo.”
Now the company is hoping to build on those successes by releasing more than 30 Korean series, films and unscripted shows this year alone. At the end of March, just three weeks after the release of the second batch of episodes of “The Glory,” Netflix offered up another new Korean thriller: “Kill Boksoon.”
It has spent the past five weeks in Netflix’s top 10 for non-English films.
The global success of Korean productions demonstrates the international reach of Netflix — which can subtitle or dub shows in more than 30 languages — but also of the growing power of Seoul as a creative hub, Kang, the Netflix vice president, said.
“Korea is a storytelling powerhouse with the ability to showcase uniquely Korean culture and issues,” he said, “while conveying universal emotions that resonate with people around the world.”