Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Korean dramas would become one of the cornerstones of global entertainment. Classic romantic dramas defined the landscape then, and while these have become even more popular, along the way a new breed of K-dramas emerged. It is this new variant of stylised and violent dramas that has been thrilling audiences around the world, and igniting our rage. You only have to think of the capitalist allegory of Squid Game , the disaffected youth of All of Us Are Dead , and the vendetta of Vincenzo ’s titular character. These shows pit the meek against the mighty in stories that are allegories of our frustrations and struggles with the systems of control that oppress us. Driven by rapacity and empowered by cronyism, the villains of Korean drama series strut through the halls of power, be they governmental or corporate (merely criminal organisations seldom pass muster these days), in worlds that mirror our own. The familiar inequity of these worlds draws us in, and the gross iniquities perpetrated by their antagonists fan the flames of our anger at society and convert it into full-throttled rage. These stories, which feed on something dark within us, have captured the global zeitgeist. The 15 best K-dramas of 2021: Vincenzo, Squid Game and more Violent Korean content is nothing new. It is nearly 20 years since Korean films entered a bold new era with the success of Oldboy . Since Park Chan-wook’s iconic film first screened, the blood-soaked tales of retribution in Korean cinema have become too numerous to count. Yet no matter how vicious the acts perpetrated by the titular characters in Lady Vengeance , The Man from Nowhere or The Villainess , they always paid a heavy price – usually with their lives, or at the very least with their souls. Fast forward to today and vengeance is still very much part of the mix. The most popular avenger in 2021 was undoubtedly Vincenzo ’s Vincenzo Cassano, the dapper Korean-born mafioso portrayed by Song Joong-ki . His quest ends in strikingly violent fashion for a Korean drama, as he tortures a handsome, though admittedly very villainous, corporate chairman to death. Unlike the avenging characters who shed blood before him, Vincenzo does not pay a price for his actions. The audience cheers him on, sharing in his bloodlust. Since he’s doing it partly on behalf of a group of disenfranchised characters – and by extension all of us watching at home – his vengeful execution is perceived to be justified and therefore leaves him with a more or less clean conscience. This and other grisly interludes in a show that is for the most part broadly comic didn’t cause a problem for those watching it. Many other recent shows have also employed a fuzzy moral logic by including ritualised acts of violence that take place against the usual backdrop of sunny K-drama tropes; to wit, the bloody public lashings ordered and then televised in The Devil Judge . Formerly, Korean protagonists had to abandon any vestige of their humanity to accomplish their vendettas, but now, in shows like Vincenzo , Taxi Driver and The Devil Judge , they’re happily egged on by a raging majority. Their increasingly sadistic acts of violence, akin to public executions, provide entertainment to the masses. They are avengers who receive the public’s adulation. With political apathy and distrust in governments on the rise around the world, people feel pretty helpless these days. Perhaps the popularity of fictional vigilantes like Vincenzo is merely testament to how viewers feel about the society they live in. They offer an escape where the real world doesn’t so readily provide one. Compared to most Hollywood content, modern Korean dramas feel like a product of the social media age. Shows tap into the anxieties of their audiences by namechecking a litany of social grievances, but they often do so in superficial ways. Fishing for views (instead of clicks or likes), many dramas deliberately seek to stoke our rage but fail to examine cause, much less imagine how to treat society’s inherent problems. They merely smash all the things that make us angry. Some shows, like D.P. , Squid Game and Hellbound , seek to engage with the angry currents that ebb and flow in society. Characters churn through the cruel rigmaroles of their stories, emerging as both victims and eager participants. Other series are more opaque in their intentions. Recognising that social themes are popular, creators drop in allusions to whatever social phenomenon is current. In All of Us Are Dead , victims of school bullying become villains by default and the show can’t make up its mind if it wants to demonise or lionise the social elite. Curiously, the shows that have proven particularly popular abroad haven’t been embraced the same way at home. Netflix hits like Sweet Home , Squid Game and All of Us Are Dead were all initially poorly received and criticised for their violence by local audiences. In each case, their images were partly rehabilitated after the press latched on to the global popularity of the shows. But maybe Korean audiences had it right the first time. Global viewers can pretend that Korean dramas are fantasy, but local viewers know better. In these confusing times, the dystopian worlds depicted in K-dramas are closer than ever to reality and the unchecked rage they channel is merely an unconscious extension of a darkening global psyche. Squid Game, All of Us Are Dead, Vincenzo, D.P., Hellbound and Sweet Home are streaming on Netflix. The Devil Judge and Taxi Driver are streaming on Viu.