‘Hierarchy’ review: all glamour and no substance

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Welcome to Jooshin High School. Here, students arrive in sports cars, have separate special classes for the rich, experience the epic highs and lows of high school football, practice fencing and perhaps bully unfortunate scholarship students for their social status. In addition, they also settle bets on racetracks and hook up with their teachers. All in a day’s work for these rich spoiled brats.

That’s until the arrival of Kang Ha (Lee Chae-min), an outlier and a scholarship student whose brother was brutally murdered after discovering the underlying bullying and corruption at the school. His appearance signals a change in the school’s long-standing oppressive systems, threatening the status quo of the rich students who have never been told “no” in their lives.

Stories about the wealthy, especially those who use their money as a means to carry out despicable acts, are a dime a dozen in the Korean drama space – and Hierarchy is no different. K-dramas about the obscenely wealthy generally tend to veer on the side of absurdism, but this Netflix original pushes that to comical extremes. When the rich students of Jooshin are not tormenting a student for being poor, they’re on luxury school retreats with spas and fencing.

Strong motivations for revenge aside, it’s hard to connect or understand protagonist Kang Ha, with the show never fully exploring his background, which inevitably leads to more questions than answers. In fact, the character comes off more shallow than anything else when he ends up falling for Jung Jae-i (Roh Jeong-eui), the school’s “queen bee” who, despite being directly connected to his dead brother, actively protects the bullies to an extent.

Other characters in Hierachy also fall prey to the curse of unidimensionality. Although the writers do try to incite sympathy for Jae-i and the school’s proverbial king Kim Ri-an (Kim Jae-won) through glimpses of their tumultuous family lives, it appears forced at best. That’s especially so when taken in context of their actions (or passive enabling, in Jae-i’s case) at school.

Sadly, the actors do little to redeem the show of its shortcomings. Despite a stellar performance in Crash Course in Romance, Lee Chae-min is underwhelming as Kang Ha, crammed into a mould of anguish and performative malice. As Jung Jae-i, Roh Jeong-eui also leaves much to be desired. Granted, Jae-i’s upbringing contributes to her being forced to repress her emotions, but it mostly manifests as blank stares and emotionless dialogues on Roh’s end.

The “big reveal” might take you by surprise – if you can manage to sit through a predictable story full of filler and rife with cliches, that is. Even that revelation, however, is undermined by a woefully unfulfilling ending that essentially makes efforts of the male lead for naught. While we won’t spoil the ending here, at the end of the day, Hierarchy is all glamour and glitter, but no substance.

Hierarchy is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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