On September 17, 2021, the Korean drama series “Squid Game” was released on Netflix, and within the past few weeks, this brutal thriller has managed to gain major viral popularity. What is it really about, and is it worth it for an ordinary viewer to spend their time watching it?
We shall start with the synopsis. Several hundred indebted Koreans of both genders are responding to a mysterious invitation to gamble with monstrous stakes at hand. Under the strictest secrecy (soporific gas, tinted minivans, plastic masks on all employees), they are taken to an isolated hostel that resembles a futuristic military barrack. The childhood games — some of which are exclusively Korean — most grow up playing take place in enlarged, impressive sceneries (tag, hide-and-seek, tug-of-war), as if intended for a bright children’s show. Among the main characters are a pathological loser with a kind heart, a tattooed bandit, a smart bespectacled man, a silent North Korean escapee, a chatty woman, a labor migrant from Pakistan, and an old man falling into dementia, among the other 449 contenders. In general, one will find a most diverse set of people. In short, “Squid Game” is a violent, deadly gambling thriller with an unorthodox focus on childish nostalgia for games.
As Hwang Dong-hyuk himself mentioned in an interview, he tried to show an allegory of modern capitalist society: juxtaposing the fancy settings with the selfish measures people will take in order to achieve power. He also explains the success of the series is derived from the fierce competition of the Korean film market, which simultaneously improves the overall quality of the movies produced and darkens the creative process with constant stress.
Many elements of the South Korean entertainment industry are now very popular all over the world, such as BTS, Parasite, “Gangnam Style,” and so on. At the same time, as the director confides, Korean society is distinguished by competitiveness and tension, since more than 50 million people are forced to live in a small country. Being cut off from Asia by the border with North Korea, South Korea has developed an insular mentality. Because of this stress, Korean people are always subconsciously prepared for the next crisis. In a way, this is a great motivation: it makes everyone wonder about the future. But often, the exterior accomplishments often overshadow the downsides- and that is perhaps what the series tried to portray.
The leading actor Lee Jung-jae singled out a unique scenario as the main reason for the show’s success, stating that it encompasses a holistic view of the characters: from the actual problems characters deal with outside the arena to the reason they need to keep playing. These moments slowly accumulated one after another from the first episode, and then effectively exploded at the end. This sets the series apart from other survival projects.
Despite its grotesque aspects, “Squid Game” has some visually captivating features. It is not staged as a pop drama balancing between kitsch and grotesque; rather, it resembles the serious genre cinema for which Korean directors are famous. The ensemble is full of charismatic faces, and the overall level of dramatic performance by the actors is pleasantly surprising. Again, fans of outstanding South Korean cinematography are already aware of this, so the show can only be a revelation for uninitiated viewers.
Young, Jin Yu. “Behind the Global Appeal of ‘Squid Game,’ a Country’s Economic Unease.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Oct. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/06/business/economy/squid-game-netflix-inequality.html.