It didn’t take long after its release in September 2021 for Squid Game to become one of Netflix’s biggest hits in their history. The series has been viewed by more than 142 million households globally in the month since its release, making it Netflix’s most watched series of all time. It’s the second major achievement for Korean media in recent years after Bong Joon-ho’s highly acclaimed film Parasite won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and the Palme d’Or. The series has captivated audiences around the globe, likely because many viewers see themselves in the characters and their struggles.
Squid Game is about a competition between 456 contestants who are all in extreme debt and are lured into playing a series of children’s games, where any mistake can lead to their death, in hopes of winning the grand prize of ₩45.6 billion (more than $39.1 million USD). Written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, the screenplay was first drafted during a period of financial hardship and languished for nearly ten years before Netflix agreed to produce it in 2018. He described his series, stating,“I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life.”
Over the course of nine episodes, the story draws you in with relatable characters and a fairly simple plot line that provides audiences with a mixture of drama, thrills and chills, and shock and awe. The acting by the ensemble cast is quite captivating, particularly from Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun/Player 456, Jung Ho-yeon as Kang Sae-byeok/Player 067, and Kim Joo-ryoung as Han Mi-nyeo/Player 212. The production and costume design in the games and players’ quarters are filled with bright colors and innocent iconography reminiscent of childhood. These design choices contrast with the brutality of the violence that players experience and engage in as they fight to survive. Additionally, these design choices are a foil to the dark, gritty outside world the players come from and the sophisticated opulence of the game operator/VIP’s quarters. Though the narrative can be considered simple in some respects and the design choices reflect the themes of the series in a fairly direct manner, the show is deeper than it may first appear.
Many elements of the plot have more subtle subtextual significance, especially when taking the past several decades of South Korea’s history into account. In the wake of World War II after the Allied forces liberated Korea from Japanese occupation, the peninsula was partitioned into two halves. The northern half was administered by the Soviets and the southern half was administered by the United States. There was originally an intention of eventually reuniting the two. However, this never occurred. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the North and the Republic of Korea was established in the South. Both sides claimed sovereignty over the whole peninsula which led to the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. In the decades since the end of the war, South Korea experienced long periods of rule by brutal, US-backed autocratic military regimes that only officially ended in 1987 with the establishment of the Sixth Republic, which sought to establish liberal democracy. During this era of oppressive rule, dissenters were often subjected to acts of extreme cruelty by their own government such as the Gwangju Massacre of 1980 (during which as many as two thousand protestors were killed) and the Samchung concentration camp established the same year (where tens of thousands of innocent civilians were subjected to hard labor and violence). Additionally, the nation sought to rapidly increase its economic standing in the decades after World War II and the Korean War during what was called the “Miracle on the Han River.” In the push for swift economic development, many average South Koreans were left behind as the wealthy few were able to consolidate their wealth.
Today, household debt in South Korea is more than 100% of the nation’s total GDP. The nation led thirty-three OECD nations in poverty among the eldery as of 2019. The characters in the series are victims of these exact circumstances. As mentioned before, all of the contestants are deeply indebted. The show also portrays the elderly mothers of Seong Gi-hun/Player 456 and Cho Sang-woo/Player 218 having to continue to work despite their old age and declining health. A more recent historical event that the show directly alludes to is the 2009 Ssyangyong Motors strike when laid off workers occupied their factory and were violently repressed by strikebreakers. Gi-hun is portrayed as being a participant in the strikes and witnesses one of his coworkers being murdered during a flashback. Many of the workers were unable to find steady work after the strikes and the same is true for Gi-hun. Additionally, the White American male VIPs who bet on which players will live or die during the competition represent how the US government has had an overbearing and negative influence over the nation in the decades since World War II and the Korean War. Abdul Ali/Player 199 represents the underclass of migrant labor in the nation. Kang Sae-byeok/Player 067 is a North Korean defector who struggles to survive with her younger brother and desperately attempts to reunite with her parents who are still in the North. In episode two, despite a slim majority of players voting to end the game, most eventually return after finding the sadistic competition to be a better alternative than their own sad realities. The message of the show has even resonated so much in South Korea that it has inspired thousands of workers to strike, led by the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), with many donning costumes of the characters.
This subtextual context deepens the show beyond the simplicity that most audiences see on the surface. But, even without this more in-depth reading of it, the show is quite enthralling and connects with you powerfully on an emotional level. The competitions are quite thrilling and put you on the edge of your seat. The vicious violence the players endure is harrowing, tugging at your heartstrings when important characters are killed off one by one. Squid Game is a series that reflects our turbulent times back to us in a manner that both entertains and compels us to consider our own position within this late-capitalist hell we all live in. I give the show 4.5/5 stars and my highest praise. The hype is real! It is currently streaming on Netflix.