It can be hard to resist the attempts of streaming services like Netflix to individualise the TV watching experience. Personalised algorithms and the encouragement of ‘binge watching’ over the traditional one-episode-per-week format mean we often watch series alone. But every now and then a show pops up that seems to capture everyone’s imagination simultaneously. The latest series to transcend international borders and algorithms alike is South Korean thriller Squid Game. Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, the show has just overtaken Bridgerton to become Netflix’s most-watched – and perhaps most talked-about – series to date.
Squid Game follows a cohort of 456 people on the margins of society. Downtrodden by debt and other desperate circumstances, they are given the chance to compete in a series of six children’s games. If they win, the reward is a cash prize of 45.6 billion Korean won, roughly £28.2 million. If they lose—as 455 of them will—they’re shot in the head by one of the faceless guards.
On one level the series operates as a metaphor for society under capitalism. A large number of desperate people compete for the promise of a prize they will never reach. And all the while the ruling class—represented by the grotesque foreign VIPs—watch the spectacle from on high, their own wealth and power protected by a military of gun-bearing guards.
However Squid Game is unlike other takes on the play-to-the-death genre such as Japan’s Battle Royale and The Hunger Games films. It remains firmly rooted in reality by juxtaposing the colourful, dreamlike game venue with scenes from the players’ lives in present-day Seoul.
At the end of episode one, after the game’s fatal twist is revealed, the players that have survived the first game are given an opportunity to end it. If the majority vote to leave, they can go home. To viewers it may seem like an easy decision between life and almost certain death.
But this is complicated when it becomes clear just how bleak the players’ circumstances are. Main character Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-jae, and his childhood friend Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) are saddled with debt, unable to provide basic support for their families and are in danger of going to jail. Or worse, losing vital organs to loan sharks. Their plight reveals the extent of the debt crisis in Korea, which dates back to the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. The government responded to growing inequality by increasing the availability of loans and allowing household debt to expand to the point where it currently surpasses 100% of GDP.
Squid Game goes further to reveal how the oppression and exploitation of minorities in Korea has placed many people in even more dire straits. Player 67, Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) has escaped from North Korea only to find herself stranded in the South with very little help from the authorities. She turns to petty crime in efforts to reunite with the family she left behind. This is not an uncommon story among North Korean defectors, who are able to claim citizenship in South Korea but often struggle with discrimination and limited welfare support.
A fan favourite, Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi) or Player 199, is a factory worker from Pakistan whose story highlights the challenges faced by the wider population of South and Southeast Asian immigrants in Korea. As this community grows, it has become organised and pushed for better protection laws. But the precarious conditions which allow employers like Ali’s to withhold pay or behave in other exploitative ways are still very common. While usually underrepresented in Korean film and television, it is unfortunately not surprising that migrant workers would be among the 456 players desperate enough to join such a brutal game. This is emphasised by the brief appearance of Player 276, a Filipino character played by Christian Lagahit who befriends Ali in episode four.
And the list continues. The backstory of Ji-young (Lee Yoo-mi), Player 240, draws attention to the experiences of women driven into destitution by sexual assault and domestic violence. Player 69’s decision to end his own life is perhaps a reference to Korea’s suicide rate – currently the highest among OECD countries.
The layered character of Mi-nyeo, or Player 212, is a single mother played brilliantly by Kim Joo-ryoung. She may end up being most remembered for the line “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study.” Commentators have objected to Netflix’s translation of this into English for the subtitles, which read “I’m not a genius, but I still got it worked out”. This no doubt erases the reference to educational inequality which is a recurring theme in the series.
Those not familiar with Korean culture may also have missed the ironic references to Sang-woo being a graduate of the prestigious Seoul National University, or the terrifying ‘Red Light, Green Light’ doll. She is based on the well-known character Younghee who appeared in Korean children’s textbooks in the 1970s and 1980s. Both motifs serve to question the meritocratic illusion ever-present in Korean society that studying hard guarantees success. This is an idea which is often attributed to traditional Confucian philosophy but has under capitalism been used to justify a competitive education system that places profit before equal opportunity. This is a common subject of criticism in Korean dramas including Sky Castle (2018-19), which was also viewed widely around the world via Netflix.
Squid Game provides a detailed exploration of problems specific to South Korean society, presented by characters that are not one-dimensional stereotypes but empathetic and complex humans in their own right. This is what arguably gives Squid Game its authenticity and makes it so compelling to watch.
At the same time, the drama has proved relatable to viewers around the world. Some people in Britain are watching a foreign-language drama for the first time ever, as evidenced by debates across the internet about whether to watch the subtitled or dubbed version. ITV’s Gogglebox opted to show its cast members the latter, prompting a significant backlash. A similar phenomenon occurred two years ago when Korean film Parasite overcame the “one-inch barrier of subtitles”, as its director Bong Joon-ho put it, to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
What Parasite and Squid Game have in common is their intelligent, no-holds-barred critique of class and inequality which – despite its specificity – contains a dark truth recognisable to anyone living under capitalism today.
The timing now is particularly poignant. We are emerging from the first waves of covid-19 lockdown – just as the surviving players emerged from the first game – hoping for a better alternative. But many of us find ourselves in a situation that is arguably worse. Instead of returning to the game and turning against each other, maybe the players would have had a better chance if they’d banded together, overthrown the VIPs and claimed the money for themselves.
Squid Game ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note with Gi-hun dying his hair a fiery red and reconsidering his decision to leave for America, perhaps in a quest for justice. But as the tragic fate of policeman Jun-ho suggests, this brutal criminal operation will not be defeated by a single hero. As we wait for a possible Series Two announcement, perhaps we can consider this the drama’s final lesson. Instead of playing the game, we must unite and fight the system that breeds such brutality and build a better alternative for everyone.