Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman has finally decided to see what all the fuss is about with Netflix’s hit Korean show, Squid Game. Warning: a few spoilers ahead…
Director/ writer: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Stars: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Greg Chun, Stephen Fu, Tom Choi
It’s the hottest streamed show since streaming services began, and the event series of the year – a Korean drama focused on gruesomely lethal versions of children’s games whose skewed tropes and compact parables of the human condition and societal dysfunction have captured the imagination of young and old alike. And there’s been controversy, as one would expect – the issue of whether we, especially younger viewers, get drawn into the surreally framed cruelty and graphic violence at the expense of subtext and character arcs.
But the question of course is, is Squid Game Actually Any Good?
If there is one automatic plus about the project, it’s that it’s set in South Korea. For western audiences, this is genuinely beneficial – no preconceptions regarding the entirely unknown (to us!) cast, the exotic mise en scene, the different tics and cadences of the margins of South Korean everyday existence – it’s notably different to the West of course, but what underpins the drama is all too familiar. Apart from the game itself, the plot is reasonably straightforward. Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is a classic friendless loser who is heavily in debt to loan sharks and cursed with gambling addiction. He is close to his mother (Kim Young-ok) but has no other support, his wife (Kang mal-geum) having left him, taking his daughter Seong Ga-yeong (Cho Ah-in) with her.
At the end of his tether having lost his betting winnings, Gi-hun is approached by a smarmy, well-dressed young man who offers to play games for money, but turns out to be a recruiting agent for something far more sinister. After accepting the man’s offer, he is removed to a remote island where he is placed in a featureless, enclosed dormitory with 455 others, all of whom are equally in serious debt and poverty to him. From here he learns that all present will play six games for a huge jackpot that can only be won by one contestant. All others will be “eliminated”, which during the first game (Green Light Red Light) we quickly learn means instant death.
The direction itself is fluid, compulsive and perfectly worked – slick even. At no point does the narrative thrust or overriding feeling of constant threat dissipate, while the sets, such as the candy-striped staircases, the contestants’ dark green tracksuits, their captors’ pink hooded uniforms or the video-game artificiality of the games themselves, have just the correct amount of off-kilter dissonance – the trite surroundings at odds with the brittle, coercive, perfidious survivalism that renders each player a dispensable pawn for the masked killer guards and their Doctor Doom-like “Front Man”. While the street scenes of Ssangmun district and downtown Seoul are grist for superbly edited, at times noir sequences that bookend the main part of the story.
Artifice aside however, one can’t escape the fact, as has been averred elsewhere, that the show wants it both ways – to be treated as a serious, quasi-polemical take on the burgeoning wealth gap in Korea and the indifference shown by the wealthy for the poor and destitute, while also being an exploitation production that features endless scenes of gratuitous, detached violence. And unlike The Sopranos or other similar crime series, the innocent Squid Game players have, rather than taking a vow to honour a code on the understanding that their lifestyle can lead to premature death, have been co-opted into being cannon fodder for a cadre of plutocrats’ entertainment. They are innocent, yet all bar one will perish and be erased, the vast majority of them mere extras. One could argue that the inherent themes of the show, such as the reductive, dehumanising effect of winning at all costs, didn’t need such a harsh penalty. However there have been other earlier works, such as The Hunger Games movies, or Japanese film Battle Royale which effectively had the same premise. Squid Game, like its predecessors, attempts to evaluate and dissert about the importance of humanity, and indeed humanism, while treating most of the cast as disposable ninepins in a particularly visceral cartoon, with added elements of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and The Stanford Prison Experiment.
Despite such misgivings the elimination process does massively heighten and intensify the story, and also echoes those earlier science-fiction films – the hermetic dystopia of the future brought to the Korean present, spliced with the intrigue of 70s paranoid conspiracy thrillers. When Gi-Hun, having briefly left the island, desperately attempts to tell the police of this undercover game of death in episode 2, no-one believes him, except Detective Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), who ends up infiltrating the complex. And yet Gi-Hun, like nearly all the other players, returns to the game, feeling like he has nothing left to lose. While the games themselves are masterpieces of cruelty and inversion that seamlessly engender tension and nail-biting drama – as the clock ticks, the characters morph, revealing their true natures and their ability to dissemble, act completely against type, ignore their scruples or think outside the box. In one particular game (Marbles) the scripting and weaving of narratives is exceptional as the contestants confront enforced betrayal and the abyss of themselves, and it does numb the soul. Above all, the games bring the viewer inside the characters’ stream of consciousness, which is no mean feat. On this level the series is outstanding, and genuinely keeps you guessing, right to the last second.
Which brings us to the characterization. Considering the tight format, it is remarkable how so many of the ensemble are developed sufficiently to evince heartbreak when they are eliminated. These are archetypes, but not clichés, and all are universal – the gangster Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) is a particularly well-drawn character, all feral instinct and arrogance, while North Korean refugee Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) is a vessel of internalized grief and weariness. And Anupam Tripathi’s Ali is a masterful portrait of a naïve, trusting soul who, as an undocumented migrant worker, ends up in purdah – a victim of circumstance. Finally there is the haughty, devious Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) – Gi-hun’s former classmate and opposite number, whose wildly different trajectory still led to the same predicament as him. All the performances are top draw, especially Lee Jung-jae’s POV lead, who exudes vulnerability, arrogance and integrity in equal measure – a brilliant, committed turn that’s surely worthy of a couple of gongs.
Squid Game of course provides social commentary and considerable insight into the Korean psyche, and what in their culture constitutes success or status, as well as their concern over the erosive pull of moving to America, the fear being the loss of identity, such as when Gi-Hun’s mother warns him about his young daughter forgetting Korean if she emigrates, which means he won’t be able to understand her. Far more significantly of course is the inescapable wealth chasm between the rich and poor, or “late stage capitalism”, a theme that dominated the 2019 Oscar-winning black comedy Parasite, whose motor was class war. Both Parasite and Squid Game touch upon the two tier system inherent in South Korea, where being poor is akin to living in hell, along with the intense pressure to succeed simply to survive, let alone thrive. Squid Game is effectively meant to be a microcosm of modern South Korea, where the impoverished are condemned as failures, and treated with manifest contempt.
Despite all this, it’s been the younger demographic who have made this show become the Zeitgeist. One assumes that Squid Game was meant to be aimed at adults, but thanks to platforms like Tik Tok, it quickly became the trendiest program amongst teenagers, who were (presumably) attracted to its kinetic stylizations rather than its underlying message. My two children, aged 18 and 15, watched it first, while I attempted to resist the hype. In the end I caved in, with both of them impressed and pleased that I chose to watch it, as if it was their discovery (which to be fair it was). Such a proprietorial attitude towards the show along with all the attendant fandom has led to record-breaking viewing figures for Netflix, by some distance. As a result of this and Parasite, South Korea is now at the leading edge of pop culture, and other streaming services have set their sights on all of the Pacific Rim countries to find the next hot series.
So in the end, regardless of what one makes of it, Squid Game has been pivotal, bringing a new market for entertainment providers. All in all, it is at times superficial, shallow and contrived in places (the awful VIP caricatures adding little to the story beyond bland stereotypes) not to mention somewhat derivative, yet it is still bravura, compelling television, despite its tendency towards pulpiness. But then that is the point – Squid Game, like Parasite before it, has proven that filmmakers can be both middlebrow and broad at the same time.
So regardless of its unsubtle portrait of humanity, the show can indeed have it both ways – so yes, it is pretty good. Not great, but not that far from it either. Which these days is as good as it gets.
Squid Game is on Netflix now. Check out the trailer
Korea Opportunities Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman has finally decided to see what all the fuss is about with Netflix’s hit Korean show, Squid Game. Warning: a few spoilers ahead… Squid Game Director/ writer: Hwang Dong-hyuk Stars: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Greg Chun, Stephen Fu, Tom Choi It’s the hottest streamed show since streaming services began,
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