Edited by Hong Hyun Jung
Translated by Cho EK
Netflix has been reaping satisfactory results with its various recently released Asian death game series. For example, there is Alice in Borderland, Netflix Japan’s newest survival series which was released last December, and then there is Squid Game that features a deadly take on traditional games which is receiving rave reviews nowadays. While Alice in Borderland throws a helpless young man into a bloody game, Squid Game takes advantage of the tragic story of those neglected in a cold capitalist society and throws them into a terrifying game. The two works both portray various characters in the deadly games they play, however, Squid Game looks a little different from the death game shows we’ve seen before.
Squid Game is a story of those who risk their lives to join the mysterious survival game to become the final winner of 45.6 billion won ($38.4 million). The storyline looks similar to many works in the same genre. However, from the first episode, the series clarifies that it is about to tell the most Korean story by borrowing the structure of the deadly game. In other words, the series hints at each character’s hidden stories behind the flashing game. Moreover, the main character is a middle-aged father, a figure that almost all Korean media loves to use to win the audience’s hearts.
The K-Shinpa (a.k.a. Korean tear-jerking drama) is clearly there from the start but tweaks in an unexpected way in the second episode. In the first game, players who learned about the hellish reality of this world were given a choice. By applying the rule that says, “Players can leave the game if a simple majority of them vote to do so,” the series encourages the players to participate in the game voluntarily. And by doing so, each character’s tragic story captures the dark reality of Korean society. For instance, Ki Hoon couldn’t stop playing the horse race even though he already had enough debt. (He gets fired from work after he fails as a small business owner). Successful businessman Sang Woo graduated from a prestigious university, yet he failed in investment to make his dream come true. What’s worse is that he embezzled his client’s money only to lose it all. North Korean refugee Sae Byuk and immigrant worker Ali were only exploited and couldn’t dream of living a better life. Yet, these people who have nowhere else to go start to radiate a strange vibrancy as they join the deadly games.
The tournament in the series is based on the playground games we played as children. The rules are simple, but the competition gets tough as it proceeds. As director Hwang said that he wanted to make this show a metaphor for the extreme modern capitalist society, the world of Squid Game reflects on the society we live in by creating a more extreme version of it. Players constantly betray each other to obey the logic of survival of the fittest so that they do not lose the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they have seized at the edge of their lives. Deok Soo intimidates weaker players from the very beginning. Ki Hoon and Sang Woo decide to abandon their trust in each other and humanity when they are cornered in a dead end. Outside the Colosseum, where the miserable players compete for money, unidentified VIP guests savor their struggle while betting on the players. This story blatantly reveals the ugly truth of capitalist society.
The bloody game leaves a lot of people dead, and it is filled with tight tension throughout the whole season. However, some good touches of Korean humor provide a brief break to the heart-pumping games. The last participant, Ki Hoon, does an excellent job of lightening up the mood. Lee Jung Jae brought his character to life by perfectly playing a petty man. When we watch the series, no one can deny that he is a pathetic human being. However, he can also be a pure man with a good heart. In particular, at the beginning of the game, Ki Hoon’s kindness makes a great contrast with the cold world, and it guides the way to the hidden brutal world. Also, the fact that you need luck more than skill to survive in the game reveals Squid Game’s unique black humor. The fairy-tale-like, pastel-colored game set completes the series, where comedy and horror coexist.
The show slightly deviated from the tropes of the death game to make the series more intriguing, and that choice leaves us with several questions. The show forces the individual stories of the participants into the game process, making the whole narrative too emotional and slow. Plus, this problem only gets worse in the second half. Plus, like any other Korean series, the drama is very much male-centered. Some lines and situations are outdated, ignorant, and even unnecessary enough to be deleted.
It was a nice attempt to drag the game manager into the main story by placing Jun Ho in the scene. However, it doesn’t blend well with the overall narrative, and it gives the impression that the director was forcing the element into the episodes to tailor the show into nine episodes. The foreign actors who played the VIPs instantly broke the immersion to the play, and the episode would have been far better without them.
The first season of Squid Game ended with many possibilities for the future. Although the second has not been confirmed yet, Netflix will most likely add another season to this drama as they did with the Kingdom series. Since it is an exciting series with its clear setbacks, I wonder if they will return with a better tone next time.
Verdict: A great example of ‘what is most Korean is what is most international’ (6.5/10)
Edited Hong Hyun Jung: I am a K-content guide who publishes various articles for people to enjoy Korean movies and dramas deeper and richer. I’ll introduce you to the works that you can laugh, cry and sympathize with.
Translator Cho EK: I’m a big fan of Korean dramas and movies