Title: Squid Game (오징어게임)
Network: Netflix (2021)
Length: 1 season (9 episodes, approx. 60-90 min each)
Director: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Writer: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Cast: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon, Anupam Tripathi, Oh Yeong-soo, Kim Joo-ryoung, Heo Seong-tae
Where to watch: Streaming (with English subtitles) Netflix
Disclaimer: there will be all kinds of spoilers! Also, art being what it is, what I like and what you like will almost certainly be different, and that's ok. I would love to hear your take on my take, so please leave comments!
1. Squid Game is the latest release in a series of Korean shows produced by Netflix and intended for direct global streaming without simultaneous broadcast in South Korea. Indeed, it's currently the #1 show across the world on that platform. I have various thoughts on this production model for Korean content, not all of them positive, but two advantages to this format are immediately apparent: (1) Netflix productions are not subject to the same constraints (either financial or cultural) that Korean broadcast and cable networks face (which means they're not only shorter but often push boundaries that other dramas do not), and (2) Netflix shows are fully pre-produced, which means the plot lines are clearer and better developed, and there's less caving to fan interest halfway through the broadcast.
It goes without saying that the acting here is terrific from lead Lee Jung-jae, a huge A-list film star in South Korea, down to the various character actors playing smaller roles in the drama. The writing here is also excellent, a tightly paced plot that keeps the tension high while not-so-subtly asking the big questions about humanity.
2. So what is Squid Game about? The show takes its name from a children's game that was popular in South Korea decades ago, a combination of hopscotch and tag played on a court that resembles a squid. In the drama, a high stakes tournament pits hundreds of players against each other in a series of children's games (including the titular one). The last person standing at the end of this literal blood bath wins a LOT of money, the pot increasing as the number of contestants still in the game decreases.
3. There's nothing in Squid Game that is exceptionally new. We've seen competitions like this before, after all. There's the critically acclaimed and controversial Japanese film, Battle Royale (2000), its (apparently coincidental) American cousin, The Hunger Games (2008), and the more recent Alice in Borderland (2020). Battle Royale and The Hunger Games were noteworthy because the contestants were literal children forced to fight to the death by a totalitarian government, a plot that we're only able to digest because it's all happening in some remote dystopian future. In terms of its core concept, driven as it by the depravity of bored wealthy people who exist in our own world, Squid Game may owe more to an older genre of film, where game hunters basically hunt people, as in the pre-Code classic, The Most Dangerous Game (1934).
On the other hand, retread or not, I think we're going to see a lot more of this sort of content because we're living in a particular point in the human experience where a show that calls out the worst (and also the best) of human nature while making a broad point about the inequities of society may actually have allegorical value. Maybe that's why we can't stop watching this.
4. So if this is just new wine in an old battle, what's the big deal? Well, first, the production design for the show is exemplary. From the title card to the set design for each of the games to the uniforms worn by the guards, Squid Game features the use of eye-popping graphics and color, part playground, part MC Escher lithograph, allowing the viewer to experience childlike wonder before all hell breaks loose and perverts nostalgia forever. Squid Game is also unabashedly gory, not shying away from the carnage its premise inflicts on the contestants and the viewers.
There are also a couple of really cool visual Easter eggs in the production design, but half the fun is in figuring these out yourself, so I won't say more.
5. Second, the game design in Squid Game is terrific. Unlike in The Hunger Games or The Most Dangerous Game, where the characters are provisioned and then set loose to fend for themselves, Squid Game involves a series of challenges for its captive participants, each built around a children's game. The games themselves are relatively simple, but because we know the stakes are high, each becomes a white-knuckle experience that is so tense and exciting that Squid Game holds your interest from start-to-finish, even it's full of well-worn tropes and you've already figured out the major plot twists long before they happen on screen. (Not that the game design is entirely original, mind you. The writer has been called out for allegedly copying the games from manga).
6. The first thing that hit me about Squid Game was the absurdity, not of the premise itself, but of the setup. All the contestants are so severely in debt that even given the near certainty of a brutal death, they would rather play the game than suffer one more hour of their real lives. In other words, the contestants are desperate and prime for exploitation, Surely if you just want to make a mook out of a poor person, there are simpler ways to do it?
Instead, you have a stealth compound built into a stealth mountaintop on a stealth island. Did I mention stealth? This operation is so absurdly complex, it requires hundreds of employees, a NASA-like control center, and a fleet of vans that drive all over Seoul without invoking any real suspicion. Are we really supposed to believe the game has been running for decades without anyone blowing the lid off the whole thing?
7. There are 456 players in the actual game, but Squid Game only really cares about a handful of them. First among them is Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), our protagonist, player #456, who is middle-aged and down on his luck. He's divorced, he can't hold down a job, and has a serious gambling problem that has put him into severe debt. He's got mobsters and loan sharks chasing him. He steals from his elderly mother and frequently lets down his daughter. But he's still a good enough person to feel guilty about his many failings and to want to better himself, if only for the sake of his family.
Coincidentally (or not!), two of the other contestants, Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), who embezzled massive quantities of money to bet on futures and lost, and Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a defector from North Korea, already know Gi-hun. He and Sang-woo are childhood friends, but Sang-woo got into Seoul University, the quintessential poor kid who made good, and never really looked back until he got into serious trouble. Sae-byeok, meanwhile, is constantly on the take, trying to make enough money to support her younger brother, and bring their mother over to South Korea. She ends up pickpocketing Gi-hun's gambling winnings and is completely unapologetic about it when they meet again in the game dormitory. The other two characters in Gi-hun's immediate vicinity are Il-nam (Oh Yeong-soo), a terminally ill elderly gentleman who has allegedly been abandoned by his family, and Ali (Anupam Tripathi), a Pakistani migrant worker who has not been paid in months and is desperate to take care of his wife and young child.
The other two characters of note are the Front Man, the masked keeper of the game (a cameo appearance by a famous Korean actor you will instantly recognize from his voice and English-speaking skills), and the almost unfairly good-looking Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) as a cop who infiltrates the game, mostly in search of his missing brother.
8. Over the course of its first few episodes, Squid Game also serves as sharp commentary on various social issues in South Korea (but not just South Korea). To kdrama regulars, many of these fault lines in Korean society have been highlighted before, For example, the superlative My Mister deals with both insurmountable debt and elder abandonment, and with much more sensitivity than Squid Game. But I've never seen a Korean series tackle the issue of exploited migrant workers (and especially brown workers) before, for example, and I thought the social commentary on Squid Game was more incisive and insightful than most dramas.
The show repeatedly makes the point that every single contestant in the game is there of their own free will. This is not like The Hunger Games, where the odds remain never in your favor. Given the option to leave before signing on to the game, nearly everyone stays. After voting to terminate the game and going back to their regular lives, nearly everyone comes back when given a second chance. In other words, Squid Game asks if a choice is really a choice made freely if your life offers no reasonable alternative to a deadly fight to the death.
9. Given its plot, Squid Game is surprisingly uncynical about human nature. Yes, many of the contestants are terrible people who will always do what is in their own best interests (and there's plenty of game theory in action here). But some of them are also good people (to varying degrees), who--whether motivated by fairness, humility, compassion, or even futility--often reach out to help their fellow contestants. When they fall prey to their worst instincts, the contestants still manage to feel guilty and miserable about it.
It's obvious even early on in Squid Game that Gi-hun will ultimately win. Why? Well, he's the show's lead actor. OBVS.
But also he has exactly zero of the skills useful to winning the game, surviving (serially) through the kindness of a relative stranger combined with sheer dumb luck, sweat, following other people, by sheer indecisiveness, and in the end, by compassion. Some viewers have complained that the games have no clear rules and impose no consequences for, say, taking out other contestants in the dead of night. But I think that's the point. The game doesn't care about skills or ethics. It's a contest intended to exploit the heights and depths of human nature
Gi-hun survives because what it really takes to win a contest to the death of this sort is humanity. Gi-hun's humanity is so powerful that Sang-woo, the other contestant left standing at the end, wilts in the face of G-hun's inherent goodness.
The problem with humanity, even the last shred of it that Gi-hun holds on to, is that it becomes permanently tainted by the game. Much like Katniss Everdeen and maybe even Frodo Baggins, Gi-hun's triumph is hollow and his soul is so deeply tarnished by his experiences that he will never be the same person again. It's only when his faith in humanity is ever-s0-slightly restored that he makes an attempt to live again.
Squid Game should have stopped right there. Instead, in the show's weakest moment, it looks like Gi-hun will go after the game again, an obvious (and lame) setup for an unnecessary (and as yet still not in the works) second season. As an aside, I wonder if that's the Front Man's story too. He won the game, and in trying to defeat it or maybe end it, he became part of it? (If this actually happens in Season 2, remember you read it here first!)
10. So am I recommending Squid Game? Yes. It may not mine any new territory, nor give you the warm-and fuzzies, but it's exquisitely made and wildly entertaining. Also, it features a cameo from Gong Yoo, so why not?