‘Squid Game’ is a South Korean survival drama series written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, best known for ‘Silenced’ and ‘Miss Granny.’ This show was inspired by a popular Korean children’s game from the 1970s and 80s known by the title name and was initially called ‘Round Six’ back in 2019 when Netflix picked it up before being changed to the current name. The cast of ‘Squid Game’ is as stellar as can be, packed with well-known Korean actors and newcomers in the acting world. The star-studded ensemble includes Lee Jung-Jae, Park Hae-soo, and Wi Ha-Joon, and its first season consisting of nine episodes premiered on the streaming giant on September 17.
The story is quite fascinating. A mysterious organization in South Korea starts recruiting citizens who are drowning in debt or struggling financially to participate in a total of six events, both breathtaking and heartbreaking, with the prize being millions of dollars or rather billions of won if the competitors survive until the end of the game. What the players don’t know is that elimination means losing their lives.
Titles such as ‘The Hunger Games, which is most recognizable by a global audience or the classic ‘Battle Royale,’ ‘Alice in Borderland’ and ‘As the Gods Will,’ that are familiar within the Japanese entertainment industry immediately spring to mind when one looks at the description of this show.
Interestingly these are not adverse games such as sword or gunfighting or even wrestling, but they are all children’s games known to most Japanese kids, which even most of the participants played when they were growing up. This might seem pretty simple, but the challenge is, these children’s games are unspeakably brutal with fatal consequences if one loses. And fatal is as literal as it sounds. For instance, over 450 players start, but at the end of one game called ‘Red Light Green Light,’ those participants who fail to stop at the red light are all executed by a sniper. Another example is the tug of war game taking place a hundred feet above the ground where the losers go splat on the floor.
This competition is overseen by a mysterious organization wearing play station button masks in servitude to the overall leader pulling the strings of the game. This might sound really cruel; however, the contestants in the game voluntarily and have the option of exiting the competition by voting to leave. Sadly, their financial constraints do not offer these competitors that kind of luxury.
As one watches the competition progress, one can’t help to wonder what the essence of the whole thing is. Nevertheless, it is entertainment at the end of the day, and entertaining it is. It’s exciting to watch the drama unfold as the competitors form pacts and betray each other with their eyes set on the prize.
The metaphor of the series is the aspect of the mighty, rich, and powerful in society preying upon the desperation, vulnerability, and desolation of the poor for the purpose of power demonstration, sport, and profit which, to be honest, is practically what is happening in the modern-day world. The real-world representation can be seen through various neighborhoods in Seoul, which makes it even more terrifying. However, the terror is contextualized in reality as it is only possible because conditions outside of the playground allow it to be, a point the series makes throughout the season. Interestingly while the game makers have absolutely no respect for human life, it is clear as day that the narrative has a different perspective in this regard, which gives it a vital distinction from its predecessors.
The participants are as diverse as can be carefully picked by the proprietors of the game. From a divorced father living with his mother who gambles away every single coin he gets to the extent he’s so deep in debt that he can’t even treat his daughter to a proper meal on her birthday. There is also a banker being investigated for fraud, an old man with a brain tumor, a pickpocket, a gangster, a loud-mouthed swindler, and a Pakistani migrant worker, among many others.
The plot of the series is its greatest strength as it is wittingly written. One is pretty sure at some point where they are headed until all of a sudden, it’s pitch black or the narrative takes a different route. It is full of surprises and twists that are so intelligibly spread out, giving forth to a satisfying series of intriguing events and climaxes throughout the season. The sinister premise is brought to life by the various spectacular set designs and the strikingly interesting costumes, which are quite distinct. The terrific score by Cho Sang-Kyung gives the series the mood and tone when the circumstances are fun as well as when things get grim and dire.
The performances are quite adverse and well-executed, except for the foreign VIPs who were atrocious. With Lee Jung-Jae as the assertive and elastic lead, newcomer Jung Ho-Yeon is amazing as the ballsy North Korean defector, and she sure is going to become a fan favorite within the premise. There are also tons of surprise cameos scattered throughout the season.
‘Squid Game’ is packed with graphic violence, which is exerted on the contestants as they battle for a future. No wonder some South Korean viewers who watched the show initially felt like there was too much cruelty. While the show’s violence and tonal swings might not work for everyone, there are flaws, such as the mysterious puppeteers behind the scenes don’t appear as often as one would wish, and the finale is a little uncompelling. But the show is an absolute hit when it comes to entertainment and will probably garner a cult following both in Korea and the world beyond.
Despite its stance with the weak and the oppressed in society, ‘Squid Game’ doesn’t offer an escape from the horrors of the real world of course within its limits as a work of fiction. But it confirms that these atrocities, divides, and inequalities exist, and many people find them horrifying.