When a new series called “Squid Game” appeared on Netflix last month, some social media users thought that it was a new competitive reality show. Fortunately, the ultraviolent thriller – in which people play kid games with a deadly twist – is purely fictional. But like reality TV, it’s a window into how humans treat each other and what we’re going to do to be successful or, in this case, what we’re going to do to survive. And people keep talking about it. I just finished watching it myself and I think there is not a single story line in histories like Squid Game. How fascinating it is to watch.
In the nine-part Korean-language series written and directed by director Hwang Donghyuk, hundreds of debt-ridden people enter to compete for billions of South Korean won (roughly $ 38 million) in mysterious circumstances. One of the players is Seong Gihun (Jungjae Lee), a divorced man who lives with his elderly mother, rarely sees his 10-year-old daughter, and owes loan sharks hundreds of thousands of dollars due to a gambling problem.
After one of his creditors violently finds him to collect, Gihun signs an enigmatic contract in an attempt to save more time. You can see his desperation when he accepts a challenge from a well-dressed stranger to playing a popular South Korean game in which players attempt to flip folded paper tiles, for a stake of 100,000 won (a little more than $84 in the United States). Since Gihon is broke, he agrees to receive a slap in the face for every round he loses.
Several rounds later, Gihun walks away with a scarred and flushed face, 100,000 wins, and a business card that includes several symbols and a number to call if he wants to play more games for real money. Faced with the weight of his failures, Gihun calls the number and is assigned a location from which he is picked up by a masked individual in a van full of other potential players. The van fills up with sleeping gas, and when Gihun wakes up she is in a warehouse in a secret location with hundreds of others. The players are all dressed in the same white and green tracksuits and Gihun realizes he is playing no. 456.
Masked men appear dressed in red overalls; one explains that players will participate in six games: “Whoever wins all six games will win a nice cash prize.” When some players object, their huge debts are revealed to the group.
“Everyone here lives on the brink of financial ruin,” he says as a big screen shows images of players being repeatedly slapped in the face for a small prize. Many in the crowd bow their heads in shame. But the extreme stakes aren’t revealed until the first game, “Red Light, Green Light,” when players terrifyingly realize that being knocked out of the game means brutal death.
Although many players struggle with the circumstances of the game, most actively choose to stay on the complex, where everything is orderly, from the distribution of meals to the violence that increases with each match. As their stories come to light, “Squid Game” becomes more than just a bloody dystopian thriller. It’s an ominous real-life microcosm, revealing the many implications of inequality, which has kind of dragged each of the players into this battle for their own lives.
Since its debut on September 17, “Squid Game” has become a political hotspot in South Korea and, as Deadline reports, quickly reached Netflix’s Top 10 in the United States, becoming the first Korean show to feature do it and became a worldwide success. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos recently said the show will become the most-watched original series. This means, according to the company’s somewhat baffling internal metrics, that it will have been seen more than “Bridgerton”, currently the most-watched original, and other hits like “The Queen’s Gambit”, “Tiger King”, “Emily in Paris” and the fourth season of Money Heist.
Like “Money Heist,” a Spanish series that also features prominent red suits (and is the inspiration for an upcoming Korean adaptation), “Squid Game” has become an internet obsession, sparking memes and TikToks. In a recent interview with Variety, Hwang said he keeps the series’ ruthless games “simple” so viewers can “focus on the characters, rather than being distracted trying to interpret the rules.’ International streaming successes are proof that a good TV translates, whatever the language
“I wanted to write a story which is an allegory or a fable about modern capitalist society, something which represents extreme competition, kind of like life’s extreme competition,”he told the magazine. “But I wanted him to use the kind of characters we’ve all encountered in real life.”
The characters represent the best and the worst of human beings, and the way they clash in deadly games – at the whim of an unidentified entity – is far more illuminating than how they racked up their debts. “You don’t trust people here because you can,” Gihun told a young woman named Saebyeok (model HoYeon Jung, in her outstanding acting debut), a North Korean defector whose family was tragically separate. “You do it because you have to.”
As conflicts erupt between parties, players form solid alliances. Gihon and Saebyeok join a makeshift group that includes an elderly man known as Player 001 (Oh Yeongsu), Ali (Anupam Tripathi), a Pakistani refugee victim of disgusting labor practices, and Gihun’s childhood friend, Sangwoo (Park Hae-soo), a disgraced businessman who grimaces whenever Gihun proudly talks about his old friend’s accomplishments.
Their compelling stories are juxtaposed against a particularly suspenseful storyline that offers clues about the men in red overalls, who are bound by strict rules designed to conceal their identities at all times. The power they wield over players is overseen by an enigmatic figure dubbed the Front Man, who wears a distinct, darker mask. Their identities and motivations are one of the biggest mysteries in the series, along with those of their benefactors.
As in life, the answers to these questions do not come easily or without disappointment. In some ways, they’re more brutal than the games themselves.