From “The Hunger Games” to “The Running Man” and “The Purge” franchise, poor people fighting to the death for the benefit of the wealthy is a classic trope that’s been featured in media for centuries.
Unfortunately for us consumers, very rarely is this archetype done well with – Instead, we’re confronted with images of the lower classes literally at each other’s throats. Although they are intended to be shocking, they are becoming dull because we’ve seen them a hundred times before.
Often, authors, filmmakers and screenwriters introduce blood-sports as a ham-fisted attempt at satire, the point being so obvious that any social commentary only serves to reveal the creator’s sanctimony.
Thankfully, satire is still alive and its beating heart is South Korea. From “Parasite” to “The Disaster Tourist,” South Korean auteurs have an incisive understanding of the unimaginable horror and dream-like absurdity of life under late-stage capitalism. No show better captures and amplifies the dual elements of unrestrained capitalism than the Netflix original, “Squid Game.”
Created, written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, “Squid Game,” on the surface at least, appears simple enough. 456 people in dire straits call the number on a card given to them by a strange man, accepting his innocent offer to “participate in a game,” only to be placed in a van and knocked out with sleeping gas.
All are from different walks of life. They awake in a dormitory dressed in green tracksuits, watched over by armed men whose voices are distorted and faces covered by masks. An offer is made to all of them: they must play six games in six days.
Those who do not follow the rules will be eliminated. Except, in this case, elimination or any disorderly conduct means death. Any resistance will be met with extreme measures by the guards. However, whoever makes it to the final round wins 45.6 billion won ($38 million dollars).
“Squid Game” has an ensemble cast with a diverse assortment of characters. The show’s protagonist is Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Juang-jae), a divorced father. He is a gambling addict living in his mother’s house who wants to spend money to make his family proud. Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) is a former child prodigy and childhood friend of Seong Gi, is an investor wanted for defrauding his clients. Kang Sae-Byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) is a North Korean defector who intends to fund her mother’s escape from the north with her winnings. Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) is a ferocious gangster hoping to settle gambling debts.
Many would expect these characters to be nothing more than bodies thrown into various “game rooms” to keep the story moving, but it is the process of getting to know these people, in all their complicated multi-dimensionality, that sets “Squid Game” apart from the rest.
For instance, “Saw,” when boiled down to its key components, was a series of morality tales with cartoonish characters. The protagonists of “Squid Game,” however, do terrible things. They lie, cheat, steal and kill while their humanity slips away as the animalistic need to survive overtakes them.
Yet, even at their worst, a kernel of sympathy always remains. The game’s contestants include doctors, single mothers and married couples. People with children, parents and friends. They were human once, and the scriptwriters never let you forget that. As we discover more about what is going on, we realize that the outside world is no less brutal than the game itself. With that being said, the game is only a natural conclusion of a hierarchical, rigid society that is inherently dehumanizing.
Alongside the stellar cast and engrossing plot, the set design is equally worthy of praise. Dong-hyuk’s aesthetic matches the children’s games that his characters play. Every game is full of bright, primary colors: crayon-green and hot pink splattered across playground-themed killing fields. Guards are in red hoods and black masks with squares, triangles and circles at the center to denote their rank. They rarely speak and all physical structures in the rooms are far larger than their human counterparts, adding to the sense of having entered another world.
Similarly, music is often upbeat or even faintly nostalgic. It is often played over scenes of guards shooting contestants unlucky enough to win one of the games. Albeit a slightly gimmicky choice, Dong-hyuk utilizes the trope well, most notably in a scene featuring Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”
World-renowned shows rarely deserve the praise they receive. Very often, immediate critical success only bolsters the egos of showrunners, luring them into a false sense of security and causing their story to suffer.
“Squid Game” is the exception to that rule. If this show had any birthing pains, you couldn’t tell by watching it. A masterclass on how to make great television, “Squid Game” has already secured its place as a show that will define the 2020s and hopefully will keep bringing us the laughter, tears and nausea in season two.