Jonathon is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, England. He trained as an actor.
Not a Tempura in Sight
If you're like me, when you first heard the words Squid Game, you imagined a Wagamama happy hour, or a Rick Stein game show set on a Greek island. You were likely just as confused when you read the reviews.
Its enormous popularity got me wondering whether there was something going on here that needed a gander. Three days and nine episodes later, I emerged.
Red Pill/Green Light
When questioned in 1999 whether The Matrix was a religious parable or existential metaphor, the Wachowskis said something along the lines of “neither, it’s basically just Kung Fu versus Robots”. Keep the story narrative as ambivalent as possible. It means you can come back and present an alternative interpretation later.
Turns out it was more to do with gender fluidity. Who knew.
In the same way, Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of Squid Game, resists the drama being categorised as simply an exegesis on the failures of capitalism. Why disenfranchise an audience who just like a good old fashioned horror thriller?
Whilst the creators of both of these works might share a love of ambiguity, as well as dystopian novels and manga comics, what separates them is clear. The Matrix views like the stuff of science-fiction, however you rebrand it. Squid Game does not. So clearly is it rooted in the present-day reality of life in urban Korea. It leaves little room for manoeuvre.
Set against a backdrop of the spiralling debt crisis that has starved thousands of the economic oxygen needed to survive, let alone thrive, the inspiration for Hwang is dredged from a lake of desperation as deep in modern day Seoul, as for Dickens in London 150 ago. The series poses the stark question; where do you go when society lets you down so badly?
Blood on the Monkeybars
The answer in Squid Game is the children's playground. Cruelly re-imagined as a stage for a series of games played out on its soft sandy floor to determine who will live and who will die in a winner take all contest of elimination.
How to survive in such extremis is explored through Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a hapless loser in the real world with pockets that burn money and the expression of a bewildered puppy. Through him we navigate this nightmare of masks, marbles and machine guns whilst he furrows his brow at the carnage that unfolds.
As the horrors accelerate, the homespun geniality of Seong cannot keep him above the waves, and he drowns under the tsunami of torture with only survivor guilt left to console him.
No hero brings about justice, no winner rides off into a sunset with a dose of amnesia and truck load of cash. The message in unequivocal; the system is not only broken but sadistic.
Style and Genre
In terms of plot, it lands somewhere between a thriller in the Agatha Christie tradition of And Then There Were None and something akin to The Hunger Games. Visually it blends the bright colours of the playground with brain-dashing Tarantino stylisation and Kubrick-inspired waltzes. Parasite and Old Boy remind us that Korea has cinematic tradition all of its own; a blend of folk theatre and ultra-modern movie making. As such, Squid Game views like a medieval morality play shot under the neon light of the subway, stark and bold with oodles of melodramatic flair.
Kim Joo-Ryung clearly having the time of her life as Han Mi-nyeo, opposite her nemesis Jang Deok. She attacks her role with such poisonous ferocity it leaves you relishing what she might do as Lady Macbeth.
Gruesome It Is
The violence in the piece is problematic. Be it concerns of it seeping into the spin offs for children, or becoming a feeding frenzy for the gore junkies.
In many ways the chaotic elimination method of a bullet feels at odds with the clinical way the games are orchestrated, and we half expect something closer to a Milgram experiment to add more layers of misery to the participants.
Instead what we get is a reminder that behind the crisp uniforms, primary colours, and toddler shapes there is death; bloody and raw. The effect is more like watching cattle at slaughterhouse than a horror movie, and set against the backdrop of the school yard, you are left in no doubt that this is a commentary on human conditioning as much as it is about sensationalist violence.
Life Is Rigged
Those wanting a critique on how the law of the playground might be a fair one are left disappointed. Such speculations are discursive dead ends, and we do not find out what it might take to create an even playing field. The rules exist purely to keep enough players alive, and the meritocracy broadcast by the game masters a fallacy.
We learn this through player number one (Oh Il-nam), when his vote halts the games early, and send the players back to where they came from. When we later discover he is pulling the strings of the game, he moves from the enigmatic old man to the brattish kid who owns all the coolest toys in the neighbourhood and only lets the others play if he can make the rules.
Denied a genuine moment of free will, we see only the poverty that got the players there in the first place forcing them back to his door, pleading to be humiliated all over again.
Only the Good (And the Bad) Die Young
Ambiguity may be rife but one axiom is clear; those who embrace the reality of the situation are those who have forfeited morality in the real world.
“There are no rules”, shouts Heo Sung-tae as the pitiless thug Jang Deok-su in a king of the jungle moment of brutality. At the other end of the spectrum, the more cerebral Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) finds a less hands on, if no less ruthless way, to remove the player standing in his way.
Some relish the game of survival whilst others wrestle with a sense of guilt, but good or bad, no one beats the house and all will do what it takes to survive.
Well, not quite everyone it seems.
In the most poignant instalment, Gganbu, episode six, we are presented with pairs of players tasked with outwitting each other in a game of marbles staged in facsimiles of the alleys and courtyards of the neighbourhoods they live in. Amongst them are Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Hoyeon) and Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi).
Whilst the other players quickly shift from whispering urgency to screaming intensity as the clock ticks and bullets crack, these two move at an entirely different pace. Like a pair of battle-weary butterflies, they dance around each other, carrying what feels like an almost industrial scale hopelessness on their slender shoulders. We don’t need to see the future to know the self-sacrifice we are presented with is meaningless. It is implicit. Like Gloria in They Shoot Horse Don’t They, Ji-yeong is done fighting and just wants out.
The fact that it’s the youngest female players who decide to opt out of the madness is interesting. It might be a glimpse that there is a generation out there who are not going to play by the old the rules, and they're ready to redraw the gameplay. We can only hope.
Poor lost souls, or just not going to play by the same rules as their parents?
You cannot explain the success of Squid Game just from the sum of its parts. Elimination game shows are great candy to feed the addiction of tuning in to the next episode, but it is a device, not the draw. There is a macabre speculation of what the games might be and how each player might emerge, but we know our winner from scene one, and we could devote another post to oddities in the storyline.
Perhaps the story resonates with a world who feel they have missed out on the last two years and want to fast track their own lives. The appeal of winning a lottery, or backing a big outsider to erase the past has never been more acute. Maybe we see in the world of tired matriarchs who work, live and die whilst their middle-aged offspring cry into their noodles a reflection of our own societal dysfunction. That behind our camouflaged genius lies a generation of failures still harbouring fantasies about their own destiny?
Most troublingly is that what lurks in the shadows of this series is becoming a reality to a world suffering, genuine depression and losing hope. They may not yet be selling organs on our high streets yet, but the commoditisation of the impoverished is happening in all kinds of explicit and unpleasant ways. It refocuses a theatrical parody like Squid Game into a social dilemma that millions will recognise with or without subtitles.
As our world enters a stark new age of economic and environmental winners and losers, what it takes to make it to the higher ground now feels like a genuine survival game for all of us, and one the track suited world of a Korean film fantasist seems to have captured all too well.