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'Squid Game': more than a traditional survival thriller

Christine Lehnen
October 6, 2021

The South Korean Netflix hit series is a new take on the "Hunger Games" and "Battle Royale" genre, but it also comments on the vicious nature of capitalism.

still from 'Squid Game': a mysterious man in gold with a golden mask, walking in a golden corridor.
Netflix's 'Squid Game' is now the number one most watched show in more than 90 countriesImage: Netflix

Following the international success of the Oscar-winning film Parasite (2019) by director Bong Joon-ho, another South Korean production is grabbing the world's attention: the Netflix series Squid Game (original title: Ojing-eo Geim) by director Hwang Dong-hyuk.

No wonder, because the series is as exciting as it is clever — and does things very differently from its predecessors.

The premise of the show is gruesome: In order to become multimillionaires, 456 people fight for survival in a game show where they must survive six deadly children's games. 

Playing can be dangerous

The opening scene of the first episode shows children playing the so-called squid game in a park. Two teams compete against each other. The goal is to get the attackers to tap the small area called the "squid head" with their foot. However, if they are sidelined by a defender, they are "dead."

Following the black-and-white introductory scene, the rest of the episode is set in present-day Seoul, and focuses on Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), whose wife has left him with their daughter. The man lives with his ageing mother, stealing money from her to gamble it away. He owes a large sum to criminals who are ready to collect it by force.

Still from series 'Squid Game': a man with blood on his cheek looks at another man facing him.
Bloody, yet addictive: 'Squid Game'Image: Netflix

The potentially depressing story is nonetheless narrated with humor. It also emphasizes folly and human weaknesses, big and small, while Seong Gi-hun's enthusiasm make this part of the episode downright enjoyable.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that Seong Gi-hun is in a desperate situation. His ex-wife plans to move to the US with her new husband and their daughter. In order to win back custody, Seong urgently needs money.

Deadly games begin

Halfway through the first episode, Squid Game changes dramatically: Seong Gi-hun is approached at a subway stop by a man in a suit. The indebted gambler allows the man to slap him in order to receive 100,000 South Korean won (about €72, or $83). The man then invites him to participate in a "game" that could earn him a lot of money.

Seong Gi-hun agrees and is then kidnapped. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself on the grounds of the squid game, among 456 people competing in six games to win 45.6 billion won in prize money (around €33 million, $38 million) at the end.

But they are deadly versions of South Korean children's games — if you lose, you are shot on the spot.

A new take on a literary and film tradition

In this way, Squid Game not only recalls literary and film successes such as Lord of the Flies (1954) by British Nobel Prize winner William Golding, Battle Royale (1999) by Japanese writer Koshun Takami, and The Hunger Games (2008) by US author Suzanne Collins.

It also takes its cues from reality TV series from the 1990s, most notably the Japanese game show Takeshi's Castle (1986-1990). Around the world, audiences watched as real people attempted both ridiculous and daunting obstacle courses to take home prizes.

In the second half of the first episode, Squid Game begins to fully play to some of the strengths of the South Korean films that international audiences may be familiar with, including stylized elements of the absurd and the fantastic, the resemblance to video games and the courage to look into human abysses.

There is no shying away from depictions of violence or the extremity of its characters, and there's certainly no shying away from the element of suspense, making it a highly addictive series.

An anti-capitalist parable

The game in the series includes an interesting rule that distinguishes it from its predecessors, such as The Hunger Games. Namely, if the majority of the players decide to cancel the game, it is immediately terminated. However, if that happens, no one wins the prize.

The participants in the squid game are not stranded on a desert island or victims of a dictatorship — they could actually end the deadly game at any time.

As a result, the characters are confronted with the question of how far they are willing to go for money, and the extent to which a capitalist society subjects people to constraints that drive them to violence.