By now most of the world knows the basic premise of Squid Game [Ojing-eo Geim] (2021) (and, while there are certain details I won’t go into, this review is probably more spoiler-iffic than my norm). 456 people in desperate financial straits are recruited by a shadowy organisation to play a series of six children’s games. Those who make it through all six games will be awarded a significant cash prize, large enough to wipe their debts clean and allow them to live in comfort for the rest of their lives. It’s not until the first game is underway that the players learn that being eliminated has a more lethal meaning than they had expected – and it’s only after the second game that the implications behind the increase of the prize pool after each death really begin to sink in.
Although the theme of financial desperation provides an easy global identification point, Squid Game is more specifically informed by the Korean debt crisis, a situation which has worsened exponentially since the 1990s and pervades most of Korean society. Its impact has been a constant presence, whether foregrounded or simply a background element, in much of the Korean culture I’ve consumed – with the most prominent international example until now being the rightly acclaimed Parasite [Gisaengchung] (2019). At the centre of the drama are two childhood friends whose lives went in very different directions but who have ended up in the same place. Seong Gi-hun/Number 456 (Lee Jung-jae) had a reliable factory job for 10 years until the company’s financial troubles led them to lay off most of their workers. Since then he has drifted between unreliable low-income jobs, frittering away his meagre income on gambling in hopes of one big score. He’s lost his wife and daughter to a more stable breadwinner – who, despite his apparent affluence, is also barely scraping by. He’s in debt to multiple loan sharks, he’s just been forced to sign away the rights to his organs, and his elderly mother desperately needs surgery for a diabetic foot infection. His more successful friend Cho Sang-woo/Number 218 (Park Hae-soo) escaped their impoverished neighbourhood to attend the prestigious Seoul National University, becoming the head of an investment team at a securities firm and the pride of his stallholder mother – but, unbeknownst to either of them, a series of bad investments and unethical business dealings have left him broke and on the run from the law.
Among the other major characters, Abdul Ali/Number 199 (Anupam Tripathi) provides an example of the exploitation of migrant workers, a Pakistani immigrant with a young family who has been working unpaid for 6 months while his employer (aware of his employees’ powerlessness) puts up a pretence of poverty. Representing the criminal underworld is Jang Deok-su/Number 101 (Heo Sung-tae), a brutal thug who stole from his boss in an attempt to keep up with his gambling debts and will be a dead man if his former associates catch up to him. And drawing attention to the other dividing lines in Korea is Kang Sae-byeok/Number 067 (Jung Ho-yeon), a North Korean defector who escaped over the Chinese border with her younger brother. While he languishes in a children’s home, she has been using any means available to her to scrape together the funds to have her remaining family smuggled out of North Korea – losing large amounts of money to brokers who have no intention of delivering on their promises, and crossing the paths of both Seong Gi-hun and Jang Deok-su. The only competitor who does not appear to have any financial motivation is Oh Il-nam/Number 001 (O Yeong-su), an elderly man with a brain tumour who relishes the opportunity to play rather than simply waiting to die.
While the reduction of the competitors to nameless numbers is clearly meant to make a point about the way those at the bottom of society are dehumanised, this refusal to recognise individuality doesn’t stop here – it’s a pattern that extends throughout the wider hierarchy of the game. The identically red-clad guards are distinguishable to the competitors only by the pattern displayed on their black face-masks – a circle for the low-level grunts, a triangle for their superior officers, and at the top of the pecking order a square. Where the competitors’ numbers are printed on their shirts and jackets, the seemingly identical guards are also numbered by chips within their masks, distinguishable only when be scanned by their superiors. The guards are not permitted to speak to those of higher status unless directly addressed and cannot remove their masks in front of others – an implicit resignation of their position of authority which results in their immediate execution. The constantly monitored surveillance cameras are staffed entirely by the top-level square-masked guards, and corrupt side-projects – such as harvesting organs from the deceased for profit – are tacitly endorsed by the powers-that-be as long as they don’t interfere with the operation of the games.
It’s only at the upper levels that individuality is allowed to creep in. It’s here that the geometrical progression of the mask designs – from one side (circle), to three (triangle), to four (square) – steps up in complexity exponentially. The Front Man (Lee Byung-hun) in charge of the game’s direct operation wears a crudely geometrical approximation of a human face reminiscent of a blocky computerised rendering. Intriguingly, however, those at the top – the man running the entire operation and the VIP guests who bet on the outcomes – cast aside any pretence to humanity, opting instead for intricately designed animal masks finished in gold, a visual symbol of both their wealth and their predatory relationship with those further down the chain, with both the competitors and the guards/attendants subject to their whims as playthings. (It’s worth noting in passing that of the VIPs whose voices we hear, the only non-American voice is Japanese – tapping into the fraught relationship between the two nations over the past 100 or so years.)
One interesting aspect of the games is their supposed foundation on equality – the idea that no matter from which level of society the competitors are drawn, they are competing on an equal playing field with no person privileged over another. This core philosophy is clearly of fundamental importance to those running the game – the discovery that some of the guards have been feeding advance information about the games to one of the players provokes swift retributive action and is the only occasion on which the Front Man is demonstrably angered by events. The idea that each individual in society has an equal opportunity to succeed if they put in the work is a core item of faith for those who champion the inherent fairness of capitalism – champions who, funnily enough, always seem to be among the successful. A closer analysis of the games, however, reveals this to be a simplistic delusion. The recruitment process emphasises the power differential between employer and employed. The Salesman (Gong Yoo) challenges each potential recruit to a game – if they win, they get money; if they lose, they get slapped in the face (a physical brutality still all-too-common and tacitly endorsed in the modern Korean workplace). The first game (Red Light, Green Light) requires not only a basic level of physical coordination, but sufficient self-control to avoid panicking when people are dying all around you. Success in the second game (Ppopgi) relies heavily on an initial choice based on obscure visual cues which only some native South Koreans are clued-in enough to pick up on – anybody lacking that knowledge is at an inherent disadvantage in making the choice which allows them the highest chance of survival.
The cynical “survival of the fittest” mentality behind the games (and, implicitly, the organisers’ view of society) becomes apparent when they manufacture a food shortage to encourage the players to turn on each other – the unintended death of a player not only goes unpunished but increases the prize pool, leading to a brutal frenzy of violence after the lights go out. The calculation behind this is underlined by the Front Man’s referral to it as a game when he finally decides to send in the guards – although not one of the six games the participants have been informed of, it’s clearly part of the overall plan. The next game (tug of war) highlights the two survival strategies of the remaining players – either a reliance on brute strength, or a more nuanced blend of strategy and teamwork which uses the opponents’ strength against them. This team-bonding is immediately undercut by the fourth game (marbles), in which the only route to survival is to compete against and betray your trusted partner. The fifth game encourages those lagging behind to backstab the co-workers whose success has allowed them to get this far, leading to the final game (the titular Squid Game) in which all pretence is stripped away and the players are clearly expected to take each other on in a savage fight to the death.
Series creator/writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk has put a great deal of thought into the world surrounding the game, anticipating and addressing many of the questions he expects the audience to have. Clearly aware of the importance the conscious choice to participate plays in this scenario, he allows the players an exit strategy after the bloodbath of the first game – and his focus on six core characters in the aftermath of the game’s suspension is effective at convincing the audience that so many players would be willing to return for a second round. His demonstration of the difficulty of reporting such a vast undertaking to the authorities allows him to introduce a rogue element into the system, police officer Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), whose search for his missing brother leads him to infiltrate the game as a guard, granting the audience a deeper look at workings of the game behind the scenes – including a glimpse of just how long the game has been running in secret. The fate of his brother and the identity of the person running the game – questions with different answers – are not only revealed by the end but are cleverly foreshadowed well in advance of their revelation. And I was very pleased to see that, in line with my experience of other Korean TV dramas, the story doesn’t end with the revelation of the game’s winner. Most of the final episode is devoted to the aftermath of their victory and their choices about how to function in – and trust – society after such an experience. The open-ended nature of the final scene has caused frustration in some quarters, but while I would have been quite content for it to end where it does, on the same day I finished watching the series it was announced that a second series had been commissioned. While the show’s success will make it very difficult for Hwang to meet all of the conflicting viewer expectations, based on my experience of his work so far I think that he has a good chance of pulling it off.
Chae Kyoung-sun’s work on the production design cannot be underestimated in its contribution to the show’s success – the showcasing of his work in the pre-release trailer is arguably the most significant factor in drawing viewer interest to the series, in particular the giant doll so prominent in the first game and the Escher-esque sequences of the players and guards navigating the labyrinthine pathways between the dormitory and playing fields. As the series nears its conclusion, once it’s too late to make any difference, it becomes evident that clues to the upcoming games had been concealed within the dormitory the whole time. Less obvious to non-Korean audiences are aspects such as the colour choices – the mint green/pink décor specifically evokes classrooms of the 1970s/80s – with so many other aspects of the design work referencing aspects of Korean culture that I’d sign up to watch a feature length documentary covering all of his creative choices. Chae and Hwang previously collaborated on the feel-good family comedy Miss Granny [Susanghan Geunyeo] (2014), about as far from Squid Game in tone and subject matter as you can get.
Lee Jung-jae puts in a stellar performance as the main audience identification figure Gi-hun, a character whose worse aspects are emphasised in the opening episode but whose core sense of ethics and fairness comes to the fore in the extreme circumstances in which he finds himself. Best known for his role as the wealthy husband in The Housemaid [Hanyeo] (2010), his most recent film Deliver Us from Evil [Daman Akeseo Goohasoseo] (2020) is among this year’s selections for the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA), which residents of Melbourne and Canberra still have a chance to attend this December. His offsider Park Hae-soo is the actor with whom I’m most familiar, having recently seen him as an honest but out-of-his-depth police detective in Legend of the Blue Sea [Pureun Badaui Jeonseol] (2016) after first encountering him as a slick fast-talking nightclub entrepreneur in By Quantum Physics: A Nightlife Venture [Yang-ja-Mul-li-hak] (2019) (see reviews here and here). His character here is more complex, a devoted son unable to admit what he’s become to his mother, hero-worshipped by his childhood friend but constantly chipping away at that image with increasingly questionable behaviour.
Lee Byung-Hun, who spends most of his time as the Front Man behind a mask, is the actor most likely to be recognised by an international audience. After key leading roles as the South Korean Sergeant in Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area [Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok jeieseuei] (2000) and as “The Bad” in The Good, the Bad, the Weird [Jo-eun nom nappeun nom isanghan nom] (2008), he appeared in a string of American action movies – G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), Red 2 (2013), Terminator Genisys (2015) and The Magnificent Seven (2016). Most relevant to his work here is his lead role in The Fortress [Namhan sanseong] (2017), Hwang Dong-hyuk’s last work as director prior to Squid Game, in which Lee had the lead role of Choi Myung-kil – the historical figure who was instrumental in the difficult process of navigating Korean court politics in order to negotiate peace in the face of 1636’s Second Manchu Invasion. The face of Gong Yoo is also likely to strike chords of familiarity thanks to his role as the lead in Train to Busan [Busanhaeng] (2016) (reviewed here), and played the lead role in Hwang’s second feature, the crime drama Silenced [Dogani] (2011).
Standing out among the supporting cast are Kim Joo-ryoung as con-artist Han Mi-nyeo/Number 212 and Lee Yoo-mi as Ji-yeong/Number 240. Kim Joo-ryoung is suitably twisty as a loudly confident woman who will say and do anything to be on the winning side, a survivor who has made her way through life by manipulating all and sundry but has betrayed too many people in her time. She’s fascinating to watch whenever she’s on screen and has a vicious streak which comes out when she’s either on top or has nothing to lose. Lee Yoo-mi plays a cynical young woman who has seen too many bad things in her life to have any patience with hypocrisy, particularly of the religious variety. Her role is much smaller, but she makes the most of her screen time, forming a heart-breaking bond with Kang Sae-byeok at just the wrong time. A glance through her CV suggests that she’s still awaiting her breakthrough role, but hopefully she’ll gain enough attention from her appearance here to push her into the spotlight as a leading actress.
Series creator Hwang Dong-hyuk is clearly amused by the inaccurate impression that the success of Squid Game has made him a lot of money – while that’s definitely the case for Netflix, his contract doesn’t entitle him to a share of the wealth (although that might change for the second series). That said, the success of Squid Game is directly responsible for the fact that his last three films – The Fortress (2017), Miss Granny (2014) and Silenced (2011) – have all been picked up by Netflix. The range of subject matter and genre between these three very different films demonstrates his diversity as a filmmaker, supporting my impression that the upcoming Squid Game sequel will be something more than just a pale retread. I can certainly recommend The Fortress to interested viewers and hope to make time soon to catch up on the other two films.