Squid Game on Netflix has become a global phenomenon, breaking viewership records to become the streaming service’s most popular release ever. As someone who regularly grew up with the question, “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” I am still somewhat baffled that South Korea has become an international pop culture powerhouse, and random non-Asian people I know spout the virtues of once-insular stars like Gong Yoo. Even the fact that everyone is saying the quirky, ultra-Korean title Squid Game (even quirkier in the original Korean, with the onomatopoeic word for squid, ojingeo, reminiscent to me of the sound of chewing on savory dried strips of it as a kid) gives me an internal chuckle. The show’s success raises the question: why is South Korea so good at nailing capitalist critiques in its art lately? What’s in the water—or rather soju—there?
The fictional thriller series consists of nine episodes set in modern-day Seoul, where protagonist Seong Gi-Hun is a ne’er-do-well gambler who owes debts to various loan sharks, straining his relationship with his mother and young daughter. A charming, mysterious recruiter at a subway station lures Gi-Hun into a game of ddakji, setting odd but simple rules: if Gi-Hun wins a round, he gets a cash prize; if he loses, he doesn’t owe the recruiter money—he just gets slapped. After playing, the recruiter then offers Gi-Hun a phone number to join “the real game,” which promises far bigger prizes. Financially desperate, Gi-Hun calls the number and ends up kidnapped, unconscious, and brought to a secret location along with 455 other equally desperate contestants, all wearing green tracksuits, identical but for their individual numbers. They are told they will be competing for a grand prize worth roughly $40 million…whose winner, they realize after a shocking first round, will be the last person standing, as once harmless children’s games like “Red Light, Green Light” and tug-o’-war are redefined as unforgiving rungs to hell.
The game’s Gothic underbelly certainly contributes to its success; the show itself is unquestionably brutal, even traumatizing at points—take episode six, in which players are asked to choose partners (whom they presumably trust or feel a connection with) for the upcoming game and are told only afterward that they are partnered to fight each other for elimination … by playing marbles. Heartbreaking betrayals ensue. It is hard not to see parallels to our own lives during the pandemic, when unforgiving life or death decisions have become all too familiar.
Squid Game captures a dangerous juxtaposition of entertainment and subconscious anger, of glossy consumption and the darkest id and zeitgeist of the times. It isn’t even particularly original: as many have noted, it mashes up Hunger Games with the Academy Awards’ 2019 Best Picture, Parasite, and other similar works of the genre. Yet it somehow manages to amplify, supersede even, those already popular works, instead of becoming a clichéd retread. Hwang Dong-Hyuk, the pensive director, intensifies some crucial factors, particularly the human characters and cost, and adds some ingenious twists: the dash of sinister pseudo-innocence in harkening back to childhood games, the vivid hyperreality of a colorful neo-video game landscape, the underground embedding in our present-day world, and, perhaps most harshly of all, the illusory specter of personal choice. When they are introduced to the game, the players are told they can leave via majority vote anytime. They even win one early vote, go back to their miserable, indigent lives, and then voluntarily call to return. In other words, the players in the game choose to stay, albeit under external duress of a corrupt society’s making.
As many have noted, stories like Squid Game and Parasite riff off of our growing societal discomfort with modern-day capitalism and the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor. South Korea has become particularly good at encapsulating these issues, perhaps, because of its own seemingly successful yet worrisome postwar story. After a devastating 20th century—in which the first half involved colonial occupation by Imperial Japan, punctuated cruelly in the middle by the Korean War, and then drifting through the second half during the Cold War as a divided nation featuring dictatorships on both sides, the North sponsored by the Soviet Union and the South by the United States—a glimmer of hope emerged when Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. The event, combined with the advent of the computer age and other factors, sparked an economic awakening, and then a social one: South Korea became one of the countries with the highest number of Internet users per capita. In addition to the Internet, there was also ideological cross-pollination from a youth class newly educated overseas, mainly in the United States and Europe (sent by elite-education-obsessed parents). South Korea marched like a tiger into the 21st century, with its new business conglomerates (called Chaebols) and a more globally savvy populace, then turned its hungry eye to targeted pop culture diplomacy via K-pop and K-dramas. It rose from an impoverished country in ashes to a global economic and entertainment powerhouse in little more than 30 years.
Yet South Korea is also an ancient, 5,000-year-old culture with deeply embedded social roots based on Confucian (and patriarchal) hierarchy. The country was isolated from the Western world for many centuries and accordingly nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom. The sudden superimposition of contemporary influences on the old underbelly of Korean culture has led to the confusion and angst highlighted in many of their recent works of film and literature. Although South Korea’s economic success has led to some waves of incoming immigration (represented in part by the touching Squid Game character Ali), the nation largely remains one provincially monocultural family crowded within half a peninsula and living mainly in high-rise buildings. With the advent of a stunning megarich class and, in equal measure, an exploited and indebted working class, all living on top of one another, both human ambition and embittered resentment cannot help but build. South Korea does not have the geographical size of the United States, where the rich have the space to hide in cloistered luxury, and the masses can be more easily fooled or distracted with a steady diet of propaganda.
Squid Game cleverly highlights through its characters some of these conflicts: members of the cruelly subjugated migrant class, like Ali; the tragic confusion of North Korean refugees who leave one (still worse) version of hell for a different one, represented by the compelling character Sae-Byeok (which means Dawn); the financial shark social climbers like Sang-Woo, and more. There is also understandable modern ambivalence toward the Confucian deference to the elder class, the members of which can both anchor and destroy the social order, depending on their own underlying values; this conflict is captured in the complex character of Il-Nam, and to some extent in Sang-Woo and Gi-Hun’s kindly, self-sacrificing elderly mothers, who embody perhaps the unsung heroes of Korean society.
Squid Game has emerged alongside the savagely perspicacious vision of artists who have grown up during the chaotic change of the past half-century. Many are members of Generation X, as I am, and I sometimes muse at how I might have lived if my parents had not decided to emigrate to the United States in 1971. This whole generation has witnessed firsthand the almost cartoonish capitalist rise and felt both a sense of awe and cynical skepticism about it. The Oscar-winning film director Bong Joon-Ho is a recent breakout superstar auteur; in Parasite, he married his darkly fantastical sensibilities, reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen-like fairy tales, with postmodern ultraviolence and Spielbergian cinematic verve, all laced with the bold Korean idiosyncrasy of his earlier movies like Snowpiercer and Okja.
Squid Game obviously owes a lot to Parasite. There is a similar sense of class claustrophobia and a liberal use of allegory to represent the different classes and their clashes. Both works rely heavily on a horror-based, bitterly dark satire, underscored by violence, yet somehow leavened by a saccharine overlay of dissociated innocence. The discordant mishmash of childish humor and horrific darkness in these works feels so Korean, and it has somehow become a globally beloved national stylistic hallmark. If it’s partly an artistic interpretation of Korea’s coping mechanism for what it went through in the 20th century, maybe it’s also simply the nation’s character after centuries of unsuccessful attempts by its neighbors to overrun it. Koreans are sometimes stereotyped as the Irish of the East, because of a tendency toward a more down-to-earth, clannish social order and corresponding readiness to poke fun at oppressive, pretentious elitism. That humor has a scatological streak, while underscored by a beloved devotion to the uninhibited joy of children.
But there is also a great sadness, captured by the cultural mnemonic han, which vaguely translates to a deep-seated internal angst and perpetual sense of doom. Culture-bound psychosomatic syndromes have been tied to han, such as hwabyeong, a condition characterized by stomach pain and anxiety due to a sense of internalized, unaddressed anger. Elevated rates of suicide, domestic violence, and child abuse are also side effects of this untreated PTSD after many Koreans witnessed the annihilation or perpetual exile of family members during the war, and much more.
North Korea remains another tragic backdrop to all of the above. Family members during the Korean War were maliciously separated, never to see or hear from each other again. The ruthless external economic sanctions that continue to punish North Korea only lead to more desperation and entrenched cult worship in its often starving and terrorized citizens. North Korea remains a glaring live grenade, an unhealed and festering wound in the eye of South Korea and the world. A perpetual reminder of the failure of humanity to reunite this needlessly broken family, it’s the ghost-like prisoner in the basement of Parasite, the survivalist dysphoria of Sae-Byeok in Squid Game. North Korea will always haunt everything about South Korea, and everyone in the latter knows it.
The push to succeed at all costs in South Korea has been another post-traumatic coping mechanism. Competitiveness and status-building have reached pathological levels, ranging from clothing brand names to college entrance exams. Some people view South Korea’s capitalist transformation as miraculous, but others see it as obsessive, overwork-based, emotionally neglectful, even manipulative and artificial. The truth is that it may be all of that, but the underlying problems, like the national debt and the wealth gap, are growing. The han is still there, lurking … and in Parasite, it is in your own home, or in Squid Game, it’s in your own neighborhood. Now the whole world sees it. The close-knit elements of human rage at capitalism are readily visible to the auteurs of South Korea, and given that much of global society is also largely beholden now to end-stage capitalism, everyone else sees the universal in the specific. Great art, South Korea proves, can resonate through the prism of one society to shine its toxically bright technicolor onto the world.
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