Netflix’s new series Squid Game is doing numbers and on top of being a wild ride, the show has a lot going on below the surface.
Credit: @netflixanz on Instagram
Squid Game tells the story of Seong Gi-hun, a gambling addict deep in debt, as he participates in a series of children’s games with hundreds of other contestants, with the promise of winning money.
However, the contestants learn during the first game that if they lose, they’ll be brutally murdered by the game’s hosts. And for each dead contestant, the hosts add more money to the prize pool.
Its success is hardly surprising. The acting is great, the soundtrack slaps, the setting is full of wild technicolour and the concept is original for a big budget production. However it’s also packing some serious thematic heat; that’s right, the show about desperate people fighting each other for a chance to escape crushing poverty is actually a metaphor for capitalism and the exploitation of workers.
This isn’t just a case of internet media sleuths projecting themes onto a popular piece of media for clout, either. The show’s director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, actually spoke out, saying he wrote the show with this metaphor in mind.
"I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life,” Hwang told Variety during the promotion of the series.
You don’t really have to read between the lines on this one. In the games, the participants are motivated both by the allure of riches and the fear of poverty and its consequences.
Their success is made possible only by the failure of others. In the process of pursuing the prize, they become changed and worn down by the choices they have to make and the things they have to endure in the name of survival.
Inequality and the violence of capitalism are not new themes for South Korean audiences, nor is Squid Game the first major piece of media to address them. The 2019, Oscar-winning black comedy film Parasite, dealt with the same themes of income inequality and capitalism with a dark tone similar to that of Squid Game. It enjoyed almost universal acclaim.
Considering the circumstances faced by many people in South Korea, it’s little wonder a lot of South Korean media delves into the darker aspects of modern life.
Korea has among the longest working weeks according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but in return the country still faces crises of poverty and inequality, an unsustainable level of personal debt and an almost non-existent welfare system.
The country also faces the highest suicide rate in the OECD and one of the highest rates in the world.
So, how much does the show borrow from reality, and where does it embellish?
In 2009, following the Global Financial Crisis, motor company SsangYong laid off more than a third of its Korean workforce. This led to some of the country’s largest protests lasting more than two months.
This moment in history is heavily referenced in the series, through the protagonist of the series, Gi-hun. In an essay posted to Facebook and Twitter, one of the laid-off workers (in reality) noted that Gi-hun was clearly a representation of the SsangYong workers.
For a South Korean audience, this helps to make Gi-hun more relatable, grounded in reality and puts his struggles into a familiar context.
In a thematically consistent twist of fate, the show itself was very nearly a victim of the poverty crisis. While writing the screenplay for Squid Game, Hwang Dong-hyuk reportedly had to sell his laptop (the same one he used to write the show) just to stay afloat financially.
But this doesn’t explain why it’s so popular outside of Korea. In fact, Korean viewers only account for between five to ten per cent of the show’s audience. So why has a graphically violent, technicolour allegory for capitalism taken off globally in such a spectacular way?
It can come down to timing. Hwang Dong-hyuk pitched the show to various studios for more than ten years and was rejected every time because the show was deemed too violent, grotesque and unrealistic. But Hwang believes the events of the last two years with the pandemic and governments around the world not supporting vulnerable people, the mood has shifted.
“The world has changed,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
“All of these points made the story very realistic for people compared to a decade ago.”
There’s also something to be said about a lack of popular Western media exploring these themes in as much detail. In the Washington Post, TV critic Inkoo Kang notes Western media tends to not explore themes like poverty and inequality very often, and even when it does, it almost always does so with an optimistic tone or a Hollywood ending of good triumphing over evil.
So overall, the appeal of Squid Game might be the result of its high-production-value explorations of extremely timely themes rarely featured in Western media.
Or on the other hand, Squid Game is violent, it’s colourful and contains graphic depictions of people existing in the outdoors. But who’s to say why everyone is watching it.