Asian studiesSocial studies

‘Squid Game’ Hides a Hopeful Message Within a Dystopian Nightmare

By Kyung Hyun Kim, the author of Hegemonic Mimicry: Korean Popular Culture of the Twenty-First Century and the writer of the play The Mask Debate.

Netflix’s new Korean horror drama suggests there’s more to life than the brutal realities of neoliberal capitalism.

Anyone who has visited South Korea in recent years has likely noticed that comedy variety shows are quite popular there. Instead of the one-on-one talk show format that is popular in the United States, these Korean productions typically feature a pack of male performers standing before a camera in a public space, such as a parking lot, playground, city park, or large shopping mall. They talk, giggle, and lightly push one another in a juvenile manner before dispersing to change into tracksuit uniforms and play silly playground games, such as hide-and-seek, capture the flag, jump-rope, and rock-paper-scissors.

The losers of these games receive humiliating but ultimately harmless punishments; most often, they are denied a meal or a ride back to the studio. The more humiliating the punishment, the more cathartic the enjoyment viewers may feel.

One of these comedy reality television shows, Running Man, has been popular not only in South Korea but also in many other Asian countries. Since 2010, this show, which features middle-aged comedians competing with young K-pop singers and K-drama celebrities, has been an integral part of the so-called Hallyu (“Korean wave”) that has dominated the internet around the Pacific and beyond. Contemporary social media is filled with videos uploaded by ordinary Asians from different corners of the continent featuring copycat games inspired by this Korean television program.

One of the enjoyments of watching these shows inspired by children’s games is the self-deprecating attitudes the gag artists and K-pop celebrities must assume. Watching famous people reenact and mimic children’s behavior elicits laughter. The shows are also infectiously sentimental for they draw on audience empathy and childhood memories associated with these silly games. They simultaneously remind viewers of the loss of youthful innocence in contemporary reality and invoke fantasies where the clock has turned back, albeit momentarily. The game scenes recall that we have lost the joy of simply playing the game and that far too much emphasis has been placed on the binary outcome of either winning or losing.

Netflix’s new blockbuster show Squid Game turns this concept on its head, stripping away the veneer of comedy found in grown-ups playing children’s games and transporting it to a dystopian world of neoliberal capitalism it seeks to critique—to horrifying effect.

Competitors and guards file up a brightly-colored twisted staircase.

The facility where the competitors are held features brightly colored M.C. Escher-inspired staircases.NETFLIX

Rather than comedians and K-pop stars, the (fictional) contestants in these playground games are desperate men and women who are drowning in personal debt and willing to do almost anything to make some quick cash. Instead of familiar everyday sites, such as city parks or department stores, the action takes place on a remote island filled with staircases inspired by graphic artist M.C. Escher, sumptuously painted labyrinths, and happy-creepy classical music from composers George Frideric Handel and Richard Strauss played on loudspeakers. And the punishment for elimination from the game is no longer light-hearted humiliation but literally death.

Squid Game’s premise is simple. Seong Gi-hun (played by actor Lee Jung-jae), the main protagonist, is solicited to play a child’s game of ttakji (folded paper flip) at a subway station after a long day when he was beaten up by a gang of loan sharks and had his earnings from a lucky win at the horse races swiped by a pickpocket. He is asked by a mysterious stranger, a master ttakji player, to enroll in a bigger gambling scheme where the earnings could be huge—as much as around $40 million. Once Gi-hun agrees to play, he is taken to a remote island to participate in a series of children’s games where survivors go on to subsequent rounds and losers are instantly—and mercilessly—killed by enigmatic masked guards in hot pink jumpsuit uniforms.

Gi-hun’s personal flaws are numerous: He is a petty thief, a gambler, and an alcoholic. But the greatest of his shortcomings is the fact that he is too generous. As his main rival and childhood friend, Cho Sang-woo, a failed investment banker, reminds him, Gi-hun’s issue is he “cares too much about others.” Over-caring, in other words, is a vice that is just as bad, if not worse, than an alcohol or gambling addiction.

Gi-hun can’t keep up with the times that have left him behind. His deep sense of filial piety, loyalty, and friendship make him not decent but indecent and unfit. His downfall, Squid Game explains, was precipitated when he worked at an automobile manufacturing plant and joined a union strike to fight against the system’s injustice. Taking care of a coworker who was nearly beaten to death by riot police caused him to lose both his marriage and his job.

Through many plot twists and turns that eventually make Gi-hun one of the last remaining survivors of the game, Squid Game asks a difficult yet fundamental question about life: Can a human retain his or her soul and decency and still compete in the ruthless and merciless environment capitalism has created for itself?

This question, of course, is derived from an age-old parable that is universally applicable to any society undergoing growing class polarization in the era of neoliberal capitalism. Even though Squid Game is an absurdist mystery, it does not lose sight of the brutal realities that have given South Korea one of the highest suicide rates and lowest fertility rate in the world. There are plenty of desperate people out there who would enter a game, regardless of risk, to pay off their debts.

Gi-hun is similar in some ways to Kim Ki-taek (played by Song Kang-ho), the impoverished father-turned-murderer in last year’s Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite. The difference between Gi-hun and Ki-taek is the latter has a resourceful set of post-adolescent children who are capable of providing for his family, whereas in Squid Game, Gi-hun has no such luck with his children. His daughter is still in grade school and lives with her stepfather and mother, who both detest Gi-hun. In many ways, the contestants in Squid Game are far worse off than the scum-class protagonists of Parasite. Capitalism, both works seem to say, does not pit the haves against the have-nots, but the have-nots against other have-nots.

Despite its universal appeal, Squid Game manages to find its own unique articulation, drawing attention to local values. Many social media posts and memes about Squid Game have pointed out the most impressive scene from the series is delivered not by its male protagonists and villains but by two supporting female characters: Kang Sae-byeok (played by Jung Ho-yeon), a defector from North Korea who fled communism to simultaneously seek refuge and fight for her survival in capitalism; and Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi), who was just released from prison after killing her abusive father.

Unlike the male competitors, who are busy scheming, planning, and soliciting stronger and smarter partners to better position themselves in each of the rounds, these two young women have chosen to be loners, which makes them both outliers and troopers. Their luck, however, does eventually run out. In one of the later rounds, they are pitted against each other in a game where only one of them can advance to the next round; the other will be eliminated (that is, executed).

Two young women dressed in bloody tracksuits hold bags of marbles.

Competitors Kang Sae-Byeok (played by Jung Ho-yeon) and Ji-yeong (played by Lee Yoo-mi) are forced to make a difficult choice in one of the final rounds.NETFLIX

This delivers a moment when the drama really shines. Knowing that one of these characters has only half an hour left to live, we are faced with an extraordinary, dramatic moment where neither character pretends to con the other or cheat the system that will bring death. Unlike what occurs in most contemporary American dramas or male-centric plotlines, these girls simply choose to chat, willfully conducting a seemingly meaningless conversation about a fumbled line, “Let’s have a drink of Maldives at mojito,” from the pedestrian Korean movie Inside Men. Having that drink on an exotic island together is what the women agree to do—knowing full well one of them has only 30 minutes to live.

That these two characters are given the freedom and time within the episode to chit chat about their jumbled-up dreams, movies, and travel fantasies is a luxury Western dramas and thrillers tend to spurn. Yet, from Haruki Murakami’s postmodern novel from the 1980s, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, where the narrator realizes he only has a day and a half left to live in the “conscious” world, to premodern depictions of the utopian Peach Blossom Valley (later renamed in the West as “Shangri-La”) in East Asian fables, poems, and paintings, there tends to be a respite of fantasy crucial to the East Asian imagination.

This dual-track reality fantasy has now found its way even into a Netflix series that offers constant reminders of the impossibility of escape from the capitalist game that has engulfed the entire world. The conversation between two young Korean women who are sick of both North Korea (where totalitarianism rules) and South Korea (where family abuse, high suicide rates, and depression rule) proposes no exit other than the fantasies they created for themselves. Fantasy procures for them perhaps not life but at least a sense of relief from imprisonment in a system that forces one to choose between winning and losing.

As revealed at the end of the series, the truth about life is it is a lot more exciting to participate in a game than to be a passive bystander of it. Watching a race, no matter how much money is at stake, can never replace the joy of actually running in it. Most of us learn early on in life that we do not possess the skills to become professional athletes, yet many of us end up spending endless hours engaging in sports simply for the enjoyment games provide. Work ought to be the same. Complaints of drudgery, unfair compensation, and constant fears of being laid off have long been associated with work in the capitalist system. If there is one takeaway from Squid Game, it is that a different approach to life is possible.

My 9-year-old daughter becomes intensely sad when, after hours of playing Monopoly with her, I land on her property with a hotel that will ruin me financially. Why? Because she doesn’t want the game to end. Being a winner means nothing if it means the game can’t continue. Perhaps we need to discover for ourselves the joy of game-playing we used to experience. It’s not about winning or losing; it’s about finding pleasure in both working and living.

Kyung Hyun Kim is the author of Hegemonic Mimicry: Korean Popular Culture of the Twenty-First Century and the writer of the play The Mask Debate.

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