Some Thoughts on Squid Game
'You People And Your Inability To Distinguish Fantasy From Reality!- Ryohgo Narita
Squid Game is, no doubt an amazing drama, topping charts in every conceivable corner of the globe, boosting its impressive roster of talent, scope, scale and storytelling to an adoring international audience. and rightly so. But it isn't new. Taking the Hunger Games, Divergent, Black Mirror-ness away from it - there's really nothing unique about centuries old entertainment in the ages of emperors, kings and queens which means death to the have-nots for the blood lust of the haves, lion-in-amphitheatre style. And what's interesting about that particular chapter in history is that people could pay to watch it happen. How much does a Netflix account cost a month, by the way?
I can't deny, I slept uneasily after binging the show. Squid Game, written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk pulls no punches and elects to put you right there in the big hangars, in the faux playground with the large schoolgirl robot, the inordinately oversized hellish jungle gym, the endless warehouse with the two towers for the tug of war episode, in these part fx, part real nightmare spaces that remind me of The Handmaid's Tale at times, especially that shocking mass hanging opener to S2. It also manipulates you to feel for these flawed members with its clever music cues from unsettling traditional Korean music that beckons you into every hellish new game, to its brutal cutting out of sound for the moments your toes curl, sick with stress and worry for anyone that was unlucky enough to have a fixed behind the head shot, one that you know will literally turn into a behind the head shot and yep, there it is, blood on the screen, they did that-ness of it all, encouraging you to feel the injustice of every pointless, unwarranted and careless murder of every character ...or at least I did.
It's interesting, and maybe I shouldn't - but I often, for my sins, watch certain reaction channels where a camera is set up in a bedroom or a living room facing the 'reactors' - people with a YouTube account, a video camera and a stand, a different breed to the 'like and subscribe' crew but just as comfortable to let us into their homes, and to see their live, unfiltered reactions to the show as it plays in a little box off top right of the screen so you can follow along, reacting to the reaction of the show. I know. Very voyeur of me. But boy hasn't the primordial amphitheatre audience of old made a return in the 21st century. Screw you, character I don't know anything about! I hope you burn in hell! Yeah, get him! Push him to his death! Bash him up! Stab her in the face!
Are just a few choice tv screamings that scare me almost as much as the show.
I'm sorry, doesn't that worry anyone else?
Listen, I know they're not real - just not as real as when I was taken to see Ford's Tis Pity She's A Whore onstage when I was seven - a play that leaves more dead than alive by the time the curtain comes down. And yes, I saw the fake blood, the retractable knife and the contact lenses the oozed a blood like substance to look like they'd just been pulled out of some poor character's head - but I still don't cheer, get any kind of boost or even particularly enjoy the sight of murder, even performed onstage, on TV: anywhere really - and *particularly* not state sanctioned, 'deserved' or not. Such as it is, watching these reactions makes me wonder if said viewers wouldn't be prime candidates themselves.
And its interesting what character's actions and views reactors responded to in particular. The show forces you to see the good and bad in everyone, as they more than participate in these games: attempts to curry your favour, inspire your loyalty or at the other end of the scale wait for lights out to bash your head in - you truly don't know what you're going to get. That, and the constant state of mystery and anxiety we as the viewer are in, as well as the fact we are firmly kept out of the character's heads so we only have their dubious actions to go on. Therefore, it's hard to see the 'hero' of the piece- although there is a concentrated effort to be so by the flawed, gambling absent father lead, played with so much eyes of fear by the Korean popular actor Lee Jung-jae. He's somewhat of a good guy, signalled by the fact he doesn't get a speck of blood, either his own or of others on his dark green tracksuit until he changes out of it in the last episode. You could argue the cop, played with a cool detached sense of duty by Hwang Jun-ho, is a good guy, perhaps, but it is that detached mentality that serves him well as he poses as one of the faceless, misappropriated youth who seem bred into the hot pink overalls of the gun toting staff charged with 'eliminating' players, a man who also kills anyone who figures out who he may be without impunity.
It's a cold world. And the second episode, titled 'Hell' tellingly is not set in the facility at all - rather the unfair, unjust world of yes, sure, the streets of Seoul, but really could pass for any city around the globe. The rich get richer, and soon enough, a programme such as the 'Squid Games' is a fantasy. For now. We are being urged, through this dystopia to notice this gulf between the classes that is truly international. This is an irony lost on some of the reactors as I have to say, there's an unsettling, morbid sense of bloodlust/my team is gonna win mentality that sees these reactors screaming in triumph when some characters are brutally, unfairly killed. It's as unsettling as the show.
The show itself...I wrestle with. Goodness knows us in the west have a lot to answer for on corrupt governments, unfair distributions of wealth, and opinions and attitudes that should have been thrown out with the dawn of the new century, but have wormed their way back in to the heart of society, under the label of 'retro'. There's no denying South Korea is not the tyrannical state of North Korea, but we would be lying if we didn't say it, like many other countries, continents and cities, has its issues. Take Ali, played by Anupam Tripathi, the gentle innocent, played with guileless empathy and heartstring pulling naivety, a native of Pakistan who has a wife and child in Korea. He's treated as subtly less by his 'team' who accept his constant bows and gashahapnida's like they always expected them, and never tell him not to, just nod with brief but present snobbishness. (btw, full fledged member of the Ali deserved better team. Ali 4ever.) I'm not sure if Dong-hyuk is aiming to show that all society adapts to situations by founding it's highers and uppers, even within the faux hierarchy of the facility, but it's hard to read the motive for such a one dimensional character.
The women get a slightly better deal than I expected - I refused to think badly k Kim Joo-ryong's loud and abrasive character, Mi-nyeo and instead admired her attack, her total I could-give-a-shit-attitude, refusing to be scared even to the last, she had a steadier hand than tough guy mob boss Deuk-su, played with a constant snarl and a curse in his mouth by Heo Sung-tae. Joo-ryong brought much needed flavour, and in the end, badassery and bravery to her role. Drinking a scotch in your honour, love.
And my hurt, battered but tough as nails, Kang Sae-byeok who is played by the distractingly captivating Jung-Ho-yeon, the most steady, most determined and underneath it all, most caring of all the players. Once again, a toast to the deserved better club, she is whily, streetsmart, a pick-pocket, badass, who I'm sure had she been male, would have been the lead, but hey ho- a girl who, when her name is revealed is told it is 'pretty' - she is nonetheless the only one who attempts to take the initiative and at great personal risk, tries to find out what's going on. It's a shame then, like characters such as Cho Sang-woo who, at some point between graduating top of his class at Seoul National University he caught the corporate bug, stole from clients, and evidently thought he was better than everyone else. It becomes clear that he was always told he was the best, and started to believe so, though he turns criminal and in the shows, commits among the worst actions of all the players. He is played with icy-minded determinism by the brooding Park Hae-Soo, takes any opportunity to undermine Sae-byok, and actually, women full stop when he insists they cannot under any circumstances have women on their team for a task they do not yet know the details of, even going so far as to reject a husband for the wife he wants to bring along. Not my favourite character, as you may have guessed.
And unfortunately, when the task Sang-woo feared is revealed as a ten on ten tug of war, the reactors, to my anger, have the same allergy to women as Sang-woo does, forgetting as they do, small things like OH I DON'T KNOW, CHILDBIRTH, FEMALE OLYMPIANS/ATHLETES,FEMALE BODYBUILDERS, to name a few. It's lucky these reactors in particular are in their living rooms and not in a bar shouting misogyny at a Netflix screen in a bar where Ronda Rousey is having a nightcap.
The fact that the old man/bored VIP gets them out of the task with good ol' strategy and THREE, COUNT THEM three women on their team, is so great for them. I love to see it. And I'd like to think Dong-hyek is calling out the folly that brawn, especially that of male brawn is the most valued characteristic in a task, or let's lay it out, society. I can't promise that's what he was aiming for, but I can hope so.
These gripes are small in the face of the sheer scope of this thing, and its message. It doesn't shy away from pressing at the bruise of the inequality that capitalism and the gulf between rich and poor is a real, cavernous and tangible thing. Yes, this is dystopia, fiction, fantasy. But the attitude that the elite rich have on the poor and lower classes of the society are very real - take the UK's Bullingdon Club, where future Prime Ministers who have wanted for nothing all their lives, as Oxford University students used to commit crime for folly and throw their money around for the damages. If you're not in their club, you don't belong, and you are a bug on their shoe, such is rammed home by Squid Game's Episode 7 'VIPS' - a view that is brought into near distasteful focus.
There's a lot to grapple with - the price of anonymity, the dangerous pull of nostalgia (after all Old Man Villain just wanted to see the shack he was born in, dammit, so what if thousands upon millions die and are incinerated like they never existed) and the chilling line of Front Man, once poor, now elite: 'You bet on horses, don't you?'
Finally, I reject the term this is a K-Drama. It's a world drama. It's an anywhere drama, with a fantastic cast (if a little bereft of other races and equal gender disparity, but hey we did say 'global' it's not as if that's not happening everywhere) it aims to entertain as well as inform, about so many things, from human nature, to the state of capitalism today. I really hope, unlike ReactorCalifornia94Babee, that we can take home it's message and force ourselves to sit with it. They're trying to tell you something. Listen and stop cheering for your team. We're all people, in the end.
Plus, I learned to not overspend. For gods sake, save, save save.
About the author
I am a freelance writer, playwright, director and lecturer from London. Self professed nerd, art lover and Neurodivergent, vegan since '16, piano player since 7 - let's see...oh music, lots and lots of music..