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The Games People Play

A critique of the Dystopian Korean Tele series Squid Game

A new Korean Netflix series has stormed the Television bastions. The teens, tweens, millennials as well as Gen X and Boomers are watching the series. It has caught the fancy of meme-makers and Tik Tokers. Merchandise and gifts inspired by the series are making waves.  Yes, I’m talking about Squid Game, a Korean series written and directed by Hwang Dong Hyuk about 456 debt ridden people who sign up for a series of children’s games with a cash award of 45.6 billion won or $38 million USD. Its gruesome, its gory, its violent, its dark and nihilistic and set in a Kafkaesque milieu. So, the question that begs an answer is what has made this Korean series universally popular? The series is set in South Korea, an unfamiliar location, the characters are Korean (except for a North Korean defector and a Pakistani immigrant), the games being played are as unfamiliar as the milieu (‘Red Light Green Light’ or ‘dalgona candy’). And yet, it seems to have caught the imagination of viewers, transcending cultural and geographical borders.

There are plenty of theories doing the rounds about the popularity of Squid Game. Some believe that its accessibility has made it popular as it is dubbed in as many as 37 languages. Some believe that it reflects the frustration of a pandemic-hit world where businesses dwindled, and unemployment ratcheted up and so the viewers empathize with it at a sub conscious level. Some theorize that the series is a brutal survival drama that appeals to the animal in man and tears open the underbelly of society. The more serious critics look upon it as a critique of the triumph of unfettered capitalism, greed and inequality over humanity and goodness. Hwang Dong Hyuk’s statement strengthens this theory. He says, “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts extreme competition somewhat like the extreme competition of life.” 

I would go a step further and say that  Squid Game clearly belongs to the dystopian genre. It has most of the characteristics of this genre. The fear of death is pervasive. This fear factor is notched up every time, the ‘players’ are eliminated by the 'workers'.  The night brawl creates mistrust among the players, and they begin to fear each other as well. Nights are spent with barricades around the bed and players taking turns to keep watch. Dehumanization adds to the dystopian setting. The masks worn by workers all the time, dehumanize them. The numbers given to players as a mark of identification, makes them less than human. So, the main protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, is number 456 to his co-players. Oh Il-Nam, the old man dying of a brain tumour, is number 01 and within two days of being isolated, he has forgotten his real name. This devise has been used to good effect by Yevgeny Zamyatin in the Russian dystopian novel We. 

The workers as well as players are bound by rules, they are forced to conform to. The workers cannot speak up before supervisors. They are turned into automatons, directed by a faceless voice over the speakers, to eat, sleep or go to work. The players cannot violate their contract and go back to the ‘real world’. Democratic choices, like the voting to decide whether the game can be disbanded, is a skewed inversion of the voting process of the real world, and the concept of fair and square. Unlike most dystopian works, the inequality between haves and have nots is not highlighted directly in Squid Game but is indicated through the desperate struggle of the characters. Seong Gi hun joins the game to earn money for his mother’s surgery and also to pay off the loan mafia. Sang Woo is running away from the enforcement agencies for fraudulent practices and has joined to earn enough money to ensure his mother’s mortgage is released. Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector, becomes a part of the game to pay a broker money to get her parents across the border.

Also, the fact that the poor desperate denizens are simply a source of entertainment to the cynical, blasé elite, who treat them as pawns on a gaming board, roots the series more strongly in the dystopian genre. This is summed up by Il-nam who tells a horrified Seong Gi-hun, "Do you know what someone with no money has in common with someone with too much money? Living is no fun for them. If you have too much money, no matter what you buy, eat or drink, everything gets boring in the end. At some point, all my clients began to tell me the same thing: that they had no joy in life anymore. So we all got together and did some pondering. What can we do to have some fun?”

The derangement of a society in decline is very evocative of the decline of value systems represented in the Korean film Parasite (2019) directed by Bong Joon Ho, which won the best Motion picture Academy award for its representation of a ‘cacotopic’ world. Like Parasite, Squid Game  is an exaggerated representation of derangement and cataclysmic decline of human values. It is also reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984  and Aldous Huxley’s The Brave New World. This Netflix series is more than just a brutal, dystopian thriller. It is a microcosm of society, albeit exaggerated and hyperbolic.

Squid Game has pieced together the defining mood of the contemporary society, the zeitgeist of a materialistic society that has spawned inhuman greed and the desire to achieve success and wealth at any cost. However, the final win by Seong Gi hun, the archetypal common man, who has not yet sacrificed his sense of compassion at the altar of extreme individualism, holds out the promise of a change, a change for the better. The fact that he does not use his prize money reinforces this belief. The last scene shows Seong Gi-hun changing his mind about going to the States when he sees another debt-ridden fool playing ddakji and being reeled in with money-bait to play the death game. He realises that the deadly squid game has started again, even though Il Nam is dead. He calls the number on the visiting card and says, “I’m not a horse. I’m a person. That’s why I want to know who you people are and how you can commit such atrocities against people.” The compassionate human-being and the thinking and questioning social animal reasserts itself. In this ending, the squid game departs from its dystopian peers.

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