Squid Game: Review

Warning: Contains minor spoilers!

I’m lucky that I started watching Squid Game on Netflix before the hype really kicked in, because otherwise I might never have watched it at all. You see, to me hype is an active deterrent that has prevented me from watching a lot of shows that I would otherwise have probably liked and enjoyed. Nothing makes me less inclined to watch a TV show than multiple people insisting ‘you must watch this!’ but fortunately with this show that wasn’t a problem, because I spotted it early on and thought ‘ooh, that looks interesting’, only becoming aware of the hype later. The fact that a South Korean TV series has become such a global phenomenon is quite extraordinary – but not surprising, because in these days of cookie-cutter streamed content, it really does stand out.

Thematically similar to Kushun Takami’s Battle Royale (and by association, its American rip-off The Hunger Games), but with a hint of The Prisoner, writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game tells the story of deadbeat divorcee Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) whose chronic gambling debts leave him estranged from his 10-year old daughter and unable to pay the medical bills for his elderly mother. After a humiliating encounter with a man on the subway, he is invited to participate in an undrground series of large-scale children’s games with a life-changing cash prize at the end of it. Of course, the games are not as innocent as they first appear and after the first round of Red Light-Green Light (more or less what we’d call Statues in Britain) at least half of the contestants are dead, gunned down for failing to keep sufficiently still.

The deadly games continue and Seong Gi-hun forms alliances with other contestants – childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), pickpocket Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) and impoverished Pakistani immigrant Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi) – though these prove to be easily broken as the contestant numbers dwindle. The games are cruel and bloody, but not gory, as the sensation-mongering British press would have you believe; this is not the cheap blood-for-blood’s-sake gore of Saw or Hostel, but something altogether more thoughtful. As dreadful as the games might be, none of the contestants are being coerced to participate against their will or as any kind of legal punishment but have chosen to take part because they are all in crushing amounts of debt.

This is where the Korean sensibilities of Squid Game differ from what it would have been if it had been made in the United States. In America, you can almost guarantee that the motivation for the contestants would have been greed rather than desperation. Although there’s substantial poverty in the States, they like to think of themselves as an affluent country and the idea that contestants would face potential death as a means of vastly increasing their personal wealth is more palatable to the American media than any acknowledgement of that poverty. Squid Game pulls no such punches; even the nominal ‘bad guy’, gangster Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) is subject to crippling amounts of debt that his associates are prepared to kill him for. The fact that the contestants are given the opportunity to leave after the first game and choose not to, shows the level of desperation on display here.

Alongside the fight for survival of the main characters, there is the subplot of a young cop called Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) who infiltrates the mysterious island on which the games are taking place, partly in the line of duty and partly in search of his missing brother. The staff and managers on the island are all masked, so he is able to pass unnoticed among them by stealing the uniform of one of the guards. Along the way, he uncovers an organ-smuggling ring being operated behind the back of the management, but this is closed down (in typically violent fashion) when the head honchos find out. It’s an interesting development, because it shows that in any intrinsically untrustworthy organisation, you will always get someone working for their own gain without the knowledge of their superiors.

The design of Squid Game is extraordinary, both for the costumes and the sets. The tracksuits worn by the contestants and the shocking pink overalls worn by the guards are destined to become iconic and the impressively large sets echo everything from playground games to Minecraft. Hwang Dong-hyuk takes the interesting directorial decision to shoot everything in the outside world in washed-out, overcast colours, whereas everything on the island is shot in bright, sharp colours. It’s as if to stress the childhood innocence of the games (before they become deadly), whilst showing that the debt-ridden outside adult world is dark and miserable. As horrible as things are on the island, we’re almost told that the real world is worse.

The ‘deadly game’ concept of Squid Game is not an original one; you can trace it back as far as 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game via The Avengers episode Game, Death Race 2000, The One Game and any number of films and TV shows, BUT it is presented in a very original way and scarily convincing way. You can watch the movie version of Battle Royale or The Running Man and never be convinced that those events could ever take place, but Squid Game is different; the sheer desperation of large-scale debt could actually drive people to accept such desperate measures and political events of recent years have convinced us that there are extremely wealthy people out there who can get away with doing exactly as they please without impunity… and even rising to the highest levels of political power in the process!

When a group of super-wealthy VIPs turn up in jewelled animal masks to watch the game live, they are very pointedly Western in original.. I wouldn’t say that Squid Game is anti-American, but it definitely seems to suggest that the Korean viewpoint of corrupting wealth has a decidedly Western face. The most financially and morally corrupt of the VIPs (and the only one to remove his mask) is from the American South – make of that what you will. Don’t be thinking that there’s a lot of politics in Squid Game though, because although it does comment on the state of society in South Korea (the country has a genuinely worrying personal debt problem), it does so with subtlety and doesn’t ram it in your face the way some serials would.

Squid Game is exactly the sort of serial that works incredibly well on streamed TV channels, because it frequently delivers a gut-wrenching cliff-hanger that leaves you with no choice but to watch the next episode. One of the episode endings (I won’t tell you which in case you haven’t watched it) will leave you screaming ‘NOOOOOOO!’ at the TV, before instantly hitting the button to play next episode. It’ll keep you guessing at every turn and it wonderfully unpredictable throughout all of its 9 episodes. If you’re not a fan of subtitled TV and film, I’d recommended trying to get over that aversion because you’ll really be missing out – and if you’ve been avoiding Squid Game because the Daily Mail described it as ‘gory’, just ignore that bullshit because if you’ve seen the first 10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, you’ve seen far worse.

I’ve not seen a great deal of South Korean film or TV (apart from 2003’s Natural City, of which I’m a big fan) but on the basis of Squid Game, I’d be happy to see more. Apparently, Netflix are keen on a second series, because the first has been such a massive international hit, but Hwang Dong-hyuk says he’ll only do it if he can think of a clever way to continue the story. I can entirely see his point, because although the series leaves itself open to a continuation, I think it would be unwise to carry on as just another round of the game. However they do it, I look forward to another series of Squid Game, because its freshness and uniqueness make it one of the best series I’ve seen in years. Thank goodness I got to it before I read the hype, that’s all I can say!

‘Squid Game’ is currently streaming on Netflix.

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