Of the slew of South Korean productions being steadily rolled out by Netflix, one show has imprinted itself firmly in our hearts. Sitting comfortably at Number 1 in Singapore’s Top 10 List, Squid Game is a survival drama series directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, starring Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo and Wi Ha-joon.
The narrative is centred around Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), who struggles through a meagre life with his sick mother. Driven to the brink of desperation, the downtrodden protagonist joins an mysterious game in hopes of beating 455 other players and clinching its ₩45.6 billion prize.
Since its release, Squid Game’s epic universe has rapidly woven itself into the fabric of our pop culture, becoming the inspiration behind nifty marketing schemes, Instagram filters and trendy TikTok content. In light of its phenomenal reception, we delve deeper into the mechanics of Squid Game, breaking down the various factors that make the series so hot.
Spoiler alert: Come back after you’ve watched the series!
Clad in outfits akin to high school PE uniforms, players are thrown headfirst into a succession of popular children games—some native to South Korea, some universally recognised—namely, Red Light, Green Light, Honeycomb Challenge, Tug of War, Marbles, Glass Bridge and the titular Squid Game. These challenges are set against the backdrop of whimsical playground arenas and traditional neighbourhood set-ups. Game sets are uncanny replicas of real life locations. For instance, the design of Marbles game set was heavily influenced by the residential alleyways in the less affluent districts of South Korea. In contrast to the grime of the actual locations, though, the almost too perfect geometric layout and pristine condition of the set lends it a sense of unnaturalness, evoking a sense of unease.
Rather than just evoking bittersweet memories, however, the games plunge our childhood into more insidious waters, where failure results in not just the loss of your bragging rights, but the loss of your life. Viewers are drawn in by the promise of throwbacks, and upon uncovering their sinister spin, stay hooked by morbid curiosity.
Watching the plot unfold elicits a sense of déjà vu, no doubt because Squid Game is reminiscent of other sadistic fight-to-the-death scenarios (see Battle Royale, The Hunger Games and Would You Rather). Such films are an amalgamation of gripping genres—drama, action, thriller, horror and dystopian—which appeal to a large group of target audiences. But if this concept has been exploited over and over again, how does it still work? If such worlds are outlandishly hypothetical, why do they still hit close to home?
The reason lies in Squid Game’s poignant social commentary. The show places normal people under extreme circumstances so as to unveil their base instincts. The Frontman announces that of all the games children play, the Squid Game is the “most violent”, revealing that even the most innocent of us bear the potential for contempt, competition and cruelty. Like it or not, beneath the veritable gore fest and terror is a mirror that confronts us with the ugly side of human nature.
There is much to be said about the state of poverty and Squid Game certainly doesn’t shy away from doing so. The game itself is a microcosm of the characters’ dog-eat-dog reality, simply amplifying their kill-or-be-killed sense of self-preservation on a more visible stage. Similarities between the game and real life are reiterated throughout the show, with contestants debating over where the real “Hell” is. In fact, the second episode sees participants rejoining the game after voting out, realising that even this horrific ordeal is preferable to scraping by in a life of debt and misery.
Let’s talk numbers. On the outside, characters’ lives are weighed down by the exorbitant numbers of their debt, their status dictated by their failure to master the game of numbers in the financial world. When they enter the more literal game, we find that they remain similarly defined: by player numbers. What is meant to promote equality quickly degenerates into a means of dehumanisation and detachment.
Gi-hun navigates most of the games with hesitation and concern for others. This demeanour is overshadowed by his thirst for revenge in the last game. In the fight, his usually open, kind-hearted expressions are twisted into an unrecognisable mask of cold determination and hatred. Gi-hun’s psychological shift when he attacks Sang-woo is reinforced by prolonged, repeated shots of the “456” on his back; he has embraced the identity of a faceless player and foregone the morals and humanity that differentiated him from the other contestants in the first place.
Another element to look out for in Squid Game is how the camera is positioned and moved. The camera often places us amongst the players, yet as the plot progresses, it increasingly highlights our role as a third-party, passive observer. High-angled, slow-panning shots mimic the view of security cameras, and we are frequently transported into the backroom where gamemasters review survellaince footage, effectively reminding us of our voyeuristic perspective.
While we may condemn the VIPs for lounging in opulence and finding amusement at the expense of those desperately clinging to life, the show reminds us that we are no better. During the final play, an over-the-shoulder shot positions us among the VIPs; we become another masked figure watching the sadistic game. It’s a self-reflexive gaze that unrests us when we realise that we too are obtaining entertainment from watching the show.
Such separation between player and watcher is also telling of the divide between societal classes. In the Glass Bridge game, the immense turmoil and tragedy shrouding the players are brutally undercut by the VIPs’ crude jokes and casual banter. The plight of the poor is trivialised, and their comparison to chess-like horse pieces seal their fate as mere pawns in a larger scheme.
The games’ seemingly unbiased rules call to question the state of equality and equity. In the Honeycomb and Glass Bridge challenges, players are given a fair chance to pick their shapes and numbers respectively. This act of blind choosing, however, ties them to certain fates. Just like being born unlucky and poor or blessed and rich, the players have no choice but to work around the inherent burden or advantage given to them, such as having to cut out a more complex shape to getting to go last after a safe path has been mapped out.
In Tug of War, participants get to pick their teammates via a selection process riddled with biasness; those perceived to be weaker (because of physique, age, sex, or lack of connections) are swiftly dismissed. This significantly impacts their odds in surviving a game that is heavily reliant on brute force, favouring the team of strong men made only stronger by their allies—an apt analogy for how the rich get richer and the poor get more so.
Squid Game has no clear victim-villain dichotomy; the real bad guy here is none other than a deeply problematic system, and conflicts reside largely within the self. Even the antagonistic Sang-woo is not evil by nature, but made so by his circumstances. Sang-woo is a victim himself. He is humanised when we witness the acute struggle between his conscience and greed—an achilles heel possessed by all. Instead of resenting him, we find ourselves asking: would I have done the same, wearing his shoes, facing his stakes?
Also, ever wonder where Sang-woo’s glasses went? It’s no coincidence that he disregards them soon after the first game. While he still has them on, he displays redeemable traits such as warning Gi-hun of the timer in Red Light, Green Light and offering Ali bus fare.
In this case, the glasses are symbolic of civility and humanity; their disappearance signals the death of the old Sang-woo and his transition into a man who kills for his own gain. His elegant suit in the final game is ironic—worn in a savage fight by animalistic instincts, the costume mocks the pretense of decorum in high society.
What’s the next game? Who is the Mastermind? What happened to Jun-ho’s brother? The narrative keeps our brains whirling to solve the mysteries embedded in the game. But apart from the suspense, emotions are the bedrock of a good drama and thriller narrative. The writers of the show deftly prod at sore spots and tug on heartstrings. Every aspect of its production, from cinematography and sequencing to costuming and setting, are specifically designed to convey a message and elicit an emotional reaction. Each episode has all the elements of a gripping tale: relationships are tried and ruined, the ones we trust are not who they seem, and characters reveal their backstories or achieve breakthroughs, getting us to empathise and connect with them, only to be brutally terminated soon after.
Squid Game’s poignancy is intensified by its heavy use of irony and parallels. Even the most mundane acts become scary; close-ups of Sang-woo’s mother decapitating a fish, the slicing of bloodied steaks and the flow of blood-red wine at the final feast become tainted with sinister overtones when placed in the context of death and massacre.
Most notably, the show starts and ends with Gi-hun and Sang-woo playing the Squid Game, albeit vastly different versions of it. The comparison between the two games serve to emphasise the gut-wrenching loss of innocence and friendship. Another significant moment comes just before the final game, when Gi-hun chooses a triangle during the coin toss. The camera lingers on his expression, making it clear that he is remembering the second game where Sang-woo too picked the same shape—the first indication of him being less than trust-worthy.
Another parallel we see is Gi-hun betting on horses at the beginning, only to become one of the horses himself in the game. The act of gambling is further parodied when he has to bet on his own life in games of luck such as guessing the number of marbles (fourth game) or choosing his starting order (fifth game).
With that said, it's easy to see how Squid Game became so successful; the series skilfully weaves heavy social issues into a fictional world, creating a narrative that not only entertains but critiques the nature of entertainment itself. Putting the spotlight on human nature and community, the series has become a forerunner in a unique genre of horror—in which fear comes not so much from repulsion, but recognition.
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