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What Squid Game’s fantasies and harsh realities reveal about Korea

A Korean filmmaker breaks down the themes of Netflix’s runaway hit.

Squid Game, featuring Oh Yeong-su as the Old Man, is a runaway hit on Netflix.
Youngkyu Park for Netflix
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

By any measure, Netflix’s Squid Game is a runaway hit. The Korean drama-slash-horror series about a battle royale conducted via children’s playground games — think Red Light, Green Light or tug of war but with a lot more blood — debuted on September 17 and became an instant sensation, rocketing to the top of Netflix’s most-viewed releases and generating memes across social media. After barely three weeks on the platform, Squid Game has not only become the most popular Korean drama in Netflix’s history, but it’s on track to surpass Bridgerton as the most popular show in Netflix history.

Squid Game’s success is such a fantastic payoff for Netflix’s decision to invest $500 million in Korean entertainment in 2021 that it is causing the company’s stock to boom. That might be somewhat ironic given that Squid Game is all about socioeconomic divides, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the desperation of Korea’s financially destitute class of laid-off workers.

Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk came up with the idea for the show after years spent reading manga and manhwa (Japanese and Korean comics, respectively) with similar themes, including the influential horror satire Battle Royale, which kicked off the contemporary trend of ensemble casts battling each other to the death in elaborate high-stakes gaming arenas. He paired these concerns with the Korean entertainment industry’s ongoing interest in the socioeconomic plight of a growing number of downwardly mobile workers, once solidly middle class, who’ve found themselves forced into lower-paying jobs due to Korea’s changing economy and decreasing reliance on industry.

That plight applies directly to Squid Game’s main character, Seong Gi-hun. Gi-hun is a divorced dad who worked at an auto factory for years, was laid off, tried to open his own business, failed, and now lives with his elderly mother while working as a chauffeur. When we first meet him, he’s stealing what little money she earns from working at a market stall and racking up a hopeless amount of debt through gambling.

Gi-hun’s desperation makes him a prime target for a mysterious organization that offers him a chance to win a massive amount of money — ultimately around $38 million in USD — by playing a series of games with a group of other people, with deadly consequences. As the series progresses through its nine episodes, his drive to win the game allows him to shake off his downtrodden malaise, though he also struggles to retain his humanity despite the game’s most dehumanizing effects.

With a plot that mingles satire and melodrama, Squid Game is also arguably allegorical, using its themes and characters to navigate the impact of capitalism on modern society. While it lacks the “prestige drama” veneer of other well-received Korean narratives about class divides and capitalist waste — think Snowpiercer or ParasiteSquid Game has all the characteristics of a typical Korean drama. K-dramas have become hugely popular and well-known for delivering tight, twisty, genre-savvy series in bingeable formats, often with a double dose of intense emotionality and socially conscious themes.

Combine all that with Squid Game’s capitalist critique and the easy accessibility of a show on Netflix, and you have a recipe for a hit. Squid Game memes have overtaken wide swaths of the internet, reactions to the show are everywhere, and international viewers have taken to analyzing how faithful the localized subtitles are to the original Korean. By any stretch, given the number of Americans who scoffed at the thought of reading subtitles for Best Picture-winning Parasite less than two years ago, Squid Game’s immediate cultural ascendancy is an arguable win for international media. And while the show’s high levels of violence might mean many people steer clear of it, its status as a major hit means its repudiation of greed and classism are worth understanding.

To help me unpack how all of these factors manifest in a show about children’s games that can kill you, I turned to Kyung Hyun Kim, a filmmaker and professor of visual and East Asian studies at the University of California Irvine. We discussed his initial revulsion at the show’s premise, how American and Korean storytelling tropes tend to diverge when characters are facing death, and how Squid Game taps into South Korean socioeconomic anxiety. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Spoilers for Squid Game follow.

So what was your initial impression of Squid Game?

When I first started watching it, I was disgusted because it felt to me a violation of a certain kind of an innocent memory that I’ve got. Hwang Dong-hyuk, the director and writer, is basically the same age as me. Hwang is 50 years old. I came to the US when I was age 9 or 10, so I remember all of these games that are featured in the drama. I know my memories are very fond and intimate, and then to use it in such a violent way — not the violence itself, because I don’t get scared with the gory and bloody stuff — that felt to me like a violation. Of a certain kind of, I dunno, fondness and intimacy that you built surrounding these games.

I suspect the director wanted to evoke that kind of response.

Yeah. That’s the intention, right, that there is a certain notion of innocence that is being trampled upon. You can’t let go, you still cling on to those memories, and I think these memories of your youth and innocence are now obviously kind of permanently stained. So there’s that. But I get it. The end [of the series], I think, is trying to tell a moral tale that is probably not that different from something like Parasite that is basically a film that tries to critique the effects of new liberal capitalism and the violence and the ruthlessness and the cruelty that is associated with it.

And it tries to allegorize it, you know, in a very simple metaphor, maybe more simple than Parasite. [The symbolism of Squid Game] seems pretty mappable, easily malleable. The first game they play, the marbles, all of those games have a diverse set of variations in other cultures as well, probably so that you can easily translate. So in some ways it’s more accessible than Parasite.

I think that’s a major reason for the show’s appeal.

Yeah. I think this is interesting for a number of reasons. I’ve written about Korean game shows in the past — more specifically, Korean variety shows that deal with game culture. You have a long history — some of it is an offshoot of Japanese television. Infinite Challenge was the most popular comedy variety show that existed in Korea for over a decade; Running Man is another one. I don’t know if you know these shows.

I’ve seen episodes of them here and there. It seems as though shows like these — Running Man, for example, has a different sport or game challenge each week — are drawing on the huge popularity of Korean gaming culture in general.

[Shows like these have] been absolutely popular, not just among Korean fans but overseas fans. [Typically, Korean creators] actually create comedies, not horrors and not necessarily soldier dramas, out of these children’s games. [Producers have] tried to transpose [gaming culture] into game shows and comedy variety shows. And [the shows have] gotten so much better all around the world. So maybe that was a precursor, I think, to this particular drama that uses some of the genre elements of black comedy and satire. Squid Game is not Running Man, it’s not Infinite Challenge, but there’s so much overlap that I think it illustrates Korea’s penchant toward making creative use out of children’s play or games. That’s had a long tradition, far before Squid Game.

And then the other thing is obviously the social element. Korea is a country that has been really prosperous if you look at some of the economic indicators. It’s a country that is associated fully with the economic miracle on the River Han [which represents the triumphant rapid growth of the country’s free-market economy]. It’s a small country, yet actually it lifts above its weight class in terms of output for export numbers, GDP per capita. But it also has the highest suicide rate in the world by far. The numbers look more grim each and every year. Fertility rate dipping lower and lower — it’s 0.8 births per woman. I mean, it’s ridiculously low.

What that tells me is that [South Korean socioeconomic anxiety is] not just about economic woes and polarization of the classes. Yes, it’s that, but there is also an extreme kind of shame associated with being poor and being a failure to the family and to the community. And that’s why so many people are not having children, which is basically as cynical and dystopian as you can get.

Korea has always been hegemonic and monolithic in terms of race and politics. Korea insists on itself being “one blood” — this rite of blood [that many Koreans] still insist on in determining what it means to be Korean. It’s ethnic criteria that is far more important than how long you’ve been [living] there in the country and so on and so forth. That’s another factor that that bleak dystopian sense of shame is built around — Korean society really has fueled this sense of desperation and anxiety that I think is part of the picture of Squid Game.

When I was watching it, I felt like these were games that were being presented as sort of a bygone relic. Obviously the characters were nostalgic for their childhoods too, but I almost felt like there was a sense that these were games that modern children don’t play anymore — almost like they’re sidewalk games, but because of the changing culture we don’t really have a need for sidewalk games as much anymore.

I do think that they still play a little role — obviously not as prevalent because online games are far more popular in now. And 20 years ago, we didn’t have as much. So there’s that. But the other thing is: Why are we fond of these games as a culture? It’s because we enjoy playing the game. Not because of the outcome of the game — who knows who won, right? Americans are a lot more fixated on board games [where] the outcome is so important, and that’s not childhood. I have a 9-year-old, and when we play any kind of board game, or even marbles, she gets really sad when there is a decisive winner.

Because you don’t want the game to end, it’s about the play. The Old Man, Oh Il-nam, wanted to go play the game himself. I’m wondering how you felt about that twist, that he’s the one who’s most nostalgic for the purity of these childhood games, but he’s also the one who’s manipulating them and using them to destroy other people.

That, to me, was the best part of the drama. As I told you, I was upset in the beginning. Once I got to the end, I was like, ‘Okay, this is the writer-director’s vision. And I think he did achieve that sense of melancholia, if you will — that we’ve lost, in some ways, our ability to enjoy the game. That comes with capitalism, too. Our sense of enjoyment shouldn’t necessarily be about the outcome, which is, you know, how much money will I be paid? That shouldn’t be it.

That’s what the Old Man was saying at the end, given his speech about how the very rich and the very poor all have the same inability to care about what’s next. He couldn’t really even enjoy his mastery over the game. It’s almost like he’d fallen so far down the well of capitalist exploitation that he couldn’t even enjoy this thing that used to give him pleasure as a child unless he was using it to exploit other people.

Kind of a sick way to justify it, but whatever, you kind of have to buy into its logic. Obviously it’s not realism.

Many of Squid Game’s characters are satirical, including him. Not only is he the mastermind behind the game, but he also wants to be able to dabble and play in the experience without actually having to deal with the consequences, which is almost a caricature of an exploitative rich-person mentality. I think some of the other characters come across as more satirical than others.

I think many of them are stock characters. The gangster was, I felt, really flat — the guy with the tattoo, you know, he has to be the bad guy. There’s not much you can empathize with, so he deserves to die and of course he’s the murderer, blah-blah-blah. Several characters fit into that mold. Even the main character, Seong Gi-hun, seems to be a little bit of stock. Korea has gone through democratization. So he was aligned with a labor movement, a union movement. That’s why he is empathetic, and having too much empathy drove him to his downfall. His friend even tells him, “That’s your flaw.”

If you know Korean dramas and Korean society, you’ve seen him before, you know he’s way too generous. That’s the reason why he’s suffering. Then obviously, that twists and turns. And although that was the reason why he failed constantly before he was admitted to the Squid Game, ironically that’s the reason why he wins, because [his empathy] earns the sympathy point from the Old Man.

That’s why his mom dies also, because his kindness couldn’t save even his mom.

There was also so much emphasis near the end of the show on him saving Sae-byeok’s mother from North Korea, but he didn’t get to do that either.

Yeah. But it’s hard. There are certain things money can buy and there are certain things one can’t buy, right?

I thought it was interesting, too, how the show emphasized the cultural differences between the two girls as they were talking in episode six. Because Sae-byeok is a North Korean escapee, she can’t understand all of Ji-yeong’s pop culture references and so forth.

There’s also that self-referential joke about Lee Byung-hun [during that scene]. She makes that joke about the mojito. Lee Byung-hun is the Korean actor — he’s known even in Hollywood. And he’s actually the guy behind the mask. She says, “Don’t you know that line Lee Byung-hun has about drinking a mojito in the Maldives?” [In the 2015 film Inside Men, the joke is that Lee’s character gets the two reversed.] And she says the actor’s name.

On one level, that whole speech from Ji-yeong is the classic “character about to die” monologue. But on another level, Ji-yeong doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she’s one of the most moving characters in the end. Many viewers really seem to relate to her. But she also represents the mentality that you’ve been talking about, with younger people in Korea feeling despair about the future and deciding not to have children. She has her whole life in front of her, yet she sees her life as pointless. I’m wondering how you think that would read to Koreans, given that there are such high rates of depression and suicide.

The whole point of Squid Game in some way — especially that scene, where you feel as if they have accepted death, right? — is derived from that kind of sense that there’s nothing I can do once I figure out that I’m going to die. At the end of this game, I’ve got a clock ticking — a lot of American thrillers and action films try to go to the other direction: I’m going to try to spend the last 30 minutes of my time getting out of death that has been impinged upon me. Right? That’s the American way. If you’re going to waste your time yapping away about having mojitos at the Maldives or going to Jeju Island, you know, you’re crazy.

But I always felt that this kind of fatalism, if you will, is what drives certain Asian narratives, including [acclaimed Japanese author] Murakami Haruki. It’s kind of exciting — it’s the other energy. You’ve got three minutes to live, and the whole point then is not to defy death but to accept that. And then you can live your life, even those three minutes, fully, and seek a certain kind of friendship, and then even go have this fantasy in the “land of peach blossoms.” That’s a famous landscape painting from the pre-modern Joseon era. Koreans still talk about it as this fantasy land — and you can go there, it’s possible, because you can actually relax. Because you feel as if this is not something that is defined. Life and existence and your identity shouldn’t be defined necessarily by the finitude of death.

The two girls talking while their clock is ticking, and having that sense of leisure, [all while] knowing that your final seconds are ticking away, is a certain kind of aesthetic beauty.

How does the idea of Sae-byeok’s fantasy destination, Jeju Island, fit in?

Jeju Island is a special place in Korea because it does look more tropical. Squid Game referenced that a little bit. But it’s still within Korea. So Ji-yeong is like, “Come on, you gotta think big.” Because being in Korea, in some ways, is always a restriction. Koreans feel, in terms of their identity — geopolitically and maybe geographically — a sense of claustrophobia. Because it’s a peninsula, supposedly, but you’ve got the 38th parallel above, above, above, which means that it cannot be crossed. There’s no conjoined land that gets you anywhere. Yeah, sure, there’s Siberia and, you know, China and Russia, you can ride the bus across the border, but you’ve got to get through North Korea to get there, and that’s closed off.

So [for a lot of people in] South Korea [there’s been] a sense over the last 75 years: Wait a minute, we’re just stuck on this island. It might as well be an island — a very small island at that, you know, the size of Ohio, no place to go. So you’re gonna dream of being in the land of peach blossoms, right? To go back to that modern fantasy reference. What she’s actually getting at is: You gotta dream big — you gotta dream bigger than Korea.

Squid Game is streaming on Netflix.