“Have you seen Squid Game yet?” is the question everyone’s asking. The wacky South Korean survival drama — the platform’s most-streamed show (in 90 countries, including the US) and is reportedly on track to be the most-watched series in Netflix’s history — was released on September 17, yet its tentacles have already spread across our news feeds (spoiler alerts ahead).
Named after a traditional Korean children’s game, the nine-episode series follows 456 people, all dealing with financial struggles as they are lured to compete for a final cash prize of 45.6 billion won (about $38 million). A business card delivered by an elusive subway-lurker is their golden ticket to play a series of games in a secret location. To begin with they are gassed out of consciousness, ferried by van to a secret island, then filed into multistory bunk beds, clothed in identical tracksuits — like human battery hens for the slaughter. If they lose a game they are eliminated, in a very real sense of the word. Cue industrial quantities of fake blood.
It has become the post-pandemic equivalent of Tiger King in terms of word-of-mouth notoriety, for better or for worse. To give you an idea of the desperation and humiliation the contestants must endure, imagine, as in the second game, a grown man slathering his tongue across a honeycomb cookie (known as Dalgona candy in Korea) as quickly as he can to rally enough saliva to release an intact stencilled-out shape that will save him from a spray of bullets (you break the biscuit, you lose). A less lethal rendition (#squidgamecandy) is trending on TikTok with more than 470 million views.
From tug-of-war across a perilous drop to glass stepping stones that shatter beneath your feet, every challenge is based on a children’s game with a horrifically sadistic twist. With a prize dangled above them in a giant plastic piggy bank, and getting porkier by an extra 100 million won with each eliminated player, this gut-wrenching show is gruesome and gripping.
Visually it’s stunning, although each scene jars. From fluffy clouds to a human-sized doll’s house, each bloodbath has a seemingly innocent backdrop and sinister tinkling soundscape — even the losers’ coffins are wrapped up like delicious chocolate boxes with an elaborate red bow.
While there’s no age recommendation on Netflix’s shows, the British Board of Film Classification has given Squid Game a 15 rating in the UK for “sexual violence references, injury detail, crude humor, sex, suicide, sexual images, violence”. More brutal than The Hunger Games, the series has amassed a significant amount of complaints on social media for its “unnecessary gore”, along with criticism from Ofcom.
“Things that wouldn’t happen in the UK because of Ofcom rules”, the organization shared on their official Instagram account alongside a screenshot from the first episode, and news that a man has been harassed with “thousands” of calls after the show accidentally broadcast a man’s real phone number. Some of its audience think that the age warning should be higher.
It has become the post-pandemic equivalent of Tiger King in terms of word-of-mouth notoriety, for better or for worse.
“#SquidGame is good, but I won’t recommend it to those under 20. It’s too gory,” wrote one viewer, Dan Hanna, on Twitter last week. As the Times TV columnist Hugo Rifkind noted, “There’s an almost Lovecraftian sense of horror” to this “twisted” dystopian thriller — it makes the show a challenge in itself to endure.
The director Hwang Dong-hyuk, 50, explains via a video call from Seoul what inspired this playground horror show. Hwang, who lived in London for seven months in 1996 and says that he liked to pose with a copy of The Times newspaper in his hand “because it looks cool”, reveals that his own humble beginnings planted the seed. “I first started writing the series in 2008, and at that time my family was very poor — we were in a lot of debt,” he says.
Hwang was keen to highlight the reality for Korean families, such as his own, struggling with financial debt, by including a real-life TV news report in the last episode. A news anchor says: “In this country household debt is on the rise, topping the global average. It’s the biggest increase in the world besides China due to lifted government restrictions on financial loans.” Hwang explains that the news report was from a couple of years ago, “so it’s very realistic, especially now with Covid — debt is ballooning”.
The writer-director, who grew up in Seoul, immersed himself in the richly illustrated worlds of comic books and manga to escape his family’s financial burden — he would spend hours in comic-book cafés. “I read comics like Liar Games and Battle Royale [the 2000 film was the main inspiration for the series, following a group of high-school children who are forced to fight each other to the death] and put myself in their shoes. I thought, ‘I would actually want to participate in these games for the chance to win a huge prize. What if we had a game like this in Korea and what would be done differently?’ That’s when I started to think about the series.”
Squid Game has a Darth Vader-type grandmaster known as the Frontman, an ex-cop who is now one of the masterminds behind the game. He styles the cruelty of the competition in a generous light. “These people suffered from inequality and discrimination out in the world, and we’re giving them one last chance to fight fair and win,” he says of the contestants. “Here, every player gets to play a fair game under the same conditions. Everyone is equal.” But of course, equality is never straightforward.
Hwang’s figures of authority declare their fairness, while resting their feet on human footstools, painted in leopard print to match the sofas, and while manipulating the game from a control room that is fashioned like an arcade — the death toll is totted up on a huge digital screen with video game music celebrating each new “high score”.
“The VIPs [masked characters betting on who will live and die from luxurious secret quarters] represent the power elite, the global CEOs,” Hwang says. “That’s why they wear masks of very powerful animals.” He adds: “We live in a capitalist society with a lot of competition, and I don’t think people realize why we’re living this way — we’re just all focused on winning. I wanted to take a break and think about who makes the system, and what we’re moving towards.”
This power dynamic is challenged in episode eight when one character escapes, acquires a weapon and threatens to bring down the whole operation with a call to the coastguard and police, although you’ll have to watch the show to find out how that coup pans out. “Have the Korean police ever been quick to act?” is one of the gunmen’s retorts to this threat, and while a second season hasn’t been officially confirmed, Hwang says that he’s keen to explore the role of the Korean police further in a follow-up because the present season focuses mainly on the contestants.
“While I was writing season one, I thought about the stories that could be in season two if I get to do one — one would be the story of the Frontman. I think the issue with police officers is not just an issue in Korea. I see it on the global news that the police force can be very late on acting on things — there are more victims or a situation gets worse because of them not acting fast enough. This was an issue that I wanted to raise. Maybe in season two I can talk about this more.”
More brutal than The Hunger Games, the series has amassed a significant amount of complaints on social media for its “unnecessary gore.”
One of the contestants at the center of the action is the tough but tender-hearted pickpocket Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector. She is played by Jung Ho-yeon, 27, who is smilier than her character, a big gamer herself (PlayStation is her console of choice) and lauded as one of Korea’s most beautiful women. She starred on Korea’s Next Top Model 4, is a Vogue cover star there and is delighted with the “surreal” success of her debut acting role. Her Instagram following has snowballed in the past few weeks to include more than ten million fans.
“Korea achieved economic development in a short span of time, which is why competition can be more intense here than in other countries,” she explains via a video call from Seoul. Korea’s gross national income per capita skyrocketed from $67 in the early 1950s to more than $30,000 in 2018. She admits that “earning a lot of money and buying a house” is still used as a benchmark for success but that her priorities are changing. “I used to be a person who focused on personal benefit, but after playing this character who puts her family before herself, and seeing her life hold a lot of meaning, I’d like to trust people more and help them out. The most powerful lesson I learnt was to have faith in humanity.”
Meanwhile, as in the series, having faith in Korean emergency services remains a troublesome order. “There was a time when there was a lot of discussion about how people were reluctant to make way for ambulances on the highways — people had a lack of understanding about the role of authorities, that they exist to serve the public. Squid Game expresses hopes for these issues to be addressed and improved.
Squid Game was intended to be a feature film, but after several failed investment bids was reworked into a TV series after Hwang presented it to Netflix in 2018. While he won’t disclose the exact budget, the series was expensive to create by Korean standards, although, he says, its budget was still only a quarter of what an average American series for Netflix might cost.
The 118 shooting days took place predominantly in Daejeon, which is a city in central South Korea. The filming began in May 2020 and ended in February this year, after a month-long delay because of the pandemic — thankfully there were no Covid cases that hampered production. Reuters notes that there have been 2,497 coronavirus-related deaths reported in South Korea since the pandemic began, making the country “the most compelling example” in Asia of how to deal with the outbreak, according to Bloomberg.
If you enjoyed Battle Royale or the Brazilian series 3%, in which Sao Paulo slumdogs compete in “the Process” to win a luxurious new life on the Offshore, this latest survival drama might well appeal, as long as you’re not too squeamish. And it’s not all doom and gloom — there’s puppy love, toilet-cubicle shenanigans and selfless acts of kindness that break up the heartbreak, blood and betrayal.
Squid Game is available on Netflix
Jade Cuttle is the arts commissioning editor for The Times of London and writes about music, literature, art, and television