Netflix’s biggest hits to date have been solidly middlebrow fare with a contemporary twist: Bridgerton, The Crown, Lupin. It’s surprising, then, that its all-conquering new success is an ultraviolent South Korean thriller laced with social satire.
Squid Game isn’t just the Battle Royale/Hunger Games rip-off that its premise suggests. Instead, it combines cartoonish brutality with provocative digs at a society in which the acquisition of status has become all-important. This is served up in an addictive, cliffhanging format, which allows the audience to gasp in surprise at each new twist, even as the net tightens inexorably on its hapless protagonists.
Although it seems inevitable that there will be an American remake at some point, it would be a brave showrunner who created a lead character as hapless as Seong Gi-hun, played with a mixture of pathos and absurdity by Lee Jung-jae. Gi-hun is an archetypal loser, but he begins the series committing acts that make him hard to root for, whether it’s stealing money from his ailing mother, gambling away the cash that should be paying for his semi-estranged daughter’s birthday dinner, or running away from the mobsters that he owes a vast amount to.
As Abba put it, it’s money, money, money that has become the guiding force in Gi-hun’s world, and so when he’s offered the chance by a mysterious man on the subway to make a fortune if he’ll participate in a series of games, he doesn’t need a great deal of prompting. And then things go horribly wrong.
Squid Game comes at an apposite time, which explains much of its success and acclaim. It follows in the footsteps of 2020’s Oscar-winning South Korean film Parasite, which featured a similar mixture of edge-of-your-seat thrills and blackly comic satire. Both focus on the inequality of wealth that exists in contemporary South Korea, and which has led its citizens to increasingly desperate and compromising activities in order to survive.
Although some of the more baroque twists and revelations within Squid Game verge on the ridiculous, the central criticism of unfettered capitalism and the dehumanization of society’s citizens is a universal message. Whether you live in Seoul or San Francisco, the world is overrun with poverty and despair, and no politician or magnate seems to have any solution to ameliorate matters.
Meanwhile, the wealthy don’t just get richer, they turn themselves into conglomerates. In the 1976 media satire Network, the messianic channel controller Arthur Jensen declares, ‘There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.’ Today, this is even truer than it was 45 years ago. The Musks and Bezoses of this world have greater wealth and influence than most countries could ever dream of possessing. They find their echo in the masked controllers of Squid Game, coldly overseeing the random deaths of the competitors while professing their humanitarian credentials.
One of the most chilling, and repeated, lines is ‘We are simply here to give you a chance.’ It’s a superficially seductive but disingenuous solution to the woes that humanity faces today, and the most chilling conclusion that you can take from Squid Game — itself, of course, produced by one of the world’s largest corporations — is that there would be millions of people who would participate in such a game, whatever its consequences. Because if the choice is between a fast, unpleasant death at the hands of strangers, or slowly losing every scrap of dignity and humanity in an uncaring society, sometimes the unthinkable no longer seems so unacceptable.
That is the greatest achievement of Squid Game. Amidst the cliff-hangers, twists, and intrigue lies an angry political message that cuts through with a vigor that few other forms of entertainment can muster.