"Essentially we all live in the same country called capitalism," Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho had said in a 2019 interview, expressing awe over the global, multicultural, boundary-breaking success of Parasite.
That year, Parasite – which Bong had envisioned as a quintessentially South Korean story, rooted in specific South Korean cultural contexts of class tensions, socio-economic divides, and the futility of the quest for climbing social hierarchies – had conquered not just the international film festival circuit, but had penetrated the mainstream cinema stratosphere in way few other non-English language films do, much less a non-English language film from a non-Western country. Two years later, and another piece of South Korean media is now penetrating the very same global mainstream stratosphere – becoming the subject of memes, inside jokes, Twitter thinkpieces, and most importantly, large-scale viewership that transcends geographical bounds. Netflix's Squid Game, where 455 down-on-their-luck contestants are lured in by a mysterious organization to compete for a prize money of 45 billion won (roughly 280 crores in INR). Except, the plot twist is – they are battling it out over children's playground games, and if they fail even one round, they are immediately murdered.
Earlier this week, Netflix announced that Squid Game is on track to becoming its most watched show in any language ever, beating out Regency romance drama Bridgerton to top Netflix's drama charts in 82 of the 83 countries where the streaming service is available. And yet, much like Parasite, Squid Game too seems like a story quintessential to South Korea – not only in terms of the culture-specific children's games referenced on the show, but the themes of poverty, desperation, class tensions, all playing out in ways that resonate within a certain social context. After all, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea experiences a significant income gap between its richest and poorest classes – the top 20% of the population earning more than five times as much as the bottom 20%. In light of this, it's no surprise that class consciousness plays such a significant role in South Korean art and media, underpinning not just narratives that are blatantly about the class divide, but also narratives that might explicitly not be. While Parasite and Squid Game are intrinsically thematically linked in terms of their exploration of the desperation of the poor, their extreme exploitation by the rich, the hollowness of the 'pull yourself up by the bootstraps' ethos, other South Korean cult classics like Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Train to Busan, The Host, and even the recent Netflix film Space Sweepers, all have significant class commentary embedded within them even when their main premise don't revolve around class.
But Parasite and now Squid Game's global success is proof that perhaps, this underlying class sensitivity is no longer simply a South Korean cultural phenomenon. Perhaps, as Bong Joon Ho had put it, we do all live in the same country called capitalism, and no matter where we are, these notions of the class divide, the economic struggles of the poor, the cold indifference of the rich, are universal. Especially in the aftermath of a global pandemic, which has left countless people across the world without livelihoods, which has triggered a global economic crisis which we are still all grappling with, a show like Squid Game, which highlights the terrifying lengths economically impoverished people would go to simply for the promise of financial security, is perhaps all the more relevant.
In Squid Game, the spectrum of economic backgrounds and struggles the contestants come from are indeed vast. There is the show's main protagonist, Seong Gi Hun (played by Lee Jung Jae), a gambling addict knee-deep in debt, a failed father to his seven-year-old daughter and a failed son to his old, ailing mother; Cho Sang Woo (played by Park Hae Soo), the former head of investment at a securities firm who is wanted by the police for stealing money from his clients; Kang Sae Byeok (played by Jung Ho Yeon – the breakout star of the show), a North Korean defector who is desperate to extract her parents from across the North Korean border and give her younger brother a happy home again; and Ali Abdul (Indian actor Anupam Tripathi), a Pakistani migrant worker who faces constant xenophobia at work and hasn't been paid by his employer in months. There is also Oh Il Nam (played by Oh Seong Su), an elderly man with a brain tumour; Lee Ji Yeong (played by Lee Yoo Mi), a young woman who had been convicted for killing her abusive father; Jang Deok Su (played by Heo Sung Tae), a gangster with past gambling debts; and Han Min Yeo (played by Kim Joo Ryoung), a woman who claims to be a single mother and is willing to constantly lie and cheat to win the game.
They are all, in one way or the other, victims of a system where the inequalities are too extreme to conquer, are thrust within a larger framework of a game show which is an elaborate metaphor for how they literally need to "kill to survive" to come out the other side as a billionaire. And in fact, their inner demons, their inner bloodthirsty monsters, are dragged cruelly to the surface as they continue trying to survive within the game. Loyalties are as easily destroyed as they are formed, conniving strategies are made, moral dilemmas are constantly wrestled with.
Episode 6 of the show is particularly masterful (and equal parts devastating) in highlighting the extremity of each of the contestants' desperation, as well as the concentrated pathos of each of their predicaments. Over a game of marbles, the contestants realize that neither can survive without killing the other – regardless of the class solidarity found within someone who shares the same class struggles, regardless of the mutual kindness and support shown to each other – and this very game of marbles climaxes into a moment of no return for each contestant, taking them into truly murky moral territory. In the very next episode, sharp contrast is offered in the form of the complete apathy and callousness with which the rich people (who are orchestrating the whole game) treat the contestants. To them, watching these poor people fight tooth and nail, give up their morals, become monsters, just to win 45 billion won is a sport, is like betting on a horse race. To them, these poor people are completely subhuman, completely stripped of their dignity, of their personhood.
(Parasite too touched upon similar themes – how members of the disadvantaged class can end up resorting to tearing each other apart just for a chance at upward social mobility, how the rich are as detached from the realities of this class struggle as ever.)
It's intriguing, how this message has translated for an international audience, and how it has played out in multiple social contexts. In India, for example, having a Netflix subscription is in itself a class privilege (given its cost), and yet, the show has been firmly sitting at the #2 spot in India, second only to Thalaivi. Can commentary on capitalism and the class divide finally become the thing that unites the world's taste in media, or are we watching Squid Game from the lens of the 'VIPs' – the creators of the aforementioned Squid Game – and simply deriving sadistic pleasure from watching a bunch of desperate people play children's games to win money?