There is that silly yet theoretically profound philosophical question you are always asked at some point — if you live in a world where you can either be the oppressor or the oppressed, where your actions, whether vicious or virtuous, have no karmic payback, who would you choose to be?
If you choose to be the oppressor it implies that you act only in your best interest, and if you choose to be the oppressed, no one believes you. In a world where virtue signaling and virtue are so mixed up, how to know what is true from what is performed?
Squid Game on Netflix gives this theoretical question a practical incarnation. It is a marvelous investigation of the pits. 456 people in the throes of bankruptcy or being pummeled by loan sharks are given a life raft — they can participate in a series of games. The participants includes Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), a money laundering investment banker, Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a North Korean defector, and Ali Abdul, a migrant from Pakistan — the sole South Asian presence on the show to poke at the country’s racist proclivities — played by Anupam Tripathi who has been seen on many K-drama shows and movies, often in unnamed side characters — Ode to My Father (2014 — remade as Bharat), Space Sweepers (2021), Hospital Playlist (2020).
[T]he show wants to be taken so seriously as an allegory, it forgets to be anything else.
The games themselves are versions of childhood frolic — simon says statue, marbles, carving shapes from caramelized sugar, tug of war. If you win, you get 45.6 billion won ($38.5 million). If you lose, you are eliminated.
To be eliminated — a word so violent, yet so commonly applied to mean violence metaphorically — is not just to lose the game, but to lose your life. But you are not told this before you walk into the first game, Red Light Green Light, a version of statues. You see the first person who loses being gunned down, blood pooling around the mouth, and the gravity of the game strikes. The first realization you have — to play this game you will have to put your life on the line. Is it worth the potential pay-off? Over time, another realization strikes you — to win this game you have to put someone else’s life on the line. Is the pay-off worth the guilt? The games increasingly test the strength of companionship — are you willing to kill your friend, your wife, your husband, your companion, if it means you win. The moral dimension of these choices shines through, and you cannot enjoy this show but as an allegory.
1988, Capitalism, Class Conflict
We find out that the games have been taking place since 1988. That was the year Korea hosted the Summer Olympics — the last Olympic Games of the Cold War era, before the engine of capitalism took over as the sole proprietor of history and civilization, lock-stock-barrel. It is a significant date, for Squid Game has political provocations folded in. For example, the history of auto-worker strikes, violently dampened by the police, is referenced here. Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), the main protagonist, a gambling addict, a chauffeur, a divorced man who is fighting for moments to be with his daughter, mentions the strike he was part of, haunted by the image of his friend being fogged by teargas and bludgeoned by the baton. Is this why he looks so haunted and defeated all the time?
It has been argued that South Korea’s fascination with class-based storytelling comes from the sudden spurt of haphazard but striking growth in the post-war decades. The best work to come out of Korea, K-dramas notwithstanding, in the past few years have been Parasite and Burning, both of which took a sharp scalpel to the class divide. Squid Game’s writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk, too, folds himself into the tradition, noting in an interview with Variety that he wanted “to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life.”
The pretense of equality, of merit, of a “level playing field”, of consent, of fairness are all laid bare here. The Front Man constantly reiterates that the game is set up to be equal, that all the players consented to be here, that the rules are the same for everyone, that if a majority of them wanted, they could vote to end the game, following which all the prize money will be distributed among the family of those deceased. But we realize the equality is a farce. Because what do we do with equal rules if the bodies it lays claim over are unequal? The show slams such dishonesty, the distracting vocabulary of the capitalist.
Subtitle Issue Or Writing Problem?
But the show itself, with 9 hour-long episodes, however, has an over-serious laboured pacing. Scenes stretch beyond the point they have made. The stillness doesn’t have that meditative or profound quality, because it has nothing to offer. Often, there is a comedic track in the middle of a scene where people are being shot. A tonal whiplash.
The assortment of characters are only a summation of their dialogues and their circumstances, anesthetically rattled out through dialogues — this one has a brother that needs to be taken care of, that one killed her abusive father, this one has loan sharks strangling him, that one is drying of a brain tumour, that one’s mother has diabetes. This is perhaps because the show wants to be taken so seriously as an allegory, that it forgets to be anything else.
The silence, of which there is a lot, stagnates the story. The conversations feel important but sound banal. It is possible, as has been pointed out on Twitter, that the subtitles don’t really do the writing any justice, and that they shred essential dimensions of the character. Like the word ‘gganbu’, which the show translates as “we share everything”, when it actually means “there is no ownership between me and you”. Look at the two options, and how they almost contradict each other. To share, it has to be yours. For it to be yours, it has to be owned. That ideological potence is shattered, flattened.
But it can’t just be a subtitle problem. For towards the end of the show we get these gluttonous, garbage white characters in ill-fitting masks (so they can sip flutes of alcohol). They are watching the games take place as entertainment, gambling on the possibility of the players surviving. Their dialogues, in English, are so badly written, with a crass obviousness — lots of 69 jokes — that is hard to either make fun of or take seriously. Even the final reveal — when the show is supposed to take the rug off from under you — has such a muted execution, with grating dialogues, odd shots of clocks, a homeless man, and stale silences, it doesn’t bring the drama to the surface.
Flashy Set Pieces
There are, to be fair, sensational stretches of drama that prevent the bloated show from completely collapsing. The juxtaposing of classical music (Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube waltz) with contemporary gaming creates the disorientation they were going for. Like Murakami’s jazz bars in the midst of total psychological breakdown. It is eerie, the dolls, the masks, the bright, flat colours, and sharp edges, the stick figure paintings on the walls, like the primal cave paintings of Altamira or Bhimbetka.
I don’t think we have or will ever see the kind of set design and scene blocking of the tug of war sequence with the two teams at an elevation, the rope suspended mid-air between the two sides. The losers of the game, like a human caterpillar, holding onto the rope, are suspended mid-air till the rope is snapped and they all fall to their death. There is also a striking emotional intensity to the scene where the characters walk away from someone whom they have tricked, or someone who has lost the game for them, backs turned to the bludgeoned brains of the sacrificed.
It is perhaps these moments that have caught the eye of the Netflix subscriber. Squid Game is the first South Korean show to hit the No. 1 on Netflix’s top 10 TV show list in the United States. It was also the only show to hit that No. 1 spot in all 83 countries Netflix is in. According to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, Squid Game is fast becoming the “biggest non-English language show in the world”. Netflix, which offers subtitles in 37 languages, and dubs in 34 languages, has made the crossover appeal that much more viable. SK Broadband, a Korean internet provider, has sued Netflix to pay for costs from increased network traffic and maintenance work because of a surge of viewers. The meme machine, and the Gong Yoo thirst trapeze is running overtime. The actors are amassing, literally millions of followers, overnight. Pop up stores are opening up in Paris where visitors can play the games they are playing on the show, without their life or their love on the line. Like an uptick in Chess board sales, post the sensational success of The Queen’s Gambit, another all-flash, no-fun offering.