It seems every newspaper and magazine has an article about Netflix’s newest sensation, “Squid Game.” And for good reason. It’s compelling, addictive and emotional; well-acted, written and directed. TV like this doesn’t come along very often, so watch it while you can. So what is it about, and why should you tune in?
Written and directed by Dong-hyuk Hwang, this South Korean 9-part series centers on Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a deadbeat dad, who because of a gambling problem hasn’t paid child support or alimony, and at 47-years-old, still lives with his mom, who, despite ill health, continues working to help pay the bills. If you watch the first episode, you will probably find Seong Gi-hun so unlikeable that you will want to abandon the series. But don’t make that mistake. Keep going. You will be greatly rewarded.
The first episode, Red Light, Green Light, sets up the show’s premise pretty quickly. After Seong Gi-hun steals his mother’s bank card, withdraws money from her account, uses it to gamble, and loses it all, he’s desperate for cash. Waiting for a train, he meets a sharp dressed man (Gong Yoo), who challenges him to a game. With an opportunity to win back some of his lost revenue, he plays, but he’s horrible at it, and he gets slapped senseless as his punishment. Before leaving Seong Gi-hun, bloody and bruised, the sharp-dressed man gives him a cryptic business card with a circle, square, and triangle on the front and a phone number on the back. Eventually, Seong Gi-hun calls the number. After he agrees to certain terms, he gets into a vehicle with several other people, is gassed, and taken to an island, where he and 455 other contestants find themselves in a life-and-death game for incredibly large winnings, by my calculations about $40 million. The only trick is — he has to find a way to survive to the end. (Nearly half the contestants die in the first game!)
If you aren’t familiar with certain types of East Asian cinema, you might find yourself breathless by the end of the first episode. It might even “shock you.” In fact, for the uninitiated, the rest of the series might be upsetting. The violence is pervasive, and the characters are sufficiently loathsome, especially a violent gangster (Heo Sung-tae) who is a card-carrying slap-around-and-abuse women misogynist; he’s a guy you will love to hate. All the contestants have financial and personal problems; the majority have nothing to lose.
I didn’t find “Squid Game” “shocking,” but that’s because I got into the darker side of East Asian cinema more than 20 years ago. It might have started with “Ringu” (1998), which is probably the most famous example of the J-Horror craze. But along with this lighter fare, there were several well-known “unwatchable” disturbing films that were talked about by Asian cinema aficionados, and although some were Japanese, primarily anything by Takashi Miike, a lot were Korean. (The Vengeance Trilogy by Park Chan-Wook is still rough going 16 years later.) I won’t go into a long dissertation on the films of this era, but after watching “Squid Game,” I immediately wondered if it wasn’t inspired by “Battle Royale” (2000), which is about a future Japan in which the government controls its young people by choosing a ninth grade class, taking them to an island, and then having them battle to the death until only one student is standing. (I’m convinced that “Battle Royale” also inspired “Hunger Games.”)
The premises might be similar, but the emotional impact of “Squid Game” is infinitely higher than “Battle Royale,” maybe only because the former gets nine hours to make you care about characters, and the latter has only 115 minutes. Even if you hate Seong Gi-hun early on, you will be completely on his side a few episodes in. He’s made a mess of his life, yes, but at his core, he’s a kind and decent person. Lee, who is a huge, prolific star in Korean cinema, was perfectly cast. He effortlessly takes the audience through emotional ups and downs, and, by episode six, Gganbu, your heart will feel like it has been torn out of your body and stomped on. You might even feel traumatized. What I love about Squid Game is that it isn’t like a lot of K-Drama, which manipulates your emotions by showing traumatized children or women bawling. (It still gets me, but I always feel like my emotional response wasn’t earned.)
The entire cast of Squid Game is stellar and of the highest caliber. Park Hae-soo plays Cho Sang-woo, a much lauded and admired “success story” who escaped his poor upbringing to attend the prestigious Seoul National University and to become head of an investment team. Unfortunately, he took a lot of risks on stocks and “futures,” putting his mom’s business and house — as well as embezzling from clients — up for collateral, and now he owes a monumental debt. He’s more desperate than most. As big a creep as he is, I liked him throughout. Ho Yeon Jung plays Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean who escaped with her younger brother. She’s trying to earn enough money to get one of her parent’s freed, and her brother out of the orphanage. At the beginning, we see she’s a pickpocket who was in an abusive relationship with the gangster. This traumatized woman has serious trust issues. (Her story probably affected me the most.) Anupam Tripathi plays Abdul Ali, a sweet-natured Pakistani who has been working undocumented for no wages for six months. He has a young child and wife, depending on him. He befriends Cho Sang-woo and becomes part of the “good guys’ team.” Oh Young-soo is Oh Il-nam, probably the most pull-your-heart-strings-until-you-can’t-take-anymore character. He has a fast-growing brain tumor, which means he doesn’t have long to live. He plays the dangerous game, because he has nothing to lose. The relationship he forms with Seong Gi-hun is endearing and helps reveal our main character’s “true heart.”
Kim Joo-ryung plays the gonzo Han Mi-nyeo, a single mother who can’t remember her own kid’s birthday. She’s a manipulative train wreck with low self-esteem; she’s willing to do anything to save her own life and win. As much as you dislike her, she’s very entertaining — she has an outlandish sequence in the bathroom that has to be seen to be believed — and she does something in episode seven, VIPS, that was one of the most satisfying moments I’ve ever experienced watching a TV show. I literally cheered! Lee Yoo-mi plays Ji-yeong, one of the minor characters who had a huge impact on me. She gets considerable screen time in episode six, Gganbu, acting in some powerful scenes with Kang Sae-byeok. You will not come away from that episode with dry eyes. It won’t happen.
For a TV series about down-and-outers risking their lives for a huge prize, “Squid Game,” which is named after a Korean children’s game, is a high-end property. It attracted really big names, including Lee Jung-jae; the super famous Lee Byung-hun, who you might even know from his Hollywood films, including both G.I. Joe films, “Red 2” and “Terminator Genisys”; and my personal favorite Gong Yoo, who is in my favorite zombie film, “Train to Busan.” The writing is so good; so affective. As mentioned, the series is incredibly addictive; it contains many twists and turns, and it takes you on an emotional rollercoaster. I can’t recommend it enough. It might be hard to believe, but the hype is real.
There is a hint that a season two is imminent, and I hope it happens. I also hope that Hollywood doesn’t remake this, because if they do, they will remove all the emotion, cast a bunch of models, and make it cookie cutter garbage. (Hollywood remade a bunch of East Asian films and did a crap job on all of them.) I also beg you to watch Squid Game with subtitles. I know, I know, you hate reading. You get distracted reading. I have heard bad things about the dub, but then dubbed versions of anything are always awful. Read. It’s better. Plus you get to hear it in Korean, as it was intended, with the actors real voices.
If you don’t have Netflix, and I know it’s been disappointing for a while, Squid Game is one strong reason to order up. Also, you will want to know why everyone is wearing red suits and fencing masks decorated with triangles, circles, or squares for Halloween this year. If you are so-inclined, get in the know. This show is must-know pop culture.