*This article contains spoilers for Netflix’s “Squid Game.”*
Green tracksuits. Circle, square and triangle face masks. Dalgona candy. White slip-on Vans. In case you haven’t noticed, “Squid Game” has taken over the world. Premiering on Netflix on Sept. 17, 2021, it became an overnight hit, captivating over 142 million viewers in its first month — making it the largest series launch in the streaming service’s history.
Created by film director and screenwriter Hwang Dong-hyuk, the South Korean thriller is named after a popular Korean children’s game from the 1970s and 1980s. The show follows the story of Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), an indebted divorced father and chauffeur with a gambling addiction. He accepts an offer to play an assortment of children’s games alongside 455 players who are also deep in debt and personal misfortune for a grand prize of ₩45.6 billion — approximately $38.8 million.
Six games are played throughout the nine-episode series: red light, green light, honeycomb, tug of war, marbles, hopscotch and the titular squid game — but with a sinister twist. Players who fail to win are killed, each death worth ₩100 million.
Inspiration and Relevancy
The series is praised for its powerful storytelling, outstanding performances, stunning cinematography and substantial social commentary regarding economic disparities. Hwang, who initially developed the script in 2008 when he was experiencing financial hardship himself, desired for the story to commentate on the grip capitalism has on class inequality.
“I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society,” he explained in an interview with Variety. “Something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life.”
The debt crises that characters face in the show reflect the reality for many across the globe. South Korea has the highest rate of household debt in Asia, accounting for over 100% of its GDP. One of the most striking testaments to the country’s class divide is that the net worth of the top 20% is 166 times larger than the bottom 20% — a gap that has increased by half since 2017.
“Squid Game” is amongst other recently globally-recognized South Korean productions that utilize themes of wealth inequality — most notably Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 feature film “Parasite” — providing sharp commentary on socioeconomic disparities. Perhaps the reason why so many around the world resonate with the series is its portrayal of economic despair and the subsequent desperation to get out of it, the nail-biting suspense of the games or watching in horror as the VIPs bet on human lives for entertainment.
However, it is arguably also the authenticity of the characters that instigate such a connection. They are not hyperbolic caricatures of people, but rather actual people, who we encounter or could encounter in our lives. This was Hwang’s intention, as some characters were inspired by his childhood, family and personal experiences.
Gi-hun, the aforementioned protagonist, is a kind-hearted man who was laid off after working at an auto factory for over a decade. He tried to start his own business but failed multiple times. He also struggles to financially support his daughter, owes millions of won to loan sharks and lives partially off his elderly mother, taking the small amount of money she makes as a street vendor and gambling it away. He participates in the games to pay off his debts, hoping to make amends with his estranged family.
Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-Soo) is a childhood friend of Gi-hun’s and seemingly has his life together — except he’s living his own lie. After graduating at the top of his class at university, he worked as an investment banker before stealing money from his clients and losing it all in the stock market. He preserves his cleverness and rationality as a defense mechanism, despite being in just as bad a situation as the rest of the players.
Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-Yeon) is a North Korean defector who enters the games to get her younger brother out of an orphanage, pay a broker to rescue her mother from North Korea and buy a house for her family to live in. She refrains from trusting anyone to protect herself in the games. Arguably one of the most beloved characters in the series, her resilience, intuitiveness and distant demeanor showcases her fight for both financial stability and social inclusion — a feat she is determined to overcome no matter the circumstance.
Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi) is a Pakistani migrant worker with a heart of gold — making him a quick fan favorite. Despite his hard work, he is stuck in a cycle of discrimination, labor exploitation and poverty after his employer refuses to pay him for months. He enters the games to provide a better life for his family. Being one of the youngest and strongest within the cohort of players, his selflessness makes forming alliances easy — allowing others to guide him through the competition, albeit naively.
It took “Squid Game” over a decade to be picked up and made. For 13 years the concept of the show was deemed unrealistic to producers, but over time, Hwang’s idea didn’t seem too far-fetched anymore. Stock market exchanges, real estate and the rise of cryptocurrency demonstrate how millions “play games” to win money, along with how millions more work tirelessly to make ends meet.
The enormous success of the series also illustrates the increasing global recognition of non-Western media, music and film. South Korea’s influence on pop culture continues to grow, breaking boundaries by showing how a good story transcends cultural and language barriers. “Squid Game” is not only a show about survival, but also the rippling effect of human nature.