Squid Game Review: Ruthless, Violent Yet an Entertaining Satire
The creator of Squid Game, Hwang Dong-hyuk, claims to have lost 6 of his teeth during the filming of the series. The whole process was so intense that it burdened the director with humongous stress, resulting in severe physical effects. He had taken the sole responsibility of writing and directing all the 9 episodes of the survival drama series, and in addition to that, he had also assumed the role of the producer.
The effort and the sacrifice seem to have paid off. Squid Game is now the most-watched Netflix show in almost 90 countries, a landmark achievement for a Korean drama series. It is viral in memes and Tik-Tok videos. It is a topic of everyday conversations.
Squid Game is the raging pop-culture sensation of the present.
The Netflix series is unimaginably violent, ridiculously dark, and emotionally compelling in unexpected ways. It builds upon familiar territories (Think ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Battle Royale’ with a slight dab of Bong Joon-Hu’s ‘Parasite’) and provides a gripping, original narrative.
The horror of the first round of the Squid Game sets in.
The story follows Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae), living with his mother, who still treats him like a child. He has a daughter with an ex-wife, both of whom are planning to move far away from Gi-Hun. He has a job that does not pay much. He is too deep in financial debt, from which there seems to be no chance of him surviving. To make things worse, he is hunted by deadly loan sharks. So when a mysterious man (Goong Yoo) at the train station offers Gi-Hun a chance to participate in a game that could give him a life-changing amount of cash, Gi-Hun readily agrees. Squid Game comprises 6 children's games, including the titular game, but with a twist: Anyone who fails is shot dead. Gi-Hun is joined by 455 other contestants from all across Seoul, South Korea. All of them are deep into financial debt and are looking for a way out of it.
The contestants vote to end the Squid Game.
Squid Game presents a harsh, biting satire on neo-liberal capitalism. The contestants of the game are stripped of their individuality and reduced to the numbers on their costumes. Their own identity is of no value. To the wealthy VIPs, the contestants are entertainment. To some workers of the organisation, the contestants are a good source of organ harvesting. They are there to serve a purpose, irrespective of the fact that they are killing themselves in the process. If this extreme cruel capitalist joke is not apparent, then the game takes a step further. It provides the contestants with the illusion of choice to the contestants. If the majority of the contestants agree to opt out of the game, the game is called off. In fact, in the second episode, after the horror of the first game descends upon the participants, the game is indeed called to an end on the majority vote.
This echoes the hollow philosophy of neoliberal capitalism, which regards the freedom of businesses as more important than state intervention. This system preaches that the government should design its policies so as to support the growth of private businesses. It does not matter that, for this, the government has to cut down on its welfare schemes or make policies that go against the interest of the larger public, like you and me. We, the common public, are expected to learn how to be self-reliant (Does ‘Aatmnirbhar’ sound familiar?). We are expected to have the power to choose our own fate. Our life is our responsibility and we should not depend on the government or anybody else for support. Because, if this philosophy is to be believed, when we are driven to pursue our own goals, we end up benefitting the market and the society at large also.
Obviously, this philosophy is highly flawed and the series shows this. When the game is called to an end and the contestants return back to their normal lives, they find themselves struggling. Gi-Hun needs money to treat his mother’s life-threatening diabetes. Cho Sang-Woo (Park Hae So) is riddled with life-crushing debt and has put his own mother’s shop on lease. Sae-Byeok (HoYeon Jung), who has fled from North Korea, has to look after her mother and brother. They have no choice other than to return back to the game. The reality itself is so bleak that a competition of life and death seems far more attractive. But the game makes it feel like that all of them are there, on their own will.Watch Dune on Prime Videos
The amusing irony here lies in the way the mysterious organisation claims to help these people by getting rid of their financial debts. It is very clear that the people behind these games are rich and powerful. They have the ability to help all these contestants financially without actually getting them involved in such a deadly game. But no, they want them to participate and “earn” the prize.
Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae) is frustrated upon not being able to buy a gift for his daughter in the first episode.
The writing here is impeccable and, it's evident in the very first opening sequences of the first episode itself. We see a poverty-stricken Gi-Hun living with his mother. He steals money using his mother’s ATM card, bets the money on horse races, wins a surprising 4 million won, becomes ecstatic, calls his daughter, promises her to buy anything she wants, loses the money, is chased by the loan sharks, and comes close to having his nose ripped off. There is a sense of uncertainty. There is always a looming threat of danger. We are given a fleeting moment of happiness and stability, but there is no telling how and where the plot will take that away from us later onwards. The series follows this storytelling style for the rest of its course, increasing the stakes and making it more and more violent. It is in this way that the series surprisingly provides far more enticing and satisfying plot twists on a smaller scale than the two grand reveals towards the end of the series.
In fact, the two big reveals fail to deliver the expected emotional punch, merely playing it for shock value. It leaves us unfulfilled. Hopefully, the creator will acknowledge this in a possible season 2.
The VIPs with the Front Man watching the final round of the Squid Game.
The writing weaves this fast-paced thriller and dystopian aspect of the series along with interesting character dramas. The latter helps to increase the emotional weight of the scenes where characters die or get “eliminated”. The major contestants have been given proper attention, and their relationships between themselves are well-established. There is a side plot of detective Joon-Ho (Wi Ha-joon) who is investigating the disappearance of his brother. His character lends a different yet enthralling point of view as he goes about his covert mission. There is not much to the workers, the Front Man, and the VIPs, but it works to keep the mystery of the games as well as the organisation.
(Left to Right) Choo Sang Woo, Seong Gi-Hun and Sae-Byeok.
This writing is further strengthened by commendable acting performances. Lee Jung-jae draws us to Seong Gi-Hun with his charming smile and his friendly demeanour. The actor makes the character loveable with his natural charisma. He is also adept at portraying the inner destruction of Gi-Hun as the series progresses. Park Hae So also delivers a masterful performance as the calculative and scheming Choo Sang Woo. Ho Yeon Jung, in her acting debut, gives an equally powerful performance as the North Korean defector Sae Byeok. As and when the role demands, she seems to fluidly transition between the cold, distant Sae-Byeok in the games to the caring Sae-Byeok to her family and close alliances.
The guards on their patrol, at the start of the second round of Squid Game.
The production design is another strong aspect of the series. The striking visuals of the brightly coloured walls and doors within the arena of the games seem to conceal the horror and brutality of the competition. It stands in vivid contrast to the violence that happens inside it. We do feel uneasiness when we are introduced to the masked workers, the eerie-looking mechanical doll, and the later game sets. This uneasiness is further heightened with the haunting soundtrack.
Overall, Squid Game is a violent, dark, and an oddly entertaining satire on new age capitalism. It warrants at least a one-time watch.
Watch the trailer here.
Author Biographical Note: Ritwik Jay is a recent graduate of MA Literary Art Creative Writing, Ambedkar University, Delhi. He is currently based in New Delhi. He is associated with Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an Editor.
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