It was announced today that the phenomenon of "Squid Game", has broke a streaming record for Netflix. Over 111 million views in over 90 countries within a month's time. It’s a statistic that any streamer today would salivate over for its amount of eyeballs, translating into dollars, euros, yen, won - you get the picture. It’s a payday for the streaming giant and it might have people perplexed why a show with such a violent premise is gaining the momentum it has.
If you haven’t seen it, there may be some spoilers below, beware. This series is about a group of down on their luck characters that participate in a series of six kids games to win a large amount of money that would help all their financial debts go away. The rules are simple but not to play by the rules, or finish a game, means death.
As someone with the perspective of being Korean-American and working in the entertainment industry, I can tell you what has been said before about content. The show's success is due to its character plot lines and a story that has been developed in such an accessible way to be consumed by anyone due to its universal themes of class divide, financial woes, loyalty and the basic need to survive. More on this later.
For the Korean cultural element, I am by no means a native Korean but growing up within the culture and having a hold on some of my mother tongue, there were moments that got me. When watching Korean shows or films with subtitles, I usually have an issue with the translation. I hear one thing and read another on the screen and think, why did that go in there? I thought the translation was quite good in comparison to others I’ve seen. But for instance, there was a scene where Sae-Byeok (played by HoYeon Jung) was visiting her brother at the orphanage and she asks him how he is, that was the literal translation from what she said. But in the subtitles she is shown as saying, “How are you little man?” I wondered why “little man” was put in there because she didn't say little or man in Korean at all. Thinking over it, I’m guessing that in watching the scene and the actors interact, it was kind of like - okay what’s going on here? She’s trying to get close to him and putting that phrase in the translation shows it. It is really a minor annoyance I have in translations. You can ignore me on this one, but there have been other times where I will also question similar calls on translations. I would imagine it was to adapt it culturally, as how anyone speaking English would speak and our vernacular. There are certain Korean words that have no counterpart in English and it goes both ways.
These five characters below were my favorites. Each one has a fully fleshed out storyline that is captivating and intrinsically human. The acting and directing was well executed and supported each character arc and goals at the end of each episode and the series overall. My analysis doesn’t do them justice but I do want to point out a few details for each.
In regards to cultural understanding and characters, the one that stood the most out to me was Sae-Byeok. She’s from North Korea and remains quiet and mysterious. Her back story stood out to me as one that may not translate the best in other countries. Her and her brother escaped to the South. Later we find out that one of her parents died while attempting to cross and the other one caught. The translation that may have not come across is in the way others treated her and her demeanor. It’s culture shock coming from the North to the South. Although they speak the same language, it’s also a different type of Korean that’s spoke in the North opposed to the South. She was treated as an outsider at times and she also saw herself as one. Already being betrayed by the country she fled and a broker that she hired to find her parents.
He’s our main character that we follow through the series. A divorced father who lives with his mother and has a daughter who lives with her mother. He gambles and has serious debt with no consistent means of income. Playing the games would help him out of the hole he’s in. We see him with his family and see him petting a cat and feeding it when he literally has nothing. His character starts to build trust with the audience as a nice guy who just hasn’t had a lucky hand dealt to him. Furthermore, his kindness rings true as he is the only one to support and look after Oh Il-Nam (played by O Yeong-Su), tending to him and being a good ally to him.
As Gi-Hun always flaunted Sang-Woo’s achievements around, being their hometown hero, you could noticeably see Sang-Woo slowly growing more exasperated from these comments. Gi-Hun went on about him because Sang-Woo made it to the Harvard of Seoul - Seoul University. Now he was a big-shot in the big city. But his life made a disastrous turn and he’s ended up like the others in the game, regardless of his education. We see someone that is set up to be one of the smartest in the room become the most relentless at winning by any means necessary.
The most unique character and one I’ve never seen before, is the Pakistani named Ali. It is common for foreigners to go abroad to earn for their family and it was an interesting choice to have one in this series. I hate to say, but his Korean is probably better than mine. He was a really strong actor who played humble, loyal and respectful - pillars of Korean culture, to its best standards. His goal was to provide for his family after a factory job gone awry. His kindness and blind loyalty to Sang-Woo at times seems too naive and annoying but in survival mode, I guess anything goes.
He’s a good guy that is getting to the bottom of it all. A police officer by trade, he has the skill and means to put a stop to the depravity that eventually sees. In a twist, by looking for his lost brother, he finds his way to the other side of being one of the Squid soldiers. Through his unique view, we find out what’s really going on behind the mask and the set up of the game.
What allure does this game to death have for over 90 countries? It might seem concerning at first that such a violent series could pique so much interest. But it’s much deeper than that, it’s the message about economic inequality, abuse of power and the need to survive. Themes that hit hard, especially in our current times amongst the covid pandemic and the resulting job and financial strife. At the start of 2020, I myself was focused on just surviving and even became attracted to a shows with that theme, such as the reality show “Alone”, where individuals are placed in remote areas to fend for themselves.
The twists, layers and messages from “Squid Game” makes one entertained and think about the role of money in life and society overall. In the United States, there’s a money and power problem and many die not playing games, knowingly that is. There’s a twist there too for us. Are there VIPs in our own society placing bets on us to see if we survive? It’s dark and maddening to think on, but this provocative show takes us there and we are left to wonder.
If you’re interested in watching, you can go over here to watch. Any thoughts on this or discussion about it - post a comment and let's get a dialogue going.