Recently, the Korean television series “Squid Game” has become the top-rated program on Netflix in many countries, including Korea. “Squid Game” tells the story of 456 desperate and down-and-out men and women who decide to go through a cutthroat survival game for an astronomical prize: 45.6 billion won, which is about $38.4 million. The problem is that only the final survivor can get the prize money, while all of the others must die along the way.
Behind the game, a sinister organization actively scouts and recruits people who are broke or in deep debt, and tempts them to go through six deadly games to win the advertised money. Adopting the motif of life and death survival contests, “Squid Game” evokes American movie “The Hunger Games” as well as the Japanese film “As the Gods Will” and anime “Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor.” The themes and motifs of “Squid Game” are thereby ready-made for universal appeal.
Despite the resemblance to the above foreign films, however, “Squid Game” has its own idiosyncrasies. For one thing, the six survival games consist of children’s games popular in Korea, such as red light/green light, cutting a shape out of a honeycomb without breaking it, tug-of-war, marbles, crossing a glass bridge and, finally, the titular squid game.
The children’s games are highly symbolic because they imply that life and death competition begins as early as our childhood. In fact, children’s games are good metaphors for adult life, full of inhumane competition, deception and factional disputes.
The drama series also implies that our lives are like a series of cruel games in which we strive to survive. Indeed, the players are from various lines of work, including a gambling addict, the head of the investment team at a securities company and a North Korean defector. There is also a bored elderly man, a gangster and an ex-convict. Even a doctor, a pastor and a foreign worker from Pakistan join the lethal games. The game sites look like a microcosm of our society.
While playing the fatal games, the players frequently lose their humanity and reveal their animal instincts in various extreme situations. In each game, if you want to live, you have to allow your game partner to die or even kill them directly. In order to survive, therefore, you have to deceive, betray or cheat others. In that sense, each game reflects problems easily recognizable in our society, which is plagued by intense competitiveness, backstabbing and dishonesty.
“Squid Game” also recalls Shakespeare’s often-cited lines in “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players. And one man in his time plays many parts.” In “Macbeth,” Shakespeare also wrote, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ that struts and frets his hour upon the stage./ And then is heard no more./ It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.”
If the players’ lives are on stage, there must be an audience.
In “Squid Game,” a rich, corrupt audience known as the VIPs watch the deadly games, enjoying the suffering and death of the contestants. In their eyes, the players are pawns on a chessboard they are controlling.
There are also agents like the Front Man and those who wear a red uniform, who callously shoot the losers in cold blood, faithfully following orders. Meanwhile, the series reveals that the mastermind who manipulates and controls the games is among the players from the beginning, disguised as a player himself. Simply out of boredom, he creates the lethal games that eventually endanger so many people’s lives.
The rule of the game is that if the majority of players want, the game ends in the middle and the players can go back home safely. Initially, the angry players want to boycott the deadly games. When seeing the prize money, however, they become greedy and want to continue the game, risking their lives. This scene indicates the foolishness of the crowd, which is highly contagious, like the behavior of crowds today during the COVID-19 pandemic. The game operators always use such crowd psychology and the lure of money to control the contestants.
In one episode, the management of the toxic games announces, “All of you are equal and thus will be given an equal opportunity without discrimination.” However, it is an utmost irony that the privileged management of the cruel games promises the underprivileged players “equality and fairness.” In fact, what they assure is “equal misery” or “equal annihilation.” The venomous game managers pretend they are saviors of the poor, desperate people. In fact, however, they are nothing but charlatans and murderers. They save only one person in the end, while destroying all other players.
Watching “Squid Game,” viewers come to realize that the drama poignantly reflects the innate problems of our society.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.