Squid Game is a visual extravaganza. A vivid nightmare wrapped in anti-capitalist allegory. Seong Gi hun is a man in severe debt, desperate to stay in his young daughter’s life and support his elderly mother. He joins a host of indebted and wretched individuals in a tournament which turns out to be a bloody fight to the death in which contestants are forced to play a twisted version of classic Korean children’s games to survive. The losers are violently eliminated. There are close range sniper shots, knife wounds, brains splayed across the floor and buckets of realistic blood. Far from an easy watch, Squid Game is nail-biting, edge of your seat and whatever other cliches mean fucking terrifying.
Written by Tresca Mallon
Writer and Director Dong-hyuk Hwang began pitching the show 9 years ago and given its contentious content it’s unsurprising that it invariably fell flat in a boardroom. Squid Game takes a not overly veiled shot at capitalism, class systems and the crushing prison of debt. It puts a human face to the desperation of these systems and, using an extreme example, exhibits the lengths an individual may be willing to go to escape them. The wealth-gap is examined as it has been many times before, but this time it is extra gruesome. However, there is a slight loss of momentum in the middle of the final episode. The message of the show is never subtle, it is literally drilled into us with every splattered brain and slit throat. Any discerning viewer would be able to decipher its meaning. This makes the hospital bed scene in which the moral of the story is plainly explained fairly redundant. The addition of this conversation, as well as a few irrelevant and unresolved side plots, somewhat detracts from what is otherwise a sharply written and nuanced script.
Lee Jung-Jae as Gi-hun offers a flawed but ultimately endearing protagonist, who is set apart from others in his cohort due to his inherent goodness. His relationship with Oh II-nam (Oh Yeoung-su), who is equal parts adorable and chilling, is one of the glimmers of humanity in a competition so wholly devoid of it. In contrast to Gi Hun’s naivety is the sharp and conniving Cho Sang-Woo. As childhood friends Gi-hun looks up to Sang-Woo as a University graduate and successful businessman. In reality Sang-Woo is as indebted and damaged as the rest of the players. While Jang Deok-Soo - wonderfully portrayed by Heo Sung-tae - is a more straightforward and murderous villain, Sang-Woo’s noble facade sets him apart as a more complicated antagonist.
Sang-Woo's betrayal of Ali (Anupam Tripathi) is one of the most poignant and depraved moments of the show. Ali is an undocumented pakistani immigrant and his character is a vehicle for the writers to make a comment on the immigrant experience in South Korea and the systemic racism that prevails. He quickly became a fan favourite due to his enduring trust and care for his fellow teammates. However, many, mostly western, commentators have questioned the subservient characterisation of Ali. An assessment of its appropriateness would take an innate knowledge and understanding of Korean culture and race relations - which I do not have. I will therefore revert to this Twitter thread from John Lee, a South Korean commentator who gives his comprehensive analysis of Ali‘s character in a South Korean context, and encourage amplification of South Asian voices in this discussion.
However, it is the women in Squid Game who steal the show. Jung Hoyeon is already a superstar in South Korea and hopefully it won’t be long before she is a worldwide sensation. Her portrayal of North Korean escapee Kang Sae-Byeok is a show-stopper. Despite having very few lines she imbues such a vulnerability into the initially cold and defensive character that she becomes the series’ most rootable character. We get a glimpse into the depth of her trauma in her brief but profound connection with Ji Yeung (Lee Yoo-mi) - whose criminally small amount of screentime is one of the show’s major disappointments. Both women take time to reveal the events in their histories which stole their innocence. Han Mi-Nyeo, on the other hand, is an open book. She is undoubtedly Squid Game’s most fun character, equal parts unhinged and hilarious. She is vengeful, manipulative and sly, beaten down and toughened by life, having learned to use her body and sharp mind as sites of resistance to the oppressive system which has led her to this arena. Min-Nyeo is obviously very smart but never had the opportunity to continue formal education. She is emblematic of the myth of social mobility.
The visuals are a stand-out feature of Squid Game. The extreme dissonance between the brightly coloured sets and the bloody massacres create an the incredible uneasiness. The surroundings which resemble children’s dollhouses, playgrounds and bedrooms contrast the innocence of childhood with the depraved reality of the game. The ominously chilling soundtrack enhances this queasy feeling. The production design ensures a feeling of claustrophobia, trapping the audience in the arena with the contestants.
Everything about Squid Game is uncomfortable, forcing the audience to examine privilege and the systems within which they unquestionably exist. While it is a specific critique of the vast social inequalities of South Korean society, the message is universal. From the shocking, bloody violence to the unnerving interpersonal tensions, the Game is built to make its audience squirm. From the opening scene to the final credits Squid Game grabs hold and doesn’t let go. Prepare to invest in wonderfully compelling characters and then be constantly confronted by the possibility of their gruesome demise.