DON'T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE SHOW IN ITS ENTIRETY. Or if you don't care about spoilers, that is.
Korean entertainment has been rising into a mainstream these past few years, especially with the rise of mediums such as K-Pop, a hip musical genre originating from the country, alongside K-Dramas which are essentially Soap Operas. It seems that South Korea's international appeal only grows by each passing day, gaining more audience members via its dalliances with streaming services such as Netflix. This rise has been marked by the most recent ultra-popular phenomena emergent on numerous platforms, that being 'Squid Game'.
Imagine for a moment, you are down on your financial luck. Through a series of erratic events, you are approached by a shadowy organization and recruited to take part in a series of children's games to earn cash prizes. The drawback is that, unfortunately, failure in a game means your certain death at the hands of the ruthless soldiers the organization employs to enforce their regulations. The setup seems your typical Hunger Games or Battle Royale type-setup, save a few differences that elevate it from a superficial commentary on the dangers of autocratic regimes to a far more introspective gaze at class division: participation is entirely voluntary.
The chief characters in Squid Game consist of deadbeat father Gi Hun, North Korean escapee Sae-Byeok, ruthless intellectual Sang-woo, lovable immigrant Ali Abdul, and finally, a mysterious elder with dementia we come to know as Oh Il-Nam. Ultimately, each of these characters provide their own lens on societal discussion in the terms of both South Korea and international cultures and their seemingly neverending obsession on wealth. Each of these fellows wants the money for a noble reason (save the Old Man, who we'll discuss later). Gi-Hun wants the money to prove himself a proper father to his daughter and man in general to the world, Sang-woo needs it to finance his mother's struggling business, Sae-Byeok wants to finance her mother's safe return from the North, and Ali wants the money to ensure his wife and child live comfortably back in Pakistan.
Each episode (save Hell, in which the contestants vote to leave the game, of course this measure being only temporarily) involves everyone playing a children's game in order to progress onto the next level, with those being 'eliminated' adding to the accumulating pool of approximately 45 million won, enough money to live out ten comfortable lifetimes. Red Light, Green Light, a game in which you have to outpace a doll's audio recording of those words and stop moving when it says it, managed to eliminate more than half of the original playerbase. From then on, the herd continued to become thinned, through games where one has to trim out a shape from honeycomb candy, a brutal Tug-Of-War in which only one team survives, a heart-wrenching Marble Game that sees many of our favorite characters axed off, to hopping on a bridge that contains either tempered glass or normal glass, to ultimately the show's namesake, a Squid Game.
Each game contains its own levels of rising tension and suspense. The whole 'Squid Game' itself more or less becomes a backdrop for the conflicts each character is facing as they struggle to move forward and acquire the money for their own needs. I'm unsure of this is intentional, but the show also adds a layer of classist divide as it progresses with the arrival of foreign VIPs (that are undoubtedly the weirdest part of this whole shebang), the ultimate reveal at the end, along with the divides the players create among themselves as each is determined to acquire that money. The mafia don who acts as the primary antagonist for a while and harasses our lovable main protagonist team is probably the greatest example of those in desperate need for money eating each other alive while the true perpetrators of this unfair class system, the rich, watch on from their gilded thrones.
Speaking of the ultimate reveal, the Old Man being the mastermind behind the games is a rather intriguing aspect to suddenly curveball us. In most stories in which poor people are slaughtered for the amusement of the privileged class, rarely do these wealthy antagonists become personally involved. In the Purge films, the politicians and rich have practical private armies protecting them and partake in strange voodoo rituals proclaiming their superiority over those with no money. In the Hunger Games, the Capitol itself never sends their own children to partake in the bloody battles, using it instead as a method to cow the other Districts. So why did Oh Il-Nam, a man who could've chosen to watch everyone brutalize each other from the peanut gallery, get personally involved and risk a possibility of death? For fun.
It's a really strange world we live in to think that one can be exorbitantly rich or damningly poor and still find similar worldviews on life, that it's "no fun". At the seasons' end when Gi-Hun confronts Oh Il-Nam, he states that life had become a bland series of getting everything he wanted. The best foods, luxury items, vacationing to anywhere on Earth he desired, he'd basically reached the peak of the human experience. Everyone we know wants to be ultra-rich, as money is marketed as the conclusion to all our problems. Yet it's amazing to think that somehow, a man desperate to feed his family like Ali, a woman trying to save her mother from dictatorship like Sae, or just people trying to get out of their deadbeat situations like Gi-Hun or Sang-woo, will see the world in a similar light as Oh Il-Nam: 'no fun'. This message certainly isn't revolutionary by any means, we've all heard mantras that 'money doesn't buy happiness', yet at the same time these messages are contrasted with the constant pushing of the newest IPhones and luxury technologies down our throats wherever we go. It really makes you think...
I also can't complete a proper Squid Game review without mentioning the Pink Soldiers. Their designs are simplistic and somewhat comical to internet circles (being referred to as the "Playstation Guards" by some). Aside from their colorful designs and a sideplot in which they're infiltrated by badass police officer Jun-Ho (who ends up discovering that the game's main enforcer, the Frontman, is his brother), they simply serve the purpose of acting as the faceless troopers that enforce the sick rules of Squid Game. I'm certainly expecting to see a great deal of them this Halloween though, whether in person or through videos on Youtube.
In the end, Squid Game is something I had to experience for myself before buying into the hype, and while I can't agree with the sentiment of it being some kind of godly piece of cinema that reveals our modern dystopian world, I definitely side with the hype-train on this one. It's a must watch, with heartwrenching twists, turns, and memorable moments each episode. 10/10.