Squid Game is a winning addition to the burgeoning dystopia subgenre

Hwang Dong-hyuk’s visceral and addictive survival series turns playground memories into something sinister.

Squid Game 2021
Squid Game 2021Courtesy of Netflix

Squid Game is available to stream on Netflix

It’s not hard to see why this South Korean mini-series is one of the most watched Netflix shows on the planet. While some of the subtler allusions might fly over non-Korean heads (infographics similar to designs from the 1988 Seoul Olympics, for example), the economic anxiety and class struggle informing the narrative are not just universally relatable, but wrapped in the sort of addictive genre packaging that westerners have already embraced in the work of filmmakers such as Bong Joon-ho (Parasite, Snowpiercer) or Lee Chang-dong (Burning).

Visceral survivalist thrills counterpointed by childhood memories hook the audience as surely as any of Gi-hun’s gambling compulsions, the progressively deepening characterisation holds their interest, and a couple of cunningly interwoven subplots help sidestep repetitiveness. One unexpected tangent in an early episode underlines the voluntary nature of the contestants’ participation, even when they’re aware of the games’ lethal nature, by emphasising the misery of the everyday lives they’re fleeing, as well as serving up some meta-humour as a would-be whistle-blower tries to describe the absurd-sounding plot to incredulous cops.

The opening game, a form of ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ featuring a giant doll equipped with motion sensors, leads to half the field being summarily felled by sniper fire. Seven characters soon stand out from the dwindling crowd competing for a pot of 45.6 billion (roughly $38 million), they include a gangster, an undocumented foreign worker, a North Korean refugee and a man with a brain tumour. Gi-hun, the chief protagonist, is introduced as a hapless loser, but as the games proceed his compassion and generosity establish him as the series’ moral compass amid a patchwork of alliances, betrayals, honest strategies or a readiness to cheat.

Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun in Squid Game (2021)
Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun in Squid Game (2021)Courtesy of Netflix

Squid Game writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk says he was inspired by Japanese manga such as Battle Royale (2000-05) and Liar Game (2005-15), adapted into, respectively, a film and TV series. But the sinister side of playtime can be traced back to the nightmare hide-and-seek from Dead of Night (1945), The Celestial Toymaker (1966) trapping Doctor Who’s companions into playing deadly games of blind man’s buff and hopscotch (all but one of these episodes have been lost), and to films like the British horror-comedy Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970), in which a deviant family murders new “friends” in a playground. Game-playing motifs with added sociopolitical subtext have proliferated in a 21st century new wave of survival-themed fiction such as As the Gods Will (2014) or Alice in Borderland (2020), which in turn can trace their lineage back to key kill-or-be-killed texts such as Richard Connell’s novella The Most Dangerous Game (1924), or Robert Sheckley’s short stories ‘Seventh Victim’ (1953) and ‘The Prize of Peril,’ (1958), all filmed, and casting a long shadow over not just film franchises such as The Hunger Games (2012-15) or The Purge (2013-21), but also game shows, reality TV and video games.

Squid Game also contains hints of the stylised ‘Village’ environment from The Prisoner (1967); prior to each round, contestants are ushered down and along brightly coloured Escher-like staircases and corridors to the piped strains of Johann Strauss II. At the end of each game, bloodied corpses are loaded into pink-ribboned giftbox-like coffins by guards whose uniforms, masks and voice changers not only make them resemble weaponised Minions from Despicable Me, but enable the show to defer the reveal of one of its superstar guest stars, Lee Byung-hun, for maximum dramatic impact (while presumably allowing for a less costly stand-in during the earlier stages). Another guest star, Gong Yoo – familiar in the west from his role as the salaryman protagonist of Train to Busan – plays a smiling salesman who scouts for potential contestants by inviting them to play games of chance.

In a series that delineates its multiple protagonists so elegantly, the one element that rings false is its depiction of a jaded oligarchy that gets its kicks from watching the hoi polloi being tortured and murdered, an anonymous elite already familiar from the Hostel trilogy (2005-11), two Escape Room films (2019 and 2021) and The Hunt (2020). Squid Game’s VIPs are one-dimensional grotesques lumbered with clumsy English dialogue, where a touch more nuance would have sharpened the sadism rather than blunted it. But the series itself is a winning addition to the burgeoning dystopia subgenre, stirring horror, science fiction and social commentary into only the latest manifestation of pop culture’s favourite way of critiquing the dog-eat-dog world of late capitalism.