Squid Game, despite its rather disarming title, is a culmination of the multitude of “death game” media that has come before it. Think Saw meets The Hunger Games meets The Belko Experiment but thrown into the hyper-capitalist streets of South Korea. Our protagonist Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-Jae) has landed himself into mountains of debt with cut-throat loan sharks all thanks to his intense gambling habit. In order to keep contact with his daughter and pay for his mother's medical bills, Gi-Hun decides to accept a mysterious invitation to a new game show. Unbeknownst to him, this gameshow is perverse modern Coliseum where the world's richest can gleefully revel in the torture of the poorest citizens of South Korea.
While Squid Game sometimes flirts with the “torture porn” qualities of the Saw franchise, it reigns in the gorier aspects, and replaces them with what can only be described as a sequence of emotional gut punches. The enormous intricate set pieces and connecting colourful stairs inspired by M. C. Escher, all designed by the criminally under-appreciated art director Chae Kyung-sun, create a childlike sense of wonder that becomes increasingly twisted as the contestants numbers start to dwindle.
Squid Game’s core cast crackle with individuality, contestants Ali (Anupam Tripathi), Sae-Byeok (Jung Hoyeon) and Ji-Yeong (Yuuki Luna) are charming and lovable characters you anxiously start to root for, even when you know full well the premise of the show. But the greatest supporting character has to be Contestant 212, Mi-Nyeo (Halley Kim). Part anti-hero, part comic relief, 100% chaotic neutral. Her loudmouth rebel attitude, crazed demeanour and concealed intelligence make her a standout amongst the already eclectic main cast (not to mention the 400-ish other contestants).
At the core of the series is a cutting critique of contemporary capitalist culture. While the focus is on problems specific to South Korea, the thematic content is clearly relatable on a world-wide scale. Issues with exploitative lending, gambling culture, privatised healthcare and other emblematic failings of late-stage capitalism are leveraged against those most exploited. It pits the most exploited against each other with the promise of individual class ascension, while the potential of collective action is torn away from them.
Since its debut Netflix’s Squid Game has skyrocketed in popularity, soaring to the number one spot in over 90 countries, and becoming the No. 1 most watched series on Netflix. Ever. Now, while I'm not one to champion the success of a global mega-corporation, I am delighted to see success in Netflix’s global content. I hope this is an influential moment that will spur on this media giant to create more international content and support its creators. I also wait with bated breath on the announcement of a season two, whatever it may look like.