Quarantining at home all too often and incapable of relocating anywhere away from the sofa... I hear you. Conveniently, now you have even more rationale to extend the isolation blues thanks to the ultra-popular South Korean drama/slaughterhouse. And oh, just in case you wanted to debate its popularity, it only became the most watched show in Netflix's history recently, but nice try. So, what's the fuss all about and is it really worth it? Let's unpack it...
A throng of people who are largely in debt up to their eyeballs, get recruited to partake in a set of death-defying children's games in the hope of winning a ridiculous amount of cash that only you or I could ever dream of owning. The series' protagonist, an impulsive gambler and amusing individual named Seong Gi-hun, has to form strategies and alliances in order to survive the game and win the fortune. At the same time, ***SOMEWHAT OF A SPOILER*** a cop on the inside trying to infiltrate the game is searching for his brother.
At this point, it's worth mentioning that the show is not an all out violent bloodbath starring brainless characters with a frail storyline. Far from it. As a matter of fact, large chunks of the story are told outside of the killing arenas and gaming location and away from where the VIP's get aroused at the sight of human gore… and other things. Additionally, the storyline itself has enough twists and turns to keep you engrossed and definitely isn't just some senseless survival horror the whole way through. When contestants aren't getting put to the sword, the series does a wonderful job of exploring some deep transgressive elements as well as examining particular human traits and behaviours that begin to spawn when the chips are down. And to no surprise, it all generally comes back to one core thing - money.
A catalyst for a calamity
Swallowing the weight of guilt and admission that the tag of failed father is hanging over your head is probably an unfortunate concept that is all too common amongst the male society. There is an old saying - drastic measures call for drastic action, and for those privileged enough to have children, this appears to ring true if anything attempts to complicate family matters or sees you estranged from them. The result can be an emotional violation, causing extreme behaviour. And that's what we see unfold here in Squid Game as we observe the main character battle the issues of having a daughter living under the roof of an ex-wife who is making preparations to relocate to the United States with her new partner. Indeed, it is difficult to visualise a worse state of affairs than one that sees you getting ripped away for your own offspring. Compounding this would be a struggle to meet your end of the bargain, such as the leading man having a total disregard for his own daughter's birthday. Enter gambling addiction.
Dyeing your hair red for no apparent reason or guzzling Soju alone out the front of a convenience store or may be on the very minor end of outlandish actions in response to dealing with such a crisis, but voluntarily taking part in a human-killing marathon in the form of a children's game so you can financially fund and care for your daughter more adequately is not. Don't get me wrong, Seong Gi-hun is not portrayed as a bad guy. He actually comes across as a gentleman, somebody with a placid nature who looks out for others, and we see these humanistic qualities shine through concerning his soul-stirring relationship with Oh ll-nam, better known as "old man" - a chivalrous elderly man who urinates on himself.
These two aren't the only characters that we get to inspect either. We also get a glimpse into the tremulous life of a North Korean defector who is on a quest to get her brother out of an orphanage and her mother away from the perils of North. There is the highly intellectual, headstrong and borderline psychopath contender who lacks a single moral bone in his body and and my personal favourite, the snake-tattooed gang member with a seemingly large bounty on his head for the debt he owes to other crime bosses. This character gives zero fucks about anybody and too has his share of mental health issues, albeit a different kind. There's someone for everyone.
Perhaps in some form, we can relate at least a little to the predicaments that these characters go through. Again, the fundamental basis for the actions we see on screen all come down to financial hardships. At some point in our lives, we have all been able to connect and sympathise with this subject matter. The interesting components to examine here are the results of navigating through such a depressive plight. Decisions get made either in a logical or emotional way where in a perfect world absent of deprivation, perhaps one or the other would get left at the door more often.
A balanced assessment
As sadistically brilliant as Squid Game is, it is not the perfect show. No show is.
I praise the dialogue, applaud the depth of characters and story and salute the Tarantino-esque carnage, but I wince at the Front Man subplot. Perhaps I missed something there, but I don't fully comprehend his existence and why he does what he does. He also comes across devoid of possessing any feelings whatsoever. But yes, to avoid sabotaging it for you, I'll shut up now. Adding insult to injury is the omission of a good ending too, which I scowled at. A potential missed opportunity, although you can bet your bottom dollar a season 2 will be in the works to connect the tantalising dots.
I am being a bit facetious here because the pros far outweigh the cons by the length of the Nile, even if you hold daft opinions about minor league issues with Korean-to-English translations courtesy of the subtitles. Irrespective of how you feel about the production, there is no denying the themes of seclusion, separation, and inequality which features heavily throughout. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it's that the human spirit when pushed to its limits is capable of ineffable chaos. And that perhaps is worth the viewing in itself.
Drop your dinner plans and skip your daughter's ballet recital this weekend (just kidding) and do yourself a favour - grab a copy of the sublime Squid Game and surrender yourself as it wraps its tentacles around you. You'll be hooked like a game of Red Light Green Light.