Are you not entertained? Squid Game and the poor as playthings on screen

Korea's bloody mega-hit isn't the first to set society's few against its many

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid Squid Game so far, allow us to introduce you. It’s the smash hit, high-concept, misanthropic South Korean drama on Netflix, in which the poor, debt-addled and disenfranchised are used as pawns and playthings for a one per cent who are no longer capable of compassion or empathy.

It’s the latest in a rich screen history of the poor being used as stooges for gilt-edged sociopaths. Yet it is very much of our time, an analogy of the invisible rich, highlighting the class divide, a dystopia distilled into an unsettling juxtaposition of child’s game and battle to the death.  It’s no real surprise then, despite being a subtitled drama (you didn’t watch the English dubbed version, did you?) that Squid Game is now Netflix’s most streamed show ever, recently overtaking rumpy-pumpy, corset-popping-fest Bridgerton.

Named after a Korean playground game, Squid Game was filmed in and around the city of Daejeon in South Korea, a relatively new democracy, where the growing disparity between the haves and have nots has been all the more obvious due to the accelerated transition (see also the brilliant Parasite). It speaks, however to a wider section of society which feel ignored, put-upon and ever more out of step with the lives of the elites. Despite being in Korean, poverty is an international language. If you haven’t seen it? Well, imagine a drama where Charlie Brooker has written the script and it’s been directed by Wes Anderson – a very pretty chocolate box, but the soft, strawberry fondant centres are laced with arsenic.

lee jung jae squid game stills netflix 20210930
Lee Jung-jae in ‘Squid Game’. CREDIT: Netflix

The carefully selected players – all with heavy debts and money problems – are placed within a complex where they have to negotiate inflated, nightmarish versions of childhood games as they are eliminated. We were going to say ‘one by one’, but sometimes, many fall at once – in a big bloody pile of twisted limbs. Think of it as a macabre Crystal Maze. The winner leaves with a seriously life-changing amount of money, though not quite as much as it initially seems once you’ve checked the Korean currency exchange rate on Google for the fifth time during the first episode.

The desperation of the dispossessed being used as diversion and entertainment, Squid Game is the most recent, highly successful, iteration of this device employed by TV and film. It follows in a rich tradition of the likes of Black Mirror: 15 Million Merits, in which Daniel Kaluuya’s character, a numbered drone, looks to poke his head above the parapet by entering a reality TV show which, in turn, diverts the masses from being human generators; The Hunger Games, a post-apocalyptic future in which candidates are chosen to fight to a televised death; Death Race 2000, a brilliant B-movie, more appreciated as time has passed, based in a dystopian (that word again) society in which the murderous Transcontinental Road Race has become a form of national entertainment to pacify the population. Then there’s the ultimate example (bear with us): Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

A bunch of desperate wannabes – some on the breadline – being put through their paces by a rich, enigmatic, and sadistic businessman, only to be picked off one by one in incredibly violent ways and disposed of by a semi-enslaved group of workers. One, who will inevitably repeat the cycle once he has reached retirement age, emerges victorious, to be awarded with a gilded cage. That Roald Dahl really knew what he was doing…

‘Squid Game’ writer-director considers sequel: “If I were to do it, I would certainly not do it alone”
‘Squid Game’ is currently Netflix’s most-streamed series ever. CREDIT: Netflix

And it is compelling, it speaks to something inside us that comes from the same place which transformed us into baying mobs during the audition stages of The X Factor, or when we actually gave a toss about Big Brother (which comes from a novel set in a dystopian… oh, never mind), screaming in blind rage as Jade Goody was hauled out of the house. What Charlie Booker, Suzanne Collins, Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk et al all realise is that this sort of narrative speaks to a very primal place deep inside us – where our binary sense of right and wrong is satisfied, where our poverty porn itch is duly scratched, and our sadistic side is darkly indulged from the safety of a comfy sofa.

Hell, maybe The Crystal Maze wouldn’t have been axed if contestants had been killed instead of locked in. One to think on, Channel 4.

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