Squid Game, the new Korean survival drama from Netflix, has been more than a decade in the making. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk (The Fortress, Miss Granny) first came up with the idea for the compelling new programme 13 years ago, taking his inspiration from a comic book about a group who were thrust into the midst of an extreme game without their knowledge.
The show’s title might refer to a popular Korean children’s game that uses a squid-shaped board, but there’s nothing soft and innocent about the contest Hwang invites us to be spectators to. A group of 456 contestants is picked out, knocked out in cars driven by gas mask-wearing heavies, and taken to a secret location where they’ll be pitted against each other in a series of children’s games. If they make it through all the games, they’ll get a share of ₩45.6billion. If they fail any of them, they’ll be eliminated. It sounds simple enough – what adult couldn’t easily ace a kids’ game? – but the players soon find out in the most horrific way that being eliminated doesn’t mean returning to their normal lives.
In the first two episodes, we’re introduced to some of this motley crew of competitors who, despite their varied backgrounds, all have one thing in common – a desperate need for money. Some have been the victims of their own greed, others have been exploited. Sae-byeok (played by Jung Ho-yeon) is a North Korean defector trying to make enough money for her parents to also escape to the south. Our main protagonist Ki-hoon (Lee Jung-jae), meanwhile, has lost his job and, subsequently, lost everything.
Squid Game starts slowly as it immerses us in Ki-hoon’s world – one where he has to beg his elderly mother for money to buy his estranged daughter a birthday meal, and foolishly thinks gambling is the answer to his financial woes. Although this set-up plods a little, it’s time spent valuably, opening up Ki-hoon’s layers so we come to know him not just as a one-dimensional down-and-out, but someone who’s caring, kind and generous despite his lack of resources.
By the time episode one comes to an end, though, you’ll be hooked. The sheer callousness of the tournament and the mysterious figure behind it (seen only in what looks like a futuristic take on an Anonymous mask) is gripping, while the events make you question if you’d rather stay trapped in a vicious cycle of debt or risk your life to be set free. The class commentary – here, the rich are literally making the poor compete to climb up the social ladder – is shocking and enthralling, too. It’s not hard to imagine how the prize could turn the players on each other as the finish line gets closer.
“I wanted to create a sense of connection between the nostalgic games we played in our childhood and the sense of never-ending competition that modern adults feel,” Hwang said of Squid Game’s concept last month. In its opening rounds, the show does that brilliantly, infiltrating wholesome activities with the rat race of adulthood in the most extreme way possible.
Squid Game arrives on Netflix on September 17