From Hollywood’s The Hunger Games to Japan’s Battle Royale, plenty of cinematic endeavours have explored survival games. Filmmakers typically couch these narratives in dystopian contexts, relying on totalitarian governments (or other fictional institutions) to account for the existence of such brutal competitions. Netflix’s Squid Game, however, eschews a futuristic or fantasy setting because the world we’re living in already feels like a dystopia of injustice and inequity. And after decades of watching ordinary folks willingly compete in demeaning reality shows for fame and riches, viewers no longer require outlandish explanations for the humiliations of this subgenre.
Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game takes place in contemporary Seoul where 456 struggling strangers are invited to participate in a mysterious survival competition. The competition consists of a series of traditional South Korean children’s games, but with deadly twists. The winner stands to win a hefty ₩45.6billion, while the losers will be executed. We first follow Ki-hoon (Lee Jung-jae), a sad-sack middle-aged man brought low by retrenchment, business failures, divorce, and a gambling addiction. Faced with an ill mother in need of surgery, the prospect of losing his daughter, and threatening debt collectors, Ki-hoon sees the shady competition as his only hope out of despair. He’s picked up, drugged and brought to a secret island compound by masked guards in hazmat suits.
Once the terrifying games begin, we’re introduced to a whole host of other people in similarly dire straits. From exploited Pakistani migrant worker Ali (Tripati Anupam) who hasn’t been paid in months, to North Korean defector Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) who lost her savings to smugglers, every character we meet feels like they’re backed into a corner in the real world. Ki-hoon is even surprised to find his childhood friend Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) a fellow contestant, a man who he assumed was a successful businessman, but is secretly bankrupt due to disastrous investments in the securities market.
As desperate as these people are, after the first round of “Red Light, Green Light” leads to over half the field dying, the rest rethink their options. The masked organisers give the contestants a democratic choice: if the majority of them vote to leave, the games will be cancelled. By the slimmest of margins, the competitors choose to (and are allowed) to go home. But once back in the real world, they are smacked down once again by their financial woes. Amazingly, their renewed hopelessness drives most of them to voluntarily re-enter the competition. The only good news is these suspicious goings-on have attracted the attention of a police detective, who seeks to infiltrate the games to find his missing brother.
Therein lies the genius of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s allegory: the illusion of free will and fairness in a rigged system. The faceless elites (literally, in Squid Game’s case) who run the game understand that these poor people never really had a choice, and that their stations in life leave them vulnerable to the whims of the rich and powerful, compelled to compete by forces beyond their control. By juxtaposing the innocence of these childish games with the insidious belief that ceaseless, cutthroat competition is the only way modern adults can survive, Squid Game presents a potent microcosm of capitalist society.
Thematic intelligence aside, Squid Game is also a white-knuckle watch, thanks to its visceral competition element. The twists, rules and set-ups of the games are finely calibrated to elicit maximum tension and excitement. But it’s the politicking among the contestants that offers the series’ most riveting moments, as we watch transactional alliances and genuine friendships form, only to fall apart in the face of cold-blooded strategy and cruel betrayals in this every-man-for-himself scenario. The contestants we follow range from the strong and frail, to the ruthless and compassionate, and everything in between – setting up fascinating dynamics where viewers are never really sure who to root for through any given round.
The show’s sharp social critiques, suspenseful competition and sympathetic characters remain largely enthralling throughout. Yet, once Squid Game reaches its conclusion to reveal its puppeteers, its plot points become predictable and the series’ messaging becomes too blunt and didactic. And thanks to an overlong and unsatisfying epilogue culminating with a silly final twist, the series unfortunately stumbles and limps across the finish line. Nevertheless, Squid Game’s pastel-hued perversion of youthful nostalgia does more than enough to keep us invested and hopeful for a potential second season.
Squid Game is now streaming on Netflix