Lend Us A Squid Till Friday



No Spoilers

I’ve been a fan of Korean cinema for many years but didn’t make the jump to K-TV until ‘Squid Game’.

By now the figures speak for the series itself. Supposedly the No.1 show in over 90 countries (although Netflix refuse to release any figures so we’ll never know), viewed over 110 million times, all nine episodes written and directed by one man, Hwang Dong-hyuk, who tried to get his project off the ground for 10 years, it concerns 456 people playing a survival game.

Social issues are not the first thing you think of when the plot involves a series of staged conflicts, some gory, all psychologically brutal, pitting the desperate contestants against one another. The first episode, with its sudden shocking intrusion of mass death, evokes footage of massacres in the Korean War. Later episodes explore the kind of issues ‘Parasite’ brought to light. Lurid sets recall MC Escher’s print ‘Relativity’, the films ‘Toys’, ‘The Game’ and even ‘The Truman Show’, while large-scale set pieces punctuate kinder moments as the contestants start to discover each other’s backstories. But the plot does not go where you’d expect.

This is K-TV at a new level of stripped-down sophistication, for what first appears to be a cheesy gore show reveals itself to be more thought-provoking than most arthouse movies. The contestants are trapped in deep debt and left with few options, reflecting the real situation in modern-day South Korea. Lee Jung-Jae, the star, is hardly hero material. A slow-witted, lazy gambling addict who has neglected his mother and daughter, he is lured into the game only when everything else has failed. His growth and change is crucial to the plot.

The show’s structure is an archetype, but also reflects the Korean ability to tell a story clearly and crisply with an emphasis on characters’ thought processes in a way that makes most Hollywood product look wooden and dishonest. We can’t be sure which how anyone will behave.

Having been lured in by the plot machinations we stay as the show becomes a contemplation on social issues, from late-stage capitalism and the wealth gap to quality of life and self-awareness. The now-notorious Episode 6 reaches a devastating high point, yet it turns out to be an intimate one hour talk-piece about family and friends, albeit punctuated with life-or-death decisions.

There’s plenty of well-earned retribution to be had too, like the knock-down drag-out fight in the final episode that proves richly satisfying. With an ending which strongly hints that the show will be back despite its author’s protestations, this is proving enough of a game-changer to overcome the prejudices of hardened naysayers. It will certainly stay in my head for a while yet.

The subtitled option is far better than the atmosphere-destroying dubbed version, but even that is odd, switching from early-episode ‘Fudge you, melon-farmers’-type G-rated subs to full-on sweary mode in the final episodes. The one mis-step is in the episode ‘VIPS’, which gives American characters dubbed voices when it would have been better to keep them completely silent.

With a breadth and style that makes it feel more like a movie trilogy than a TV series, ‘Squid Game’ earns its reputation and blurs the lines between TV and film. Expect to see those guard uniforms appearing everywhere this Halloween, along with the honeycomb biscuits (go for the triangle) which are now a bestseller.

11 comments on “Lend Us A Squid Till Friday”

  1. Paul+C says:

    Thanks – will give it a watch. Strongly recommend ‘Paris Police 1900’ on BBC iPlayer – excellent crime series but a word of caution : some scenes are very brutal and grisly

  2. Keith says:

    It is indeed one hell of a watch. The episode Marbles is mind-blowing, it brought a tear to my eye. Wonderful TV. Up there with the likes of Breaking Bad, Fargo, True Detective etc. The violence is just over the top and not portrayed like it is in say, The Sopranos. I have 2 episodes to watch, and I’m still shook up about the Old Man’s departure. King did something similar with The Running Man, and Rollerball also springs to mind, but this is so much better. What an achievement. Alice in Borderland next up for me.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    After three episodes I found ‘Squid Game’ resistable. I can see why the mash-up of soap opera, survival-themed game show and graphic violence (summary executions) might make what is apparently an impressive international audience feel just the opposite. I prefer my allegories a good deal more subtle, although again, I understand the voyeuristic fascination of a dystopian world dramatically worse than the one in which a viewer may be actually living.

    As it happens, I’m also no stranger to Korean film and TV drama, as well. Like ‘Parasite,’ ‘Squid Game’ is, to my mind, pretty much the same exercise in what psychologists would call ‘confirmation bias,’ (assuredly for Koreans) that is — confirming accepted ideas about society and culture. But in both cases, I feel greater insight into or clarity for these ideas is missing. I’m willing to chalk this up to cultural differences rather than a creative shortcoming, since both were made for Korean audiences who are obviously far more conversant with the mores of their native country. However, if ‘Squid Game’ were not a work of fiction and simply an elaborate game show, I might feel differently.

    The series (at least the three episodes I saw) certainly works on a visceral level and that is doubtless good enough for its millions of fans. It may be instructive that at the end of the children’s game from which ‘Squid Game’ takes its title, the opposition doesn’t ‘lose,’ it metaphorically ‘dies’ — a symbolic ending common to these games. As an aside, I found North Korea’s response to the series with its wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives as ‘beastly’ richly ironic, to say the least.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    As a public service for non-British speakers, ‘squid’ is rhyming slang for ‘quid,’ itself (as you probably know) slang for a pound sterling. Although, one source also has it coming from a joke about a shark who meets his friend the whale one day, and says: ‘I’m glad I bumped into you – here’s that squid I owe you’ (sound of groans and a rim shot).

  5. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Am I the only one reminded of Ewan McTeagle?

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Cornelia CF must have been channeling McTeagle (‘Lend us a quid till the end of the week’) when he titled this post.

  7. John Gaudin says:

    Criticism of the VIPs episodes reflects frequent on-line comment on the way English speaking actors are depicted in Korean dramas. Various explanations, either they are all moonlighting English language teachers, Korean directors don’t know how to get English lines delivered in a way that sounds natural, their scripts are simplified so Korean audience can understand them, or that is how Koreans actually see Americans,

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin & Keith You both raise an interesting question (at least to me) in terms of translation (dubbing and subtitles) for the Korean language ‘Squid Game.’ Its international success has highlighted — perhaps as never before — the existence of perhaps thousands, of non-English language films made primarily for domestic markets but with similar potential international appeal. And, coincidentally, how to provide not only efficient and effective translation but perhaps, more importantly, interpretation across a variety of linguistic cultures for this possible treasure trove.

    One technology being advanced — at least for the efficiency or ‘cosmetic’ side — is auto-dubbing. While there are number of approaches, all make use of one or more components of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to smooth out dubbing — lip and motion synching, for example — and provide ‘on-demand’ dialogue in your choice of language with the actual actors speaking it.

    Without getting into (too much more) eye-glazing detail, the original actors record some text in their own language. Then a neural network (a series of algorithms designed to recognize underlying relationships through a process that mimics the way the human brain operates) learns the actors’ voices. A program then absorbs this vocal data and applies it to a digital translation of the script and AI generates perfectly timed dialogue from the film in the foreign language of choice.

    So much for eventually getting rid of the irritating anomalies of the present translation/dubbing process, but we’re still left with the nagging issue of interpretation — especially problematic with subtitles because of their inherent limitations. Dealing with cultural factors in language when it comes to literature can be more or less easily handled via asides or footnotes. Not so easy with film. So how to deal with these often ‘untranslatables’ which can make a difference to the integrity of a film and its full understanding and enjoyment will be a critical issue in ultimately providing the broadest possible access to this hidden wealth of foreign film.

  9. Helen+Martin says:

    Eye glazing detail. Science constantly adapts weapon technology to peace time needs. Perhaps the same can happen to great films after the gamers are finished with the language technology. To be able to make a translation visually acceptable to another language viewer is remarkable. It may still be difficult to transmit the cultural meanings and stresses within the time frame and without pausing the action. The whole concept boggles my mind (but then I am easily boggled these days.)

  10. Helen+Martin says:

    Martin, they may be right but they’re too late. According to this morning’s radio (Sat. CBC is extremely informative) the megaverse is already within our sights and who knows what that will bring to the eyeballs of our young ones?

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