Lend Us A Squid Till Friday
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.