Almost four decades after emerging as an economic powerhouse from the shadow of a destructive war, South Korea has spent the last decade emerging as a global cultural powerhouse. From K-pop (preeminently represented by artists like boy band BTS) to the Academy Award-winning movie “Parasite,” South Korean popular culture is in as high a demand as it’s ever been, certainly surpassing that of their neighbors China and Japan.
The latest craze from the Land of the Morning Calm? The television series titled “Squid Game,” Netflix’s biggest release yet and a cultural phenomenon around the world, most notably in the West. It tells the tale of a secret contest where participants must survive six days of South Korean children’s games, the reward being unimaginable riches and the consequence of failure being instant death. A bloody, brutal tale that pushes the already desperate characters to their physical and psychological limits, it forces viewers to confront an uncomfortable question: If in the same predicament, would I not do the same?
The irony in “Squid Game’s” success is that it flips the script on the narrative of South Korea’s cultural influence. Conventional wisdom holds that pop culture accentuates a society’s best features, but “Squid Game” shows a different side of the country. Behind the glittering metropolises, high-tech economy, and exotic, glamorous entertainers, South Korea is a country facing myriad problems, in addition to its dangerous northern neighbor. The contestants of “Squid Game” aren’t playing because they want to, but because they must—each of them is mired in overwhelming financial debt with no recourse, except to literally fight for their lives.
South Korea’s emergence as an economic powerhouse was notable precisely because it was one of the world’s poorest countries for the first few decades following the Korean War. But, even after decades of growth, inequality remains a serious issue in the country. In the developed world, South Korea has one of the highest rates of economic inequality, surpassed only by the United States. This, in a country with a robust welfare state and universal healthcare, throws cold water on the frequent assertion that the answer to inequality and low living standards is higher state expenditure. Inequality was also the central theme of Oscar-winner “Parasite,” arguably South Korea’s biggest film to date. Apparently, stories about inequality sell because they speak to a reality millions of Koreans confront daily.
Contrasting this bleak backdrop of a win-or-lose society is the win-or-be-killed environment of the “Squid Game” world, in some ways the real star of the show. A place where humans are reduced to their primal roots and Darwinian principles rule the day, it is a utopian world at the same time. Everyone is equal, as the game’s overseer, initially known only as the “Front Man,” proclaims—and it shows. Once in the game world, every contestant is outfitted in the same athletic garb and distinguished only by number, not name. Everyone is given a bed and meals, with no special requests accommodated on the latter. Even the guards all dress the same, their identities withheld even from each other by a strict mask policy, similarly distinguished only by numbers and a hierarchy established by shapes marked on their masks.
Then there’s constant surveillance throughout the facility. The contestants’ sleeping quarters are a no-brainer, but even the guards, who at least have the luxury of their own space, aren’t exactly entitled to their own privacy or freedom—there’s a camera in every room and their movements are strictly controlled, with their meals delivered to them through a slot at their door. If the contestants are confined to a massive asylum, the guards are, ironically, confined to what can only be described as cells.
Examining this environment, one can’t help but wonder if what’s being depicted is a communist society, that mythical utopia of total classlessness and equality. Of course, communism is anything but classless and equal.—As “Squid Game” shows, the purported equality and rules of the game are violently enforced, unrelentingly so. For all the talk of capitalism as a zero-sum game, it’s the Squid Game world that is truly zero-sum: when played, there must be winners and losers who die as a direct consequence. Finally, contestant or guard, there’s no quarter for deviance and there are people in charge: the red-clad guards wielding guns and the mysterious Front Man leading them.
So much for classless and equal.
There is one bit of freedom the contestants do possess—the decision to participate or not. Granted, it’s a decision made in desperation—they play the game because they have no other cards left to play. Worse, once the choice has been made to partake, they surrender all autonomy, including even their lives in the event of failure. The nature of desperation and the kinds of things it forces people to subject themselves to is something all societies struggle to come to terms with and a core theme of “Squid Game.” It’s troubling to think people, either by choice or circumstance, are driven to ruin despite living in an ambience of freedom and prosperity, but the alternative, where all are equalized on the basis of oppression and death, is no alternative at all.
The genius of “Squid Game” is that it explores so many themes, indulges so many dilemmas, and does it all on so many different levels. The show’s top-notch artistry and production values take a back seat to its real-world relevance and willingness to take viewers to deep, dark places to confront those uncomfortable dilemmas. In the end, victory is pyrrhic in the Squid Game. As the Front Man suggests to the winning party, “Think of it as a bad dream,” but the reward is a constant reminder of salvation and the blood shed to deliver it.
Which leaves a final question to ponder as the final credits sequence rolls: do we owe anything to those less fortunate than us, some of whom lost their lives because of misfortune? How do we live with possessing riches bestowed on us at the expense of others, when their existence was supposedly equal in value to our own?
Do we move on, secure in our riches? Or do we bite the hand that fed us?