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‘Squid Game’: Korean take on social dysfunction

Dan Webster

Above: The Korean series "Squid Game" is streaming on Netflix. (Photo/Netflix)

Series review: "Squid Game," written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, starring Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Oh Young-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-Yeon. Streaming on Netflix, in Korean with English subtitles.

We’ve all felt it once or even a few times in life. Well, most of us, anyway.

I’m referring to that chill of panic that comes when we fear the money we’re managing to bring in on a more or less regular basis just won’t be enough to cover our expenses – even the most basic ones.

It’s a feeling that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, was realized by a number of our fellow Americans. Even worse than felt, it was – and in many cases still is – a situation that those same Americans have had to endure.

I can’t be the only one who noticed how, following the 2008 global financial crisis, the number of people hugging street corners and asking for help grew appreciably. How so many of those same people still congregate under bridges or anywhere else they can find some sort of shelter.

And let’s not be ethnocentric: This isn’t only an American problem. Even a technologically advanced country such as South Korea, home of the K-pop band fever and everything Gangnam Style, is feeling the pinch caused by the gap between the insouciance of those who have everything and the desperation of those who struggle just to get by.

Which, of course, is the situation that the Netflix series “Squid Game” mines so effectively. Part social commentary, part “And Then There Was One” murder mystery, “Squid Game” is reported to be one of Netflix’s most-watched offerings. One survey reports that one in four Americans have watched the series.

It’s easy to see why. The nine-part series, written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, focuses on a number of characters, all of whom face dire life circumstances – in debt, with no resources, desperate to find any way to help themselves and, in several cases, those they care about.

Our principal character, named Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), is a ne’er-do-well who, laid off from his job at an auto plant, works at the occasional odd job. But then he mostly gambles away what he earns and has to depend on his elderly, and ill, mother – not just for spending money, but for regular meals and even for a place to live.

Gi-hun’s life changes one day when, waiting for a train, he is approached by a well-dressed guy who asks him if he wants to play a game for money. Lured by the prospect of easy earnings, Gi-hun endures a series of literal slaps to the face before he gets paid – not just with a few dollars (in Korean won), but also with an invite to play a game for far bigger stakes: the “Squid Game” of the series title.

Naturally, he agrees – and so is transported (drugged and asleep) to a kind of warehouse/bunkhouse housing 455 other people, all of whom face similar grave life situations. Upon waking, Gi-hun and the others discover they are guarded by mask-wearing, gun-carrying individuals. They’re told they will play a series of children’s games, with the winners moving on toward a multi-million-dollar prize, and the losers – well, “eliminated.”

During the first game, a massive “Red Light/Green Light” exercise, they – and we – discover just what “elimination” actually means. And warning here: “The Squid Game” features a fair amount of sudden and graphic violence.

As the games progress over the nine episodes, we come to know several characters: the young girl from the North, the tattooed mobster, the disgraced neighborhood icon (and Gi-hun’s childhood friend), the wise old man, etc. And writer-director Hwang even gives us a subplot involving a Seoul police detective, looking for his brother, who lurks behind the scenes trying to figure out what’s going on.

All of it works as an exercise not just in survival of the fittest, but also as a stirring study of the whims of fortune, imbued with all that social commentary – not just about economic inequality but also involving both social class and religion – not to mention a secret that is revealed only in the final episode.

Here’s something that isn’t a secret: The Wall Street Journal reports that Netflix will sell “Squid Game” goods on the internet with partner Walmart Inc.

If that isn’t perfect irony, I don’t know what is.

An edited version of this review was broadcast previously on Spokane Public Radio.

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