Squid Game Buzz
Squid Game: The Netflix puzzle box “Squid Game” from South Korea is supposed to be on by now, but you haven’t watched it yet for some reason. Here’s what you’ve been missing.
You may have caught a glimpse of the production design and costuming on social media, which you may have found eye-catching but not particularly interesting. Dystopian favorites like “The Prisoner,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Netflix’s own “Money Heist” are remembered from the dystopian pieces featured in Money Heist with their Escher-like stairways and toy chests. Since the premiere on Sept. 17, the series has become omnipresent thanks to its meme-readiness.
The show does not yet have a second season, but it would be foolish to short-change it as if you were playing marbles with a desperate schemer.)
What is the craze about Squid Game?
The teen members in my own household seem to have been most drawn to the gameplay aspect. In this story, alone on a remote island, the hapless protagonists play elaborately staged versions of childhood games, including tug of war and red-green light, while also mastering the squid game that is unique to Korea. Players reveal their true personalities; alliances and alliance shifts occur; losers are promptly executed. Over nine episodes, the six games express both the kinetic pleasures of televised sports and e-sports and the reality-TV competitions of “Survivor”.
What is so special about the “Squid Game”? You can see a whole band of sisters and brothers melodrama when you put aside the ornamentation and the action. A group of characters straight from Hollywood war movies dominate the central group in the game: the strong and silent leader, the moody character, a violent villain, an old friend willing to serve as what is deemed the audience surrogate.
Squid Game: The story
Their story contains no unexpected twists or turns; they’re the dirty half-dozen or so. Their death sequences follow exactly the logic you would expect, given their role in the plot.
“Squid Game” employs that kind of predictability almost as a recurring motif. Even though it’s supposed to be a mystery, much is revealed about the identity of the Front Man. Having a particularly sympathetic character die off screen is unusual in a show that emphasizes gruesome killing, so the decision signals a reappearance. An episode’s six-way plot device, which makes it egregiously, shamelessly manipulative, as well as making it popular with both audiences and critics, can be seen from a mile away.
Game players by definition are debtors, brought down by circumstance and weakness and sufficiently desperate to participate in unheard-of, but presumably autocratic, scenarios devised by their unseen, but apparently autocratic creators.
A reference is one thing, but illumination and using it to inform performances are quite another. In “Squid Game,” inequality and free will are treated as if they were pat truisms, and the characters are made up of basic family tropes and stereotypes, placed in a preposterously absurd setting. This show does it with plenty of spare room, just like Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite.
The result of that is, of course, that the violence that is committed is fully covered up by the graphic nature of the presentation and the calculated gratuity of its scale. By the time Gi-hun (Lee) was swinging a steak knife through his hand to play the game that the episode was titled after, I was done. In defense of the killing, apologists can argue that its juxtaposition of businesslike dispatches and cartoonish exaggerations has aesthetic and thematic resonance, but there is no evidence onscreen to support this notion. The body count gives us only logistical satisfaction, no feeling of dread or emotion.
“Squid Game” is directed and written by Hwang Dong-hyuk, a filmmaker from South Korea. He has worked on films like The Fortress and Silenced. Despite a low budget, he shoots the action consistently well, maintaining legibility and making the images well-composed. The series continues to lean toward an earlier generation of South Korean films by directors like Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk, who were able to make outré violence feel organic to their stories with their clever panache and mordant wit. In “Squid Game,” all you’re getting is blood and squid.