Squid Game (2021) review: Why it’s so hot right now

“People living on the edge, Play a mysterious survival game. In Squid Game, what kind of decision will you make?”

Squid Game (2021)
Squid Game poster
Squid Game

If you have been an active follower of pop culture and engaged in the ‘art’ of binge-watching (unless you are living under a digital-denial rock) you have probably heard about this latest sensation, Squid Game. It has quickly become a global phenomenon, taking the world by a parallel storm among other literal storms. Blown up the internet- with millions of memes, fan theories, and discussions taking place over different platforms.

Just to give an example of exactly how hot it has become:

In the show, debt-ridden ‘contestants’ are invited to dial a particular number on a business card to take part in a life-and-death game. But it turns out that a number displayed on the screen is real. A South Korean businesswoman from Seongju has claimed it’s her real-life cell number, and that she had been inundated with actual requests to play the game. Which says something about the show and the ‘game’ and this world itself.

“This is a number that I’ve been using for more than 10 years so I’m quite taken aback. There are more than 4000 numbers that I’ve had to delete from my phone. At first, I didn’t know why, but my friend told me that my number came out in Squid Game and that’s when I realized”, the businesswoman has said in an interview. Netflix has announced they will edit out the phone number from the series.

Here is a tale of dystopian martyrdom which mashes up the Elysian games of childhood with the barbaric reality of adolescence. A dark Korean show that provides a social commentary on the wage gaps and grim realities of life under market capitalism in South Korea. A disturbing portrait of how unmonitored capitalism has led to impoverished citizens hanging by a thread.

A simple but effective story

The instant scrutiny and hype surrounding Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game is like Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite. It reflects a rising discontent among Koreans over socio-economic inequality. A Black Mirror-like tale that reflects the jarring and monstrous reality of our times. The series is about the competition among 456 debt-ridden citizens of South Korea – who must participate in a series of childish games for prize money of $28 million dollars. It looks quite basic on paper – until you really see what the stakes are. An elimination here means the player will be eliminated from the planet. This is where the story gets twisted and takes convoluted turns.

Red Light, Green Light
Red Light, Green Light

It underscores the massive, constantly expanding gulf between the rich and the poor. The elites playing with the lives of the poor for their own selfish motives, while the poor lend “value” to the elite in more ways than one: economically and entertainingly. The impoverished not having a choice are compelled to play the game. The series begins with the introduction of certain ‘contestants’/protagonists – Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), addicted gambler and chauffeur, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo),  who is wanted for fraud, and Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a North-Korean defector. A common thread among them – each one is distressed and debt-ridden.

But they are as yet unaware of the stakes.

The audience, like the contestants, is also unaware of this unique aspect of the game. So they are likely to be taken aback by the “Red Light, Green Light” game. It seems like a childish and frivolous game at first – then bang! – a contestant gets shot as he moves from his place. Contestants do not believe – but little did they (and the audience) know. This is what makes the series so intriguing and disturbing. Several contestants still feel that the dystopian world is better than their real world. So it takes little time for the contestants to turn on one another. It leads into a quest for the first prize – amidst a lot of violence and bloodshed.

Review and analysis (Squid Game)

The foremost essential characteristic of the show is its power to grasp one’s attention. It has done so even with horrible English subtitles, as native Korean speakers have pointed out. From the get-go, it does not waste any time and sucks you into the show. It’s unnecessary in a generation where attention span itself is a luxury. The theme is not new: similar themes have been explored in Alice in Borderland and Battle Royale. Even the over-the-top Cabin In The Woods walked a related ballpark.

So what makes the show so hot and popular?

The symbolism and sad state of affairs, where the contestant feels more secure inside the deadly game than in the real world, that sentiment has resonated with the world. It’s not just ‘light’ entertainment, it’s catharsis. The poor section of the society getting exploited at the hands of the rich people. They do not have a choice but to go after each other.

Contestants looking at the bowl of prize money
Contestants looking at the bowl of prize money

For such a game template to work out, the characters. set design and cinematography needs to step up. And it does; the use of bright colors like pink, green, and yellow makes it eerie and disguises the apathetic shitshow taking place. The cinematography keeps you unsettled, on the edge of your seat. The characters on the show are all messed up and have screwed up somewhere in their lives – which grounds them and helps bring sympathy from the audience. The contrast between interpersonal relationships being formed and the carnage that follows is harrowing. The performances by the actors are highly convincing, they fit into their roles quite well.

The game could have been more interesting if there were no American actors being cast. As they did not fit the show’s setting and gave a below-par performance. But it does highlight the ubiquity of the American capitalist model in general and their historical closeness to South Korea in particular. Jung Jae Il’s background music creates tension as much as providing a sigh of relief.


Masked Guards
Masked Guards

In conclusion, the show kind of deserves the excessive hype it is getting. It is an outrageous but realistic take on the brutal system that people are living through. The value of human life has become so low that people are ready to kill each other for audience entertainment. And the contestants are willing to die than to live in the real world. The game is a reflection of the world where we live in. A world whose motto still is survival of the fittest. If you are slow and weak, people will run over you. They may not necessarily want to, but do they have a choice?

From a cinematic point of view, the show is daunting and generates ample suspense in its simplicity. The ability to convert childish and ‘cute’ games into a haunting show – renders the audience vulnerable. The outrageous turning of a cute doll into a nightmare is unreal. The series is scattered with hints and ‘Easter eggs’ – which come into relief as the show progresses. There is a dark undertone to the setting – which makes the bright colors look grainy and bizarre. Like a disarming ‘pink’ uniform masks the vicious duty of the guards. And the unnatural games, hundreds of deaths, gallons of blood, and the ingenious acts create a craving for the next episode. Which in turn may add to our own discomfort at watching such a ‘show,’ deriving such vicarious thrill out of it.

Lately, Korean dramas are garnering the attention they deserve. Squid Game – as popular as it already is – is likely to bring in a new audience set to create further interest in South Korean pop culture.

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