The Korean thriller “Squid Game” is currently the No. 1 show on Netflix worldwide. It’s also the first K-drama show to top the Netflix charts in the U.S. That’s according to streaming ratings firm Flix Patrol.
As a result of the series’ massive success, Korean media stocks related to it soared over the past week, says Bloomberg. Bucket Studio, the agency representing the show’s lead actor Lee Jung-Jae, saw a 70% jump in shares the last three trading days. Showbox Corp., which had invested in the series’ production company Siren Pictures, also climbed by 50% the past week.
It’s not the first time we’re seeing a survival game-themed production. There’s the wildly popular reality TV show “Survivor” to start with. Through the years, we’ve come across a number of similarly themed films and series—"Hunger Games”, “Battle Royale,” “Alice in Borderland” etc. So what’s so special about Squid Game? What’s all the fuss?
If you were cash-starved and invited to sign up for kiddie games with a winning prize of 45.6 billion South Korean won (close to 2 billion in Philippine peso) would you do it? But if you lose, you’d be eliminated from the game—and from the face of the planet.
There’s a lot of powerful imagery in the series. Four hundred fifty-six players garbed in green tracksuits all housed in a “playground” located in a deserted island. Guards dressed in hot pink hooded overalls with masks bearing shapes used in the ‘squid game.’ A mysterious masked Front Man wearing a dark suit calls the shots. Players who fail to perform a challenge or lose in a game will at once be shot dead. Afterwards, the men in pink will drag them away and put them in large boxes with pink ribbons.
Hwang Dong-hyuk, “Squid Game” writer and director, says the series was inspired by a game he used to play in the schoolyard or streets of their neighborhood. “It was one of the most physical and it was also one of my favorite games,” he shares. Dong-hyuk is known for award-winning films such as “Silenced,” “Miss Granny,” and “The Fortress.” “I felt that this game could be the most symbolic children’s game that could represent the kind of society we live in today.”
Dong-hyuk started writing the first draft of “Squid Game” about 13 years ago. He admitted to Variety that he’s a big fan of Japanese comics and animation. When he was experiencing financial problems, he’d spend a lot of time in cafés reading comics including “Battle Royale” and “Liar Game.” “I came to wonder how I’d feel if I took part in the games myself,” he told Variety. But he thought the games in those comics were too complex, so when he worked on his script, he employed popular children’s games in Korea instead.
Dong-hyuk finished the script in 2009. But the concept seemed “very unfamiliar and violent.” Some people thought it will have a difficult time finding an audience due to its complexity. The verdict was it was not commercial. The writer wasn’t able to raise enough investment. He also found the casting process difficult. Eventually, the project had to be put in the back burner.
“It’s kind of a sad story, but this deadly game compares quite a bit to the things we see today such as investing in coins and such,” says Dong-hyuk. “Times have changed and people have told me that it reminds them of things that are happening in this tough society. With that, I expanded the story about two years ago and now we are here.”
The premise may be bizarre, but the actors’ nuanced performances made the show real and relatable to viewers.
Seong Gi-hun (player No. 456), the protagonist, is played by Lee Jung-jae. Gi-hun has gone through a lot of difficult experiences including divorce, business failure, debt, gambling issues. He’s about to lose the custody of his daughter and has a mother who’s severely ill—reasons that pushed him to join the deadly game. “Gi-hun is very positive and optimistic, but he has a lot of worries,” Jung-jae describes his character.
Cho Sang-woo (player No. 218) is played by Park Hae-soo. The character grew up in the same neighborhood as Gi-hun and the games bring them back together fighting for survival. While known for his intelligence—he graduated from the Seoul National University—Sang-woo’s burden is he got involved in a large-scale financial fraud.
“[Gi-hun and Sang-woo] share the same childhood roots and memories. They went to school together in the past. Their foundation is the same,” says Dong-hyuk about the connection of the two main characters. “As time passes, they take different paths. One goes on the path of success and the other goes on the path of failure. Then they end up meeting at the same place, the game arena.”
Korea’s Next Top Model 4 runner-up Jung Ho-yeon plays Kang Sae-byeok (player #067). As a North Korean defector, Sae-byeok is no stranger to the hard life. “She picks pockets to make a living. She is trying to gather money to bring her family together. In order to do this, she needs money so that’s why she takes part in the games,” first-time actor Ho-yeon says of her character.
Hwang Jun-ho, portrayed by Wi Ha-jun, is an undercover police officer searching for his missing brother. While investigating some clues related to the latter’s disappearance, Jun-ho discovers the games. While hiding his identity, he uncovers various mysteries surrounding it.
Also making up the interesting gamut of personalities in the show are Player #001 Oh Il-nam (Oh Young-soo), a helpless, elderly man with a brain tumor; Player #199 Abdul Ali (Tripathi Anupam), an illegal Pakistani worker who was not compensated by an unscrupulous employer; Player #101 Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), a greedy gangster and massive gambler who stole from his crime boss; and Player #212 Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryung), who will do everything to win the game, begging included.
The set and costumes
One of the biggest draws of the drama thriller is the massive scale of its sets which had to be constructed from scratch. Dong-Hyuk said he wanted the set to feel as authentic as possible, hence the minimal computer graphics. “I wanted something large and formidable but also familiar and reminiscent of childhood. The colors and the objects set in there were selected so it could be a place suitable for children,” he says.
The first game set—the “red light, green light” with the huge, creepy doll—made the biggest impression on lead actors Jung-jae and Hae-Soo. “The set wasn’t something that I had expected. I didn’t think it would be as big and I thought it would be all computer graphics, but it was actually real life. The scale was overwhelming,” says Jung-jae. Hae-soo says that the alley set also evokes a lot of feelings and memories from childhood. Ho-yeon, for her part, was amazed by the scale of the dormitory set, which was like a colosseum. “It was grand in scale and it has a bit of eeriness to it,” she says.
Ha-jun personally really liked the playground set. “There were some nice clouds on the wall and a playground setting. It looked like something you saw as a child, but the participants were killed there so there’s another side to it,” he says.
The screenwriter-director says he drew the idea of the masked men—the people running and operating the games—from the world of ants. “The masked men are all wearing the same outfit, but they have different shapes drawn on their masks. The circles are the masked workers. The triangle masks are soldiers who are armed. The square masks are the managers,” he explains. “There are the working level ants and they are given one purpose, and one purpose only.”
Jung-jae reveals filming started in the summer and went on up until winter, so the masked men had a really tough time since they had to wear the masks all the time. “Since the masked men are people the characters had to fear, they had to be very intimidating. I had a great time working with them,” says Jung-jae.
What sets the show apart
What makes “Squid Game” stand out among its predecessors, says Dong-hyuk, is the high level of entertainment that seen in how the participants struggle to win the games.
“Looking at differentiating factors, I would say the simplicity of the rules. There’s not a lot of time or energy spent understanding the rules; it’s very simple,” he says. “Rather than the game itself, Squid Game focuses on how they act and how they respond. Usually, we look at the winners in survival games but in Squid Game, we look at the losers. Without losers, there are no winners.”
The show may be gory but it’s no doubt a visual feast. It gives you an adrenaline rush that it’s able to sustain til the end of the narrative. For graphic artist Raymund Verano, there’s a draw to the palpable desperation. “I did like the fact that after the first game when the players voted to end it all because of the deaths and chaos, they decided to come back to it all.”
For writer Gerald Grana, there’s clearly something about the narrative that resonates with Filipinos.
“Filipinos by nature believe in luck and games of chance. They can see themselves in the different characters in the TV series. Filipinos can empathize with the childhood games played in a giant scale,” he says. “‘Squid Game’ rules bypass the rules of life. It's a new set of rules. It's street rules. And Filipinos live and adapt with street rules. They love to see winners playing with a new set of rules and taking a big risk to succeed. Not unlike real life where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer no matter how hard the latter work.”
Photos from Netflix