By Anisah Mahamoud, BA International Relations
In less than a month, Korean Drama/Thriller Squid Game has become the most talked-about show on all streaming platforms and is set to become Netflix’s most watched show. This accomplishment is enormous, not only due it being foreign, but also because of its commentary on the link between capitalism, poverty and desperation.
…set to become Netflix’s most watched show. This accomplishment is enormous, not only due it being a foreign show, but also because of its commentary on the link between capitalism, poverty and desperation.
On the show, 456 people— all of whom are in debt and in dire need of money — participate in children’s games like ‘Red Light, Green Light’, for a chance to win 45.6 billion won (roughly £28.2 million). Its popularity is unprecedented, with the hashtag ‘Squid Game’ on TikTok receiving 22.8 billion views.
Squid Game has very violent and disturbing aspects due to its survival nature. Not to mention the creator Hwang Dong-hyuk’s focus on giving the characters a deep, meaningful history as to why they require the cash prize.
We follow Seong Gi-Hun through his struggles with his unwell mother and his gambling problem. His addiction to the euphoria of winning is highlighted when he is approached by a man on a train station, who challenges him to a game of ‘ddakji’ complete with a cash prize. He is slapped by this stranger until he wins the game. Despite this, Seong Gi-Hun proceeds to play the game until he is victorious. This hints at the theme of desperation for financial gain and comments on the poverty crisis in South Korea. He then goes on to play a number of childhood games alongside 455 other participants who are in a similar financial situation to him, with the premise being life or death.
Squid Game’s popularity is significant in terms of East Asian representation, due to it being a Korean show. The world’s willingness to read subtitles (which is not very difficult) allows a whole new scope of media to be digested. In the words of the director of Academy Award-winning ‘Parasite’ Bong Hoon Jo, ‘Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films’.
The show portrays the constant theme of human desperation for wealth and it depicts the sacrifice that people are willing to make for materialistic gain. If people are prepared to die instead of living in debt and poverty, does this not demonstrate how serious their situation is? Debt in South Korea has risen rapidly within the last few years to over 100% of its GDP, making it the worst rate in Asia. The net worth of the country’s top 20% earners is 166 times that of the poorest 20%, a difference that has risen by half since 2017.
Hwang Dong-hyuk’s decision to base the show in modern society rather than in the future (a common theme in this genre) is a clear example of art imitating life. This experience is universal and attributes to the admiration of the show, as viewers are able to personally relate. This ability to even remotely relate to the show, defines Squid Game not only as horror in television, but as horror in society today.
This phenomenon was inevitable due to the high quality of Korean media, yet some people allow the barrier of language to restrict them from accessing it. This was seen in 2020, with Parasite’s sweeping number of awards. The themes within the film, link to those in Squid Game, with its clever commentary on capitalism through the parallels of two families and their interactions. The repetition of this theme, which is popular in Korean media, highlights the severity of the poverty issue in South Korea. Now the Western world is exposed to this, the only question left to ask is, how will the horrific consequences of capitalism be repaired?
Caption: scene from Hwang Dong-hyuk’s film: Squid Game (Credit: Netflix)