Korean export Squid Game was all over the media about 18 months ago, so it had to be my TV selection for South Korea. Astonishingly, Netflix UK claimed Squid Game was its most successful debut ever, with 111 million viewers across the world, although the methodology used to arrive at this conclusion was unclear. South Koreans were apparently bewildered by the success of the series overseas. Had we simply run out of stuff to watch after endless COVID lockdowns and delayed TV production schedules?
Certainly subtitled TV has been losing both the ‘fear factor’ and the snob factor and has entered the mainstream. Not before time, and not unexpected given the fact that a fair few people watch TV with the subtitles on even in English, as well as the fact that South Korean film Parasite (which I reviewed here) won the Oscar for best film in early 2020.
Social media seems to be the main explanation for the show’s popularity. My son canvassed us to let him watch it after seeing clips on Tik Tok, and claimed “everyone” at school had watched it.
The premise of Squid Game is not particularly original: disenfranchised down and outs compete in a raft of violent and often fatal games, as previously seen in films such as 1980s Arnie vehicle The Running Man and, more recently, The Hunger Games. What is original is the horror of the design: these games are based on innocent childhood pastimes, and given a horribly sinister spin. The games’ losers are killed instantly. For the overall winner, however, there is a tantalisingly enormous cash prize.
The first two episodes of Squid Game were full of back story, and I found them a bit tedious (despite usually far preferring character development to senseless violence). However, seeing the characters’ lives outside the Squid Game scenario helped to explain why they would return to the game even when given a chance to leave. Indeed, in episode 3 we learn that the ‘re-entrance rate’ is 93%, while those who haven’t returned are nevertheless being monitored.
As the competitors are ruthlessly whittled down, there is everything to play for, and Squid Game plays out to its perverse conclusion.