Every now and then, Netflix throws us a curveball. Case in point: nobody expected the breakout hit of 2020 to be Tiger King, a documentary about an eccentric zoo owner.
It’s arguably also fair to say that nobody expected the biggest hit of 2021 to date to be a little-hyped Korean drama about a group of debt-ridden folks taking part in adapted versions of popular children’s playground games in the hope of freeing themselves from financial burden.
If social media is to be believed, however, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s nine-episode Squid Game, which has topped Netflix charts in several countries including the US, Singapore, Kuwait, Vietnam and more, is just that – the must-see series of the year.
There’s nothing particularly new about the premise of Squid Game. A group of contestants, 456 of them to be precise, are placed in an arena where they will compete in a series of challenges until one emerges as the winner of a $38.5 million prize.
When we say these playground games have been “adapted", however, we mean they "now end in a gruesome death".
It’s a trope that’s been seen on screens many times before. Japan ushered the genre into the 21st century with Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 classic Battle Royale, while Jennifer Lawrence and the Hunger Games franchise made the concept bona fide blockbuster fare. Yet Squid Game takes a slightly different approach and viewers appear to love it.
The modern-day story takes place in a secret island base somewhere off the coast of South Korea. This might sound insignificant, but it lends an entirely different tone to the show than the standard dystopian future that permeates the genre.
Contestants are not mercilessly taking each other’s lives due to an all-powerful oligarchy or a vicious social experiment, but because they choose to. Each is given a decision to make in episode two, with the option to go home, but the majority choose to return on realising “the torture is worse out there” than in the game itself.
It’s a damning incitement of modern society that one can’t help but compare to 2019's Oscar-winning Korean drama Parasite. These contestants aren’t forced or cajoled; they simply want to be out of debt, to pay for their families’ healthcare, and they’ll do pretty much anything to get there.
The show’s aesthetic sets it apart from the crowd, too. Rather than offering the post-industrial wasteland or futuristic neon city we might expect from this kind of production, the action takes place in a garish pink-and-yellow video game-style nightmarescape, complete with grating, eight-bit electronic music every time another 100,000 South Korean won ($85) of prize money drops to mark the “elimination” of a player.
The contrast with the highly graphic scenes of butchery is certainly striking.
Perhaps the most memorable sections of Squid Game, though, are those that take place outside the game. Little glimpses of humanity are proffered as characters interact with friends and family, only to swiftly be juxtaposed with merciless inhumanity as they dispatch their next victim in some twisted version of hopscotch.
Visually and narratively, the show offers something entirely different in a well-worn genre, while simultaneously tapping into the current global trend for all things Korean.
With an ending that unashamedly sets us up for a sequel, we can probably expect social media to keep buzzing about it for some time.