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Why Has Squid Game Taken Over the World?

Spoiler Alert: Don’t read ahead if you haven’t completed the series!

Squid Game is a new Korean series that has taken the world by storm! Ranking as Netflix’s number one show in more than 90 countries, excluding Korea and the United States (a huge feat for a non-English show). It has had people all over the globe making dalgona candy, playing “Red Light, Green Light,” gushing over former model, Jung Ho-yeon and reflecting on the soul-crushing manifestations of capitalism. 

Squid Game is a commentary on capitalism in Korea. We see 456 individuals participating in deadly games for a cash prize of 45.6 billion Korean Won. However, upon entering the games, the collective decides to leave after the shock of the first game and its life-stopping consequences. Eventually, some of the contestants return to the arena just for a chance at winning the prize money because at the end of the day it all comes down to money, right? The main cast members are: 

  • The seemingly innocent and naive Seong Gi-hun played by veteran actor Lee Jung-jae, a gambling addict and an unreliable father and son.
  • Cho Sang-woo, played by Park Hae-soo, a graduate of the most prestigious university in Korea, Seoul National University, that has failed to live up to society’s expectations by getting into debt.
  • Kang Sae-byeok, played by Jung Ho-yeon, a North Korean defector turned pickpocket with a little brother in an orphanage; and 
  • Joon-ho, played by Wi Ha-jun, a police officer who is the little brother of the second-ranking official of this dystopia.

The other characters include gangster Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), the queen of surviving, Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryeong), and a sweet and dangerously innocent immigrant from Pakistan, Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi), amongst a brilliant cast. The show offers a variety of characters that have all lived lives that have led them to have financial troubles. The writers, producers, and directors of this show put a mirror to Korean society because, as it stands, South Korea has one of the highest inequality rates amongst developed nations. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is extremely wide and continuously stretching to exclude people like Seong Gi-hun. 

Capitalism is not unique to Korea; it is a widespread social ill stemming from imperialism and the imposition of modernity in most countries. The commodification of human beings is an integral tool of capitalism, and this is illustrated in the show when contestants die, and money falls from the sky into the money pool that everyone is killing each other for. The idea that life is so rough that one would rather fight it out in the most unsettling circumstances instead of living another day in a harsh and capitalistic reality (what’s the difference, though?) is what makes this show so chillingly realistic.

We love survival shows because they have suspense, surprises, drama, and twists. However, the intriguing thing about Squid Game is that it is a story about something we all know and experience. Watching it in a seemingly dramatized way makes us feel like what we see on our screens is too far removed from us, so we find comfort in the entertainment and carry on. The cognitive dissonance that comes with media that serves to reveal the flaws in our societies is what I believe to be a survival mechanism because who wants to accept that they too are participating in the demise of another by being a part of this system?  

Most can relate to Cho Sang-woo, doing whatever it takes to win or Han Mi-nyeo, adapting to situations and becoming whomever you need to be in order to be protected. Most can also relate to Kang Sae-byeok who trusts no one because the world has shown its cruelty too often. These characters are a bit of all of us. Squid Game reminds us that capitalism is as fair a playing ground as the arbitrary games that privilege men over women, that being good is a weakness in a system that prioritises profit over people and that desperation makes people do bad things.

This is not the first show out of South Korea to comment on capitalism: if you liked Squid Game, you should check out Parasite. If you’re looking for something light-ish to ease your mind and soul from the losses of all your faves in the show, watch Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha or get to know of the cast of Squid Game here: Squid Game Cast Playing Games.

Related:

5 2021 KOREAN DRAMAS YOU NEED TO WATCH!

Sesetu is a humanities graduate from South Africa. She is interested in writing, reading and learning new languages.
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