Squid Game

A bloody and violent Korean TV show takes the world by storm. But can it live up to the hype?

What’s The Show? Squid Game.

What’s It All About, JG? Somewhere on an island off the coast of Korea, contestants who are in various desperate situations due to debt and poverty are driven to compete in lethal games for the amusement of a bunch of rich assholes. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Oh alright, you want more?

Our hero – if that’s the correct term – is Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a former chauffeur and gambling addict who’s lost everything including his daughter and wife to his habit, is lured into the titular games after a chance (well, “chance”) meeting at a subway station with one of the arrangers of the games. He – along with 455 others – compete in lethal versions of children’s games in order to win a vast amount of money. Each game whittles down the survivors while the greed and desperation grows. Meanwhile a police officer, Hwang Jung-jo (Wi Ha-joon) is looking for his long-lost brother and manages to smuggle himself into the games. Who will win? How far will people go? How does someone falling through a plate-glass tile say something about Korea’s crippling personal debt problem? These questions, and perhaps some others, may or may not get answered!

Why Did You Give It A Go? As you may have gathered, I am something of a fan of Korean television. And Squid Game is very much the hot TV show du jour so it would have been frankly inconceivable for me not to at least check it out.

Is It Any Good? Yeeeeeeeeees-ish. What’s very clear is that it has been made with someone who had a clear and abiding love of the 60’s TV series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. The similarities are simply too many to gloss over, including everyone being referred to by their number, the chintzy classical music designed to lull the populace into compliance, the day-glo holiday camp aesthetic, the pretence of a functioning democracy, the “person in charge” (Number 1) hidden behind a mask… even the contestants being gassed is reminiscent of what happens to Number 6 during The Prisoner‘s title sequence. None of this is a demerit – there’s nothing wrong with showing your roots – but it does suggest the show isn’t quite as original as some of the critics might have you believe.

Of course, it’s rather more bloody and gory than anything the 1960’s could have produced, and often the violence and brutality is used to shocking degree. Watching people getting mown down in the opening game (Red Light, Green Light) is one thing, watching faceless guards going up and simply shooting partial survivors is quite something else. The brutality is of course the point – a fairly heavy-haded metaphor for the debt burden ordinary people struggle under, though this note is hit once too often to be entirely convincing. After a point the feeling is very much, “yes, alright, we get it. And…?” Then we get a bit more. And more. And more. There’s a few sub-plots that don’t quite go anywhere – the whole “harvesting and selling organs” thing appears to exist simply to occupy our nominal-good-guy police officer – but they never really get in the way of things. Still, for anyone used to normal levels of violence in Korean television – tame, basically – this is quite the shock to the system, and even by Western standards it’s pretty bloody. Do not go in expecting an easy time of it.

How Many Episodes Did You Watch? All of them. Again, unlike traditional Korean shows which tend to top out at sixteen episodes a season, we have a change of pace here, with just nine. It’s not a burdensome load, even if it doesn’t always make for easy viewing.

Would You Recommend It? Yeeeeeeees-ish. For anyone who’s seen a reasonable amount of Korean television, once of the great things about Squid Game is that it subverts a lot of traditional expectations. The pretty-boy police officer doesn’t really get to solve the case – I mean, he does, but it doesn’t get him anywhere and he winds up murdered rather than rescued, so figuring out what was going on didn’t really do him any good. There’s a bit of a tentative and underplayed romance – and “underplayed” is not really something Korean romances normally go in for, sweepingly over-the-top is rather more standard – or at least friendship between Seong Gi-hun and fellow contestant Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector, which doesn’t end in happiness but with her dead as well. The bad guys don’t get their come-uppance. And so forth. That’s all very pleasing, but even if you aren’t familiar with the tropes of Korean TV the show generally resists taking the obvious path, to its credit.

Yet for all the violence, for all the gore, for all the subversion, the moments that Squid Game is most effective is when it’s at its stillest. After the first episode, when the contestants have been gathered and the first game has been played, they take a vote and – surprisingly – choose to end the games. The second episode then follows a few of the players back to their normal lives, and is immensely more affecting as we see their various different circumstances and what might drive them to such levels of desperation. There’s very little “action” but its moving, thoughtful and considered. The final episode begins with a burst of action but most of its run-time deals with the actual consequence of victory and what lasting impact that might carry, and it too is far more effective. It’s also a still episode, which focusses far more on the psychological aspects of the games rather than their brutality and has far greater impact because of it (a “twist” ending is played out perfectly acceptably but it doesn’t really add much).

Still, one thing Squid Game gets unquestionably right is the casting, with every single role being basically perfect. Lee Jung-jae shines as the main star, giving a wonderfully weary, sad-sack performance, and we even get a big shiny guest star cameo in Lee Byung-hun. But basically there isn’t a single bad performance here. No wait, actually, that’s not quite true. The VIP’s – repellant uber-rich types who bet on the outcome of the games because they’re so wealthy it’s the only thing that gives them any pleasure – are a bit one-note, and it’s more than a little unfortunate that the one character who is explicitly gay is one of them and tries to take advantage of one of the young servers. They’re also gifted with rather exaggerated accents – not quite Yosemite Sam but, y’know, nudging in that direction, which is a bit of a lazy shorthand.

And that’s not unrepresentative of the show overall. There’s much to commend here – I haven’t even mentioned the disconcerting costume design of the guards, with their pink boiler suits and blank, geometric facemasks, but the actual design of the show is terrific. And the score deserves much praise as well, properly unnerving. But the show does occasionally stray into lazy shorthand when a more considered approach might be to its benefit. The bursts of violence work as shock, but a bit more restraint rather than more-of-this-then might have allowed them to carry more impact once you get over that initial shock. Instead it keeps coming back again and again, with all the sledgehammer subtlety of American Psycho. A little discipline, rather than going for slightly lazy shock would have done wonders. Yet there is still a huge amount to admire here, and that contrast leaves it as a slightly confounding show, even as it manages to be extremely compelling. A show that often mistakes “worthy” as an appropriate synonym for “worthwhile”, Squid Game‘s social conscience needs to be sharpened and its baser instincts toned down.

Not entirely unlike the games themselves then.

Scores On The Doors? 7.5/10. And no, there shouldn’t be a Season 2.

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