In the middle of Netflix sensation Squid Game — where people put their lives on the line to play children’s games — there is a discussion about “the weakest link.” Variously called “kachhi-mitti” in North India or “kachha-limboo” in Western India, this is described as “a beautiful rule kids used to keep so that the weakest kid wouldn’t feel like an outcast.” Squid Game, a riveting Korean series written and directed by Hwang Dong-Hyuk, makes room for everyone to play. Yet all is not what it seems. I appreciate the point of letting less capable kids in on the game, but being formally labelled weak — by your friends — is its own millstone.
Simple games are rarely simple. This is a visually stunning series. Jackbooted thugs wear hot magenta jumpsuits. Stairways look like Super Mario versions of MC Escher woodcuts. Primary geometric shapes — square, circle, triangle — are everywhere, signifying code and rank and clue, shapes that are both preschool and Playstation. Then they converge: there is a triangle of tables inside a circle on a checkerboard floor of squares. As with any memorably designed board-game, the aesthetic immediately demands our attention.
The premise is deceptively simple: 456 people crushed under insurmountable debt are made to compete in a winner-takes-all series of childhood games. If you lose, you’re killed. Lines of influence can be drawn from Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, Hunger Games, Takashi Miike’s As The Gods Will, and even David Fincher’s The Game. I was also reminded of the funky Japanese Netflix series Alice In Borderland, where Tokyo teenagers are lasered down by eyes in the sky as they play games determined by playing cards.
It is only Squid Game, though, that goes longform (over nine heavy episodes) and really focuses on the drama of the individuals, and on their active decision to compete. They choose to play. Away from the survivalist bustle of the game, one player pays to get his phone charged at a store while another has to genuflect for bus-fare. Inside that threatening world, they are — if nothing else — all equal.
Or are they? Equality is never absolute. In this case it means 455 out of 456 will die. This is a view to a cull.
Squid Game centres around Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) a compulsive gambler who has spent so much of his life looking for — and betting on — shortcuts that he’s barely moved forward. His mother needs an operation, his ex-wife is moving countries with his daughter, he has signed away organs to moneylenders who literally suck his blood. The first episode sets up his misery before introducing the gameshow mechanics of the series, and the remaining episodes compound it. He needs a win.
For all his ineptitude, Gi-hun is essentially a nice guy, something that disadvantages him in an arena uniquely suited to sadists. His fellow participants are less obviously sympathetic, but we unearth layers within each: Kang Sae-Byok (the stunning Jung Ho-yeon) is an unrepentant pickpocket but also a defector from North Korea who wants to bring her family across the border. O Yeung-so shines as an old man with a brain tumor who prefers to play rather than wait for inevitable death in the real world. One of the most compelling is Gi-hun’s brilliant friend, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), a top student who went into high finance and is now on the run after investing recklessly in Futures.
Every story has a sob. This is an unashamedly melodramatic series — the old people are ailing, the young are wise beyond their years — but Hwang makes it all relevant to our present moment. Gi-hun’s backstory involves a labour strike and state-sponsored violence, violence we glimpse through an astonishing reflection in his eyeball as he stays awake one night in the arena. Squid Game questions whether we know which games we’re playing. Margaret Atwood coined the term “Ustopia” to denote a hopeful (or seemingly hopeful) storyline in a dystopian world, and while Hwang’s story is set in the very real world of income inequality and cursed medical aid, it gives us a weird kind of hope.
Participants play six games spread over nine episodes, and while most episodes are an hour long, they left me wanting more. Cutting off a tug-of-war episode mid-tug is a cruel cliffhanger, but I found the sixth episode, “Gganbu,” particularly jawdropping, where expectations and character dynamics are entirely upended with one elegant twist in gameplay.
For all its distinctive authenticity, Squid Game flounders when dealing with non-Koreans. A Pakistani character, Ali (Anupam Tripathi) is not only naive to the point of idiocy, but exotically daft: his reaction to a perfectly nondescript circle is that it reminds him of “the moon in his hometown.” Old wealthy Caucasian men — as masked VIP guests watching the macabre games — say nutty things with a cartoonish twang. When one says “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” another is compelled to add “Another student of the Bard, I had no idea.”
Then again, creating obnoxious caricatures of rich white men may not be accidental. Or culpable.
William Golding’s enduring 1954 novel Lord Of The Flies featured shipwrecked schoolchildren trying, in vain, to govern themselves before descending into savagery. It is admittedly easy to empathise with the participants but, as subscribers funding a mega-corporation and making this series the most watched show in the world, we should be aware of the irony. Those watching Squid Game stand on both sides of the wall. Here we are competing, hoping, flitting about without a point. Here we are watching, binging, amused by realistic brutality. We are the lords. We are the flies.
Streaming tip of the week:
Iconic comedian Dave Chappelle dropped his latest special, The Closer, on Netflix this week, claiming it’ll be his last routine for a while. The provocateur lambasts his (many) critics in the scathing special, and if he does disappear, the loss will be ours. We need him to push our buttons.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.