- by Floyd Kermode
- The Guardian
- Issue #1985
NOTE: This review may contain spoilers.
You know something has become a pop culture phenomenon when Bill Shorten, known for being a dag and quips that fall flat, tweeted: “ridiculous that climate progress in this country is now subject to the Squid Game going on between Barnaby & the PM.” Squid Game – more than being South Korea’s most popular cultural export since Gangnam Style – is the most-watched program on Netflix. It’s been viewed in over ninety countries, seen by 142 million viewers in twenty-eight days. Thus, when you’re the subject of an unfunny and (mostly) inaccurate tweet from Bill Shorten, suffice to say you’ve hit the mainstream.
I’ll try not to spoil Squid Game too much, in case there’s anyone out there who has somehow managed to remain un-spoilered. However, I’m not giving much away when I say that the show is almost nothing like the negotiations that went on between Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce who, after having eight and a half years to think about it, tried to think of a climate policy that would fool the electorate and keep their corporate donors happy for COP26 next month.
For a start, neither of our very well-paid leaders is cash-strapped. Squid Game begins with Seong Gi-Hun, who has lost his decent job during a strike (based on the brutal 2009 Sanyong strike, which led to thirteen suicides). He’s a gambling addict in debt to gangsters he can’t afford to repay, and his ex-wife is about to take their young daughter to the US and out of his life forever. A stranger offers him the chance to make money playing a game, and before you can say “that sounds sinister,” Seong finds himself on a mysterious island playing children’s games against a few hundred equally out-of-luck contestants.
Each player has prize money allocated to them, and when a player is eliminated, their money is deposited in a large transparent piggy bank suspended over the gymnasium/sleeping area where they eat and sleep between games. In a twist that will surprise nobody at this point, the losers die either during the game or by being shot by the sinister masked guards who run the island.
Apart from one man who doesn’t have long to live and wants a thrill, the contestants are mainly in the game for financial reasons, and the message that South Korea is a very tough place to live, where money is very important comes through clearly, but not didactically. Many of the participants are in the game due to bad decisions on their part, but this doesn’t let the society they live in off the hook. Another contestant, Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean, is surviving through pick-pocketing when we meet her. She tells another character that she came to the south because “I thought it would be better here.” When asked if it is better, she says nothing. The one non-Korean player, Ali, a Pakistani factory worker, is there because his Korean employer hasn’t paid him for months. To drive home the point of how harsh life can be in South Korea, the contestants get the chance to leave the game once they know it’s lethal. Most return after a few days on the outside.
The games are exciting, suspenseful, and violent. As more players are eliminated, the survivors begin to realise that it’s them or the others. In a more simplistic series, this would just lead to a series of mindless punch-ups, but Squid Game is good at keeping both players and the audience off-balance.
Sometimes cooperation is rewarded, sometimes players have to betray each other to stay in the game. All the while, since the guards and their boss are masked, we don’t know who’s running the show.
It gets you in, that’s for sure. I couldn’t stop speculating about who was really in charge of the game, who would win, and what would happen to the heroic character who sneaks onto the island, wanting to answer those questions as much as I do (more really, since I’m just watching tv, while he’s sneaking around a dangerous island). Watching Squid Game with my son, who’s seen it before, I felt like the annoying boss from The IT Crowd who spoils a Korean horror movie for his underlings by constantly speculating about the plot twists, shouting “He’s his own brother!” or “He’s an evil clone!”
The show is beautifully filmed and designed, from the now-iconic circle, square, and triangle masks that the different ranks of guards wear to the Max Escher-inspired series of stairways players have to march down to get to the games.
Is it as good as the hype suggests? It’s not as original as I’d thought it would be – there are obvious echoes of various other survival stories like Battle Royale (a Japanese battle to the death movie), and this viewer kept thinking of the late 1960s classic The Prisoner (about a mysterious island), and And Then There Were None (mysterious island, cast murdered one by one), but the series is otherwise genius. Squid Game is very good indeed and very worth watching if you can stand some quite graphic violence.