The Death Game genre has been a popular one ever since the manga adaptation ‘Battle Royale’ arrived in 2000. Following on from that, other projects within this genre have appeared: ‘Hunger Games’, Netflix’s ‘Alice in Borderland’ and the animes ‘Mirai Nikki’ and ‘King’s Game’. And the latest big hit on streaming service Netflix also belongs to this genre: ‘Squid Game’.
The South Korean show ‘Squid Game’ follows Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae), a desperate and broke divorcee. Like hundreds of others, he decides to join a contest that guarantees the last man standing a 45.6 billion won prize if they can survive 6 deadly rounds based on childhood games.
Recently, the show has exploded in popularity. It quickly became the number one show on Netflix in various countries, including South Korea, U.S.A and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, it’s becoming the streaming service’s most popular show next to ‘Bridgerton’ after only three weeks on the site. And, while this genre’s swift popularity is surprising, there’s no denying that ‘Squid Game’ is fantastic and my new favourite show.
The cast have been fantastically chosen and the pacing shared with the cast is beautifully executed. With this many characters, there was a worry that the show would either give viewers too much information or completely side-line some characters before their demise. However, the show wastes no time in pinpointing the main characters that viewers will be following for the duration of the nine episodes, as well as taking its time to highlight other, smaller, characters. And the cast is brilliant; it would be difficult to highlight a standout as they all shined throughout. However, Lee Jung-jae is fantastic as Gi-Hun. Even though the trope of a single father that’s down on his luck and disliked by his ex-wife’s new partner is one that’s been done countless times, it’s very relevant here. Even Gi-Hun’s gambling addiction is important, and his overall situation is what brings him to the titular games in the first place. Despite his flaws, he has a good heart; he cares for his daughter and wants her to be happy. He also tries to stay positive throughout the duration of the show until the very end. There’s a charming person underneath all the bad decisions he’s made. Furthermore, his character highlights that, while all the participants are there through bad decisions, the majority of them are good people that have just fallen into financial ruin due to addiction or wrong choices.
Ultimately, while ‘Squid Game’ does belong in the Death Game genre, it stands out by focusing on the characters first, and placing them centre stage, before turning its attention to the actual death games themselves. This means that, when a character inevitably meets their demise, it’s tragic each time because the character development is solid and confident. The audience know their motivations for being there, thanks to Episode 2 entitled ‘Hell’, so the deaths aren’t meaningless. This is another way in which the show stands out: all of the characters that participate are there of their own free will. They chose to be involved in this because, unfortunately, life has not been kind to them financially.
The other side of ‘Squid Game’ is the games themselves; each round is based on childhood games that were played in South Korea in the 70’s and 80’s according to show creator Hwang Dong-Hyuk. And the first game, Red Light Green Light, has now become a famous scene for a reason: it’s not only brutal but also looks simple yet fantastical at the same time. It’s a visual that won’t be forgotten any time soon, specifically the robot girl that is utilized in this sequence. The rest of the games follow the same visual pattern of being simple yet beautiful and are a great way of demonstrating certain characters’ strengths. For example, the first game introduces Ali, a Pakistani man who helps Gi-Hun win the round and proves his physical strength brilliantly. Sang-Woo, Gi-Hun’s childhood friend, is proven to be smart and perfectly demonstrates this in between the games and in episode six, titled ‘Gganbu’. The simplicity and, to an extent, the nostalgic feel of the games make them tense and, surprisingly, more dangerous. As a child, red light green light was played in the playgrounds frequently amongst some of the other games displayed here and they were fun to play. However, when they’re blended in with the adult world and the ugly side of humanity when it comes to survival, these games hold a whole new meaning.
The theme of childhood doesn’t stop at the games. Even the music, costumes and setting further emphasize the feeling of capturing a childhood now gone. The brilliant score was composed by Jung Jae-il (Okja, Parasite) and carries a child-like innocence to it. ‘Round 1’ utilizes the recorder remarkably well and is wonderous and fun, and even ‘Pink Soldiers’ by artist 23 sounds joyful yet creepy at the same time; it’s a perfect musical representation of the childhood games being blended into the adult world. Then there’s ‘Unfolded’ by Jung Jae-il, which sounds mysterious but epic; it’s clear that an important moment has occurred during this track. The score plays just as much of an important part in the show as the characters do.
The costumes and setting are also important and further symbolise child-like nature. Bright and simple colours are used consistently in the main location, e.g.: the main staircase, which resembles a mix of a McDonalds play area and the M. C. Escher Lithograph ‘Relativity’. It uses a lot of pinks, blues and yellows to not only give viewers some truly unique imagery (another visual revolving around a bloody slide is another amazing shot), but to also place viewers and participants in a very surreal situation. The costumes are fantastic too: the neon pink boiler suits that the pink soldiers wear is visually striking, and their fencing masks are eerie and haunting. And, because the participants never see their faces, the soldiers are mysterious. The participants’ costumes essentially resemble a school uniform: the simple tracksuits are very reminiscent of P.E. classes from school. These amazing details all combinate to bring viewers an amazing visual treat that carries beautiful symbolism.
After practically binge-watching ‘Squid Game’, it’s clear why this exploded in popularity. While it does belong in the Death Game genre, it would be shameful for audiences to push this aside as another pointless piece of media that just kills people for no reason, because that’s not the case here. The writing is incredible: the characters’ motivations and arcs are fully explored, making their inevitable demise meaningful and emotional. Furthermore, the symbolism of childhood games and placing adults in a school-like setting is a masterful decision. The show holds so many layers on its shoulders, not just in the writing and dialogue, but in the visuals, costumes and score too.
If this is sitting on your Netflix watchlist and you have yet to see it, I would say change that now. There’s a reason it’s so popular and that’s because it’s an amazing piece of work, and I truly applaud creator Hwang Dong-Hyuk on making this mesmerizing, shocking and emotional show.
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