Squid Games offers masked antagonists. PHOTO COURTESY OF PIXABATY.COM
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCTOBER 21, 2021)
What are you ready to do to get out of debt? On September 17, 2021, “Squid Game,” written and directed by Hwang Dong-Hyuk, released its 1st season on Netflix. Four hundred hapless individuals are challenged to participate in games from childhood to death, with the promise of a huge cash reward worthy of eliminating debt for life. Over the show’s nine-hour run time, Hwang creates an exciting experience that shines through creative design choices and standout characters.
While the series highlights a handful of gamers for viewers, the focus is on Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), who is riddled with debt and family issues. Gi-hun receives a card from a mysterious costumed salesman (Gong Yoo), causing him to wake up in an unknown building with 400 strangers. The only two G-hun recognizes are an acquaintance of the Cho Sang-woo family (Park Hae-soo) and local pickpocket Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Hoyeon).
The entire original cast was fantastic throughout the series, especially in the more emotional scenes. Considering the fairly large cast, it was fun to see the subtle differences in how everyone interacts from player to player. These differences then dissipate on the other characters as the series progresses, leading to rich character development among the main cast.
I praise the original cast this because the English dubbing on mostly Korean actors and actresses is appalling. The lines come with an awkward inflection, rivaling the performance of a college theater club. To enjoy this program properly, English subtitles with the original sound are recommended.
With “Citizen Death Game for Prize” being fairly common, “Squid Game” adds a lot of unpredictability to the concept. By the second episode, it becomes evident that the off-game scenes are as important and exciting as the games themselves: even outside of games, players are never safe and trust can be broken. With an average episode of one hour, the show is flexible to explore the nuances of the concept.
“Squid Game” is also unique because of its distinct game scenes. Other “citizen death game for a price” media tend to be stereotypical; you can watch a trap / game scene from the “Saw” series and understand how the other scenes will play out. The games in “Squid Game” all have their own unique tone, rhythm and aesthetic to make each of them impactful.
The cinematography of “Squid Game” was simply masterful. In terms of shot composition, each scene was visually unique and interesting. I felt, even in the most reserved moments, that there was a lot to enjoy on screen. Using symmetry in the framing of some shots was very satisfying, especially in game scenes when the larger area and crowd of players are shown.
The bizarre settings lead to the construction of a fantastic world. There is a striking visual contrast between each decor, giving personality even to the smallest rooms. A big detail is how the building containing the games gets darker and dirtier the lower the locations.
Social commentary is found throughout the series, mostly revolving around fear and hopelessness caused by financial insecurity. The rich are shown to be carefree and impulsive, while the less fortunate are seen as needing to think through their every move. The socio-political statement that the death games were more “equal” than the real world was interesting and added more depth to the morality of the wicked.
The biggest problem with the show is the ending. The ninth and final episode feels more interested in creating a season two cliffhanger rather than shutting down our main characters. Yes, the premise itself is bound to have a dark ending, but the ending seems confusing for the sake of creating unanswered questions without adhering to the characterization.
Another element that can confuse audiences is the humor of the show. The jokes made are very distanced, with only one episode attempting a cohesive comedy. While some jokes land, others feel a bit awkward due to the seriousness of the characters’ situation, possibly due to cultural differences. The humor feels like a callback to the show’s bizarre premise, mitigating the immersion effect.
Even with these flaws, “Squid Game” deserves its worldwide recognition. The boom in Korean programming, also including works such as “Train to Busan” and “Parasite”, has surely broadened the media palettes of many viewers. Between its complex characters, impressive sets and new take on the subgenre, this is a phenomenal show worth binging, likely leaving audiences wanting more.