Why Squid Game should be your next box set
James R | On 03, Oct 2021
“Kids’ games are simple.” Those are the famous last words uttered by someone in Squid Game, Netflix’s fiendishly gripping and disturbing thriller, which take the simplicity of kids’ games and invests it with bracingly grown-up horror.
The premise is deceptively straightforward: 456 people all compete in a string of challenges in the hope of winning the prize of 45.6 billion won (just under £30 million). We follow Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a divorcee whose life has gone severely downhill and is living off his mother. On the train, he bumps into a stranger who offers him money in exchange for a wager – and the resulting gamble convinces him to sign up to the idea of playing games on a bigger scale for even more money. But what might have been a friendly invitation soon becomes something much darker, as Gi-hun finds himself drugged and kidnapped, only to wake up in a gigantic dormitory surrounded by hundreds of others.
It’s not long until he bumps into someone he knows: a childhood friend, Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), whose bright future as a smart banker has left him on the run and in the red. Their shared financial plight makes it clear what all these players have in common: they’re all on the edge of desperation, and would see their lives changed dramatically by taking home all that cash. The question is: will they do whatever it takes to get hold of it?
The result plays out like Battle Royale, with a hint of The Hunger Games, as a group of people are pushed to their physical – and, more pressingly, moral – limits to get a shot at a better life. The most striking moments occur when we spend time away from the games and see their normal lives unfolding in stress, uncertainty and poverty. Whether that fate is directly of their own making, the inequality baked into society is an indirect cause, and writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk is unflinching in his scathing critique of unfair social structures – a theme that recalls Netflix’s similarly popular Korean series Kingdom, which uses zombie horror to draw the line between the privileged and the not in a period apocalypse.
Squid Game’s satire finds its teeth in the outcome of the first game – Red Light Green Light – which challenges every player to get across a room without moving while they’re on camera. The fact that camera is hidden in the head of a giant, rotating doll is terrifying enough. The fact that sniper rifles pick off anyone who’s caught makes it downright traumatic. And so these contestants find themselves the playthings of a system that tells them it’s all about equality and free will, but is exploiting them for its own entertainment. At one point, the players are told they can all go home safely in the majority vote to stop the games, but it’s a referendum that takes place in the shadow of lies and dangled carrots – while the games-makers tell the players that they’ve all chosen to be there, what choice do they really have?
That undercurrent makes Squid Game a pointed and timely watch – the show has resonated so much with viewers that it’s about to be the most-watched Netflix original series to date. But its meaty concepts and commentary is wrapped up in a stylish, slickly executed package: Hwang Dong-hyuk directs each graphic set piece with a vivid, outlandish sense of colour, which places things nearer to a video game than reality, from a tug of war to a nail-biting task involving a bridge. Even the guards, wearing pink jumpsuits and masks with symbols on, would give Black Mirror nightmares. The whole thing is heightened by a stunning score from Parasite composer Jung Jae-il, which blends playground taunts with Morricone-like suspense, driving events forward with dizzying rhythms.
The fast-paced games are intercut with slower scenes that are, if anything, even more unsettling, as the players attempt to live and sleep in the same dorm – while also navigating the risk of other players bumping off the competition to get one step ahead. It’s an environment where teamwork proves key, but in which nobody is encouraged to trust anyone. There’s enough breathing space to give depth to the diverse ensemble – including the standout Jung Ho-yeon as Kang Sae-byeok, a thief who has escaped from North Korea – but we’re encouraged to join in the wary suspicion every step of the way. Combined with cleverly deployed cliffhangers, the series implicates us in the voyeuristic nature of the violent tournament as much as the people watching on-screen. The result is scary, tense, gripping and anything but simple.
Squid Game is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.