You’ve heard of it, if you own or borrow a Netflix account you’ve almost definitely had the trailer thrust upon you once you’re done watching something totally unrelated – only to watch a trippy sequence of colourful jumpsuit laden people traverse some MC Escher style stairs before someone gets shot while playing a playground game. All in the name of winning a cash prize.
Sounds odd? There’s definitely more ‘normal’ shows on Netflix for sure, but it’s been a while since something grabbed hold of the socio-economic zeitgeist quite like this. If you’ve not seen the trailer, or simply can’t make heads or tails of it from the brutal snapshot sequence the streaming giant provides, then here’s a rundown.
Squid Game is a survival/horror/drama series from Hwang Dong-Hyuk. It follows the lives of hundreds of people all in various forms of debt, from which they can’t escape using normal means, playing murderous versions of childhood games to win the cash prize of several millions. Why do they need the money? Some to escape loan sharks, some to save their family, but with hundreds of contestants come hundreds of reasons.
Their captors? Well, that’s technically themselves as everyone is there voluntarily. From Gi-hun (the main character of sorts in the ensemble cast) who has gambled away vast sums, Cho Sang-woo as an embezzler, and many others with darker stories and secrets revealed throughout their tales of survival.
However, it’s the intimidating, faceless masked guards and the eponymous ‘Front Man’ that will stick in your mind. With disguised voices and no way of identifying them they seem to serve as an allegory throughout the story as they funnel the contestants towards games where many will inevitably die.
And die they do. Starting with 456 contestants, this number is rapidly culled. As with many survival shows, this reviewer wouldn’t be surprised if you entered this show with trepidation, expecting nothing but cheap gore, a weak story and maybe a jump scare – a bit like Battle Royale if you’ve ever stumbled upon that borderline exploitative and deeply uncomfortable watch.
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth here.
Not only is the show shot extremely well, utilising the gore it does display to unnerving effect, but also utilising infrared lenses, bizarre camera placements in areas and intimate close-up shots that allow the actors to show off their equally impressive chops.
It also bears noting that this should be watched in Korean, as intended by the director. The English dubbed voices aren’t bad – they deserve respect for their work. But, the unsynced mouths and disembodiment from the script pull you away from the frankly stunning script, and the great work the original cast do with it.
A second note (sorry!) for watching in Korean is to make sure your subtitles are set to ‘English’ not the English CC version – to ensure a more accurate translation. Thank you to BBC news for catching that little issue, or at least for making it known to this reviewer.
As the contestant count is reduced, the emotional toll and investment of the viewer will conversely rise as more and more of the characters backstories are revealed, drop by drop.
Being an episodic show on Netflix, as opposed to a movie, there are of course cliffhangers between episodes. As we’re shunted wildly between the games, rarely letting up pace as the ‘contestants’ scheme, talk and confide in one another between their various potential death sentences. These cliffhangers however are so good that it will likely be a conscious effort to not binge your way through the set, as the Netflix Gods seem to intend.
It’s not the most subtle show going. The messages it lays on about class divides, poverty and debt aren’t weaved into the story so much as presented directly to you as brightly as the guards’ pink jumpsuits. Neither is the message particularly new, other Korean gems such as Parasite (2019) have done more with less and earned their own accolades.
Squid Game however, is not trying to rewrite what has come before, nor does it seem to be trying to leave a gentle imprint. Its message is more violent, and written in blood, arguably making it more noticeable.
Absolutely not recommended for viewing with or by younger viewers, the show is still fantastic and will have you lying awake afterwards for one reason or another. Be it to anticipate the next episode, think of the horror of what came before, or maybe even the subtle-as-a-brick social message.
Author: Steve, Cardiff store