Through dots, we connect.
讓世界看到彩色的香港 讓香港看到彩色的世界

Peel the Onion | Squid Game Netflix Review: Predatory Capitalism Laid Bare (Part II)

By J.B.Browne

Red Light, Green Light

Squid Game's creepy laser-eyed doll in a bloody version of the children's game "red light, green light" (Photo: Netflix)

Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game is a profoundly resonant work that deals with the human psychology of inequality and economic exploitation in capitalist South Korea. The mini-series picks up the threads of the moral convulsions of big-budget dystopian survival dramas like 2000's Japanese movie Battle Royale and The Hunger Games movie franchise. But as razor-sharp modern K-content, it more thematically works as a running accompaniment to 2019's Oscar-winning Parasite, which offered a glimpse into South Korea's raging class divisions.

Squid Game is a dark fiction K-thriller that's violent and disturbing but also stoic and even a little funny. The central premise is this: 456 people from different walks of life who are struggling with crippling debt are deliberately targeted to join a seemingly fun social experiment — all they need to do is play some children's games, and if they win, could end up walking away with 45.6 billion won. More than enough to solve all their earthly *money* troubles.

The series follows a trio of protagonists, the narrative focal point of the all-star cast of well-known South Korean actors. The main protagonist, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), is a middle-aged, debt-ridden gambling addict who lives with his elderly mother. A victim of hypergamy (his ex-wife left him to marry "up"), his daughter now lives with another man. Seong Gi-hun means well, but it's unlikely he will ever recover any dignity in this lifetime. His childhood friend, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), is a disgraced former banker wanted by the police and is in massive debt. He has more than a whiff of corporate Machiavellism about him.

Chief protangonist, Seong Gi-hun (Photo: Netflix)

In the first episode, We're introduced to both friends as children playing Grandma's Footsteps or Red Light, Green Light in South Korea. Both have monumental reasons to acquire a vast amount of wealth instantaneously. The series ends with both doing the same as adults but with much higher stakes. Kang Sae-byeok (HoYeon Jung) is the series tritagonist, a North Korean defector who joins Squid Game to get the funds to get her brother out of an orphanage and her mother out of North Korea.

The game's organizers target all 456 participants due to their seemingly irresolvable moneyless lives. And they all willingly (multiple times, it turns out) enter the game as a nothing-to-lose-win-at-all-cost way out of their circumstances. Shuttled off to an exclusive island, they are drugged and managed by eerie masked henchmen with head symbols denoting rank and responsibility. Once inside, they are required (but are also willing) to compete in a series of life and death contests as a bunch of white anglo elites watch the games "live," making bets for entertainment.

Thankfully, pockets of levity intersperse the brutal oneupmanship and moral wrangling that intensifies with each episode. We come to like and sympathize with unfortunate innocents like Ali (Anupam Tripathi), who Cho Sang-woo theatrically betrays. But also "bad guys" like neck-tat gangster Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung Tae), who is unpredictable but magnetic and entertaining all the same. An organ trading subplot allows for a good cop/bad cop family feud between the mysterious Front Man (Lee Byung-hun) and his policeman brother Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), who infiltrates the island facility.

And then, all of a sudden, all along, we've been in the presence of a mysterious crime lord — sweet old Oh Il-nam (Oh Yeong-su), Squid Game Player 001. Throughout the series, he's been there as one of the lighter characters; we laughed, we cried when he died, and then it's revealed that he's been running the entire thing. When Seong Gi-hun ends up winning the money, he visits Oh Il-nam, who dies a second time in the final episode when the Front Man closes his eyes. Though by now, it's clear that "Squid Game" is, in fact, a global franchise with organizers running multiple survival games.

The ending is a dark twist, paving the way for a second season with many unwrapped answers.


Capitalist dictatorship? (Photo: Netflix)

So what are the lessons of Squid Game, and why does it connect so hard with audiences? From a glocal perspective, perhaps it reflects the more profound anxieties of South Korea's place in the world, transitioning from a Third World country to a top global economy. However, it's important to distinguish that this wasn't because of electoral democracy and market capitalism. South Korea's developed world status sprung from its former state capitalism model under an authoritarian dictatorship. If the show is indeed an allegory of what Caitlyn Clark for LiveWire calls "capitalist hell," why did it take a South Korean show to reflect on the ineptitudes of such a system? Would something this brutal and honest have even been made if it wasn't from the belly of another culture? Perhaps Squid Game's cultural backdrop of "otherness" softened the blow of reality of its critical message just enough to reach a global western audience yearning for conversation. Perhaps it resonates because it reminds us of the inability of western liberal procedural democracies and free-market economies to self-analyze and does anything about it. If they haven't realized it yet, foreign viewers already live in a capitalist dictatorship informed by elite interests and brutal individualist gains. Squid Game is a curt albeit entertaining reminder.

Squid Games strikes a deep subconscious chord - that's right, a musical chord – our vibrational humanity and interconnectedness. To "win" or even survive means taking away from someone else first regardless of the consequences. From an early age, we're indoctrinated with the ideals of meritocracy. Working hard will yield material success and happiness. But when most things don't work out, as they often don't, we're imbued with a sense of existential uselessness. The game is rigged, capitalism is a myth, and we're all dogs at the end of it all.

Chief antagonist, Oh Il-nam (Photo: Netflix)

Finally, the parable of Squid Game is the parable of the old man, Oh Il-nam. Oh Il-nam got rich, bored, and wanted to return to the most fun he ever had in his life. His life illustrates a system that is failing the oppressed AND the people benefiting from it. Oh Il-nam had more success than most could ever dream of, but it was still never enough or as good as those carefree childhood dreams on the playground. The squid is not about being rich. It's about people living with basic dignity.

As he would refer himself, J.B. Browne is a half "foreign devil" living with anxiety relieved by purchase. HK-born Writer/Musician/Tinkerer.


The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.

Read more articles by J.B.Browne:

Peel the Onion | Squid Game Netflix Review: Predatory Capitalism Laid Bare (Part I)

Peel the Onion | Blown Away by Dune? Six Denis Villeneuve Films You Need to See (Part II)

Peel the Onion | Blown Away by Dune? Six Denis Villeneuve Films You Need to See (Part I)


Related Topics

New to old 
New to old
Old to new
Search Content