Review: Squid Game
A mental mindfuck can be nice
So, like everyone in the world and their dog, I have watched Squid Game, but in case you haven’t yet, there’ll be no major spoilers to ruin things for you. This is a thing that needs to unfold for you to fully appreciate.
Gi-hun is a deadbeat. He’s an inveterate gambler, who is failing in his job as a chauffeur. He’s mired in debt (some of which is owed to violent loan sharks), living with his aging mother who is in failing health, and has a difficult relationship with his estranged ex-wife and daughter. After a day gambling he gets involved in a game of chance with a well-dressed stranger in a train station. At the end he is given a card containing nothing but the three symbols of a circle, triangle and square, and a phone number to call to compete in a game for a big cash prize. Finding himself in desperate straits, he calls the number, where he is told to wait at a pickup point. After being picked up, he is drugged and, on reawakening, finds himself in an unknown place with 455 other contestants. They all soon discover how high the stakes are when a huge number of them are gunned down in the first round. We follow the remaining contestants through the rounds, which are all based on children’s playground games. In the meantime, a Seoul cop has also arrived at the game site (I won’t be disclosing details here), in search of his missing brother, having come across the calling card in connection to two incidents. He soon manages to gain entry and infiltrates the “backstage” area, posing as an operative, who are divided into three groups marked by their masks: triangles (soldiers), circles (workers), and squares (organisers/managers). These operatives are led by a black-masked commander, known only as the Front Man.
The story was written principally by Hwang Dong-hyuk and in some places is partly based on people from his own childhood, as well as encapsulating feelings and experinces from his own life at the time he began writing. There is certainly an allegorical feel about the structures of modern capitalist societies, and influences brought in from manga such as Battle Royale, of which is he was apparently a fan.
Like many SE Asian cultures, Korea is a post-feudal society, and economic and social hierarchies persist, even in the face of the huge economic growth of the past couple of generations. These differences and hierarchies persist even in language and modes of address¹. The issue of North Korea lingers in the background too, in the character of Sae-byeok, who is treated with suspicion and disdain by a number of characters because of her origins. But the thing they all have in common is that every single one of them is financially insecure, deeply in debt, and cut adrift. Some are purely unlucky; others still appear to simply have fallen on bad fortune; some appear on the surface to be dissolute. However, even those we initially are encouraged to have less sympathy for turn out to have rather more complex histories that explain their current circumstances. Gi-hun is one of them, but he’s not the only one we rapidly find ourselves empathising with. The middle episodes 4, 5, and 6 pick out the backstories of some of the key players in the game, and explain their motivations for being where they are. Episode 6 in particular is emotionally wrenching.
I’ve watched a number of Korean dramas in my time, including Mr Sunshine, My ID is Gangnam Beauty, and Love Alarm. Quite a lot of Korean dramas seem to like employing a stylised form of acting which differs significantly from Western styles, especially in the UK. Understatement isn’t a big thing. Pauses are. Big pauses. Long pauses. Long, glacial, stately pauses. The pausiest pauses. TL;DR: there are pauses. But there aren’t a lot of them here though, which was a slight surprise for me; the pacing might look slightly slower in parts to those of us used to an orgy of jump cuts, but the kind of breathing space it gives proceedings is more than welcome. There are also notable differences in the way facial expression and speech cadences work. To Western eyes, it looks very much like emotion is dialled up and heightened. Some might call it scenery chewing, but it’s just a difference in convention. It’s also noticeable in Squid Game when English dialogue is used. Directed by a Korean, whose first language isn’t English, the performance of this dialogue sounds weird to natural anglophones. But I really didn’t mind this. It actually added to the air of unreality, and also suggested to me that the VIP audience we discover during proceedings were attempting to conceal their identities even further than we could already tell.
But the key question is simple: did it all work? Damn right it did. Very quickly there is emotional buy-in to these people’s experience. The twists, when they come, are very well done. The perceptive might be able to see, or guess certain things, but there are plenty of surprises, and misdirections even then. Most satisfying of all, the ending isn’t simple, or trite, and it should leave the viewer with a host of nagging questions. Hwang Dong-hyuk hasn’t said whether a second series has been commissioned yet, but it’s a safe bet there’s more to be told in this story at some point. And I’ll be waiting for it.
¹ Korea, like Japan still maintains honorific forms in everyday speech, and there’s one very specific and important moment between the characters Sang-Woo and Ali early on that illustrates this, though comments have been made about how the English language dialogue translation in the show has missed some of that nuance.