Squid Game Series Review: A twisted, satisfying survival drama
Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk has conceived a bloody survival drama along the lines of Saw and The Hunger Games which also had social commentary as an undertone
How far would you go for money? The latest Korean series, Squid Game, while exploring this question, indirectly touches upon related topics such as class disparity and desperation. Perhaps you might have heard about the series already, given the trending hashtags and the memes. In fact, so popular has this series become that a South Korean internet service provider has filed a lawsuit against Netflix, demanding compensation for the rising costs caused by a surge of traffic, on account of the series’ popularity. So, what really is this series about?
Set on an island far from habitation, Squid Game sees hundreds of contestants playing a series of children's games for a chance at a large cash prize. Failing to win would result in elimination, not just from the game but for good. You see, masked guards, under the command of the Front Man, stand ready to gun down anyone who fails to win the competition. While the affluent who don't know what to do with surplus wealth fund these games for their viewing pleasure, those in debt are targeted and roped in as players, only for one person to walk out victoriously with a heart full of painful memories and a bank account full of cash.
Director: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Cast: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon, O Yeong-su, Wi Ha-joon
Streaming on: Netflix
Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk has conceived a bloody survival drama along the lines of Saw and The Hunger Games which also had social commentary as an undertone, but the similarities end there. What sets this series apart is the ingenious ways in which childhood games are tweaked to make the competition tough. Even as adults, we find the game relatable. There's even one involving Dalgona Candy, yes, the candy version of the drink that went viral during the lockdown. Right from the harmless Tug of War to playing with marbles, Dong-hyuk integrates a sense of nostalgia into a gory game with the devil itself. This play with yin and yang continues in many aspects throughout this nine-episode series. The games might be dark, but the locations look colourful as a creche. Losing a game gets you killed, but that doesn't stop the representatives of the game from playing it honestly. These unsaid rules set the groundwork for a world that gets immersive quite fast.
The series doesn't hold back from showing gore and violence. Splattered brains, point-blank headshots and gallons of blood are all over the screen, and I liked that the series convinces us that these 'sacrifices' are necessary for the story to progress. The show's underlying social commentary is also hard to miss. In line with Parasite, Squid Game also talks about the discrepancy in the system and the wealth imbalance at the heart of it all. If money segregates the players from the organisers, it’s a lust for power that makes the players themselves come up with their own teams. We follow Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a gambling addict who struggles to financially support his daughter, and over the episodes, he teams up with the brainy Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), a North Korean defector Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a Pakistani immigrant Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), and Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su), an elderly man with brain tumour. Another faction consists of those with a criminal record and are in the game to make money. Apart from these sub-plots, there's also one involving Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), a cop who sneaks into the game as a guard. Squid Game brilliantly intertwines the nail-biting game sequences with emotional backstories that explain the integral players' characteristics.
As the players progress through different stages, we witness them being pushed to their physical and mental limits and discover new aspects of themselves. They make for some of the warmest scenes of this series, which is also elevated by some brilliant performances. Jung-jae's Gi-hun, despite being a flawed character, is the most likeable character, thanks to his simplicity.
Every episode ends with a cliffhanger, designed specifically to bait the binge-watcher in you. What doesn't really work in favour of the series are the twists we discover along with both Seong Gi-hun and Hwang Jun-ho. The main twist in the final episode, in particular, when Gi-hun discovers an unsettling truth, invalidates many of the valiant and heart-warming scenes in the earlier episodes. On the whole, Squid Game is an intriguing survival drama that raises many existential questions, and you can see why the world is hooked to it.