Squid Games features masked antagonists. PHOTO COURTESY OF PIXABATY.COM
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON OCTOBER 21, 2021)
What are you willing to do to get out of debt? On September 17th, 2021, “Squid Game,” written and directed by Hwang Dong-Hyuk, released its 1st season on Netflix. Four hundred unfortunate individuals are challenged to compete in childhood games to the death, with a promise of an immense cash reward worthy of removing lifelong debt. In the show’s nine-hour runtime, Hwang creates a thrilling experience which shines due to creative design choices and remarkable characters.
While the series spotlights a handful of players to the viewers, the main focus is on Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), who is riddled with debt and family troubles. Gi-hun is given a card by a mysterious suited salesman (Gong Yoo), leading to him waking up in an unknown building with 400 strangers. The only two G-hun recognizes are family acquaintance Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) and local pickpocket Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Hoyeon).
The entire original cast was fantastic throughout the whole series, particularly during more emotional scenes. Given the rather large cast, it was entertaining seeing the subtle differences in how everyone interacts from one player to the next. These differences then rub off on the other characters as the series progresses, leading to rich character development among the main cast.
I give this praise to the original cast, as the English dub over the mostly Korean actors and actresses is dreadful. Lines are delivered with goofy inflection, rivaling performances from a middle school drama club. To enjoy this show properly, English subtitles with original audio is recommended.
With “citizen death game for prize” being rather common, “Squid Game” adds a lot of unpredictability to the concept. By the second episode, it becomes apparent that the non-game scenes are as important and exciting as the games themselves: even outside the games, players are never safe, and trust can be broken. With an average episode being an hour, the show is flexible to explore nuances within the concept.
“Squid Game” is also unique by having such distinct game scenes. Other “citizen death game for prize” media tends to be formulaic; one can watch a trap/game scene from the “Saw” series and understand how other scenes will play out. The games in “Squid Game” all have their own tone, pacing, and aesthetic to make each of them impactful.
“Squid Game” cinematography was nothing short of masterful. In terms of shot composition, every scene was visually unique and interesting. It felt, even in more reserved moments, like there was plenty on the screen to appreciate. The use of symmetry in framing certain shots was greatly satisfying, particularly in game scenes when the larger area and crowd of players are displayed.
The bizarre set pieces lead to fantastic world building. There is stark visual contrast between each setting, giving personality to even the smallest rooms. One great detail is how the building holding the games gets darker and more dirty the lower the locations go.
Social commentary is found throughout the series, mainly revolving around the fear and desperation caused by financial insecurity. The rich are displayed as careless and impulsive, while the worse-off are seen as needing to think about their every move. The sociopolitical statement of the death games being more “equal” than the real world was interesting and added more depth to the villains’ morality.
The biggest issue with the show is the ending. The ninth and final episode feels more interested in creating a season two cliffhanger rather than providing closure for our main characters. Yes, the premise itself is bound to have a dark ending, but the ending feels confusing for the sake of creating unanswered questions without adhering to characterization.
Another element that may confuse audiences is the show’s humor. The quips made are heavily distanced, with only one episode attempting consistent comedy. While some jokes land, others feel a bit awkward due to the severity of the characters’ situation, perhaps due to cultural differences. The humor feels like a reminder of the show’s bizarre premise, lessening the effect of immersion.
Even in these flaws, “Squid Game” is worthy of its worldwide recognition. The rise of Korean programming, also including works such as “Train to Busan” and “Parasite,” has surely expanded the media pallets of numerous viewers. Between its complex characters, impressive sets, and fresh take on the sub-genre, this is a phenomenal show worth binging, likely leaving audiences wanting more.