In Netflix’s hit dystopian TV show “Squid Game,” 456 people facing serious debt and financial desperation play a series of deadly children’s games to win a $ 38 million cash prize in South Korea.
Koo Yong-hyun, a 35-year-old office worker in Seoul, has never had to deal with masked homicidal guards or competitors to slit his throat like the characters on the show do. But Mr Koo, who over-watched “Squid Game” in one night, said he sympathized with the characters and their struggle to survive in the country’s deeply unequal society.
Mr Koo, who made do with freelance gigs and government unemployment checks after losing his stable job, said it was “almost impossible to live comfortably on a regular employee’s salary” in a city where housing prices are soaring. Like many young people in South Korea and elsewhere, Mr. Koo sees increasing competition for a piece of a shrinking pie, as do “Squid Game” competitors.
These similarities helped turn the nine-episode drama into an unlikely international sensation. “Squid Game” is now the highest-rated show in the United States on Netflix and is fast becoming one of the most-watched shows in the history of the streaming service. “There is a good chance that this will be our greatest show of all time”, Ted sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix, said at a recent business conference.
Culturally, the show has sparked an online embrace of its distinct visuals, particularly the black masks decorated with simple squares and triangles worn by the anonymous guards, and a global curiosity for the Korean children’s games that underpin the deadly competitions. Recipes for dalgona, the sweet Korean treat at the center of a particularly tense confrontation, have gone viral.
Like the books and movies “The Hunger Games”, “Squid Game” holds its audience back with its violent tone, cynical plot and – spoiler alert! – a desire to kill fan favorite characters. But it also exploited a feeling familiar in the United States, Western Europe, and other countries, that prosperity in nominally wealthy countries has become increasingly elusive, as wealth disparities widen. and that house prices exceed affordable levels.
“The stories and issues of the characters are extremely personalized but also reflect the issues and realities of Korean society,” Hwang Dong-hyuk, the show’s creator, said in an email. He wrote the screenplay in 2008 as a movie, when many of these trends had become evident, but revamped it to reflect new concerns, including the impact of the coronavirus. (Minyoung Kim, head of content for the Asia-Pacific region at Netflix, said the company is in talks with Mr. Hwang to produce a second season.)
“Squid Game” is just the latest South Korean cultural export to gain global audiences by exploiting the country’s deep feelings of inequality and ebb. “Parasite,” the 2019 Oscar-winning Best Picture film, associated a desperate family of crooks with the oblivious members of a wealthy Seoul family. “Burning,” a 2018 arthouse hit, created the tension by pitting a young delivery guy against a wealthy rival to get a woman’s attention.
South Korea experienced a boom in the postwar years, making it one of the richest countries in Asia and leading some economists to call its rise the “miracle on the Han River”. But the wealth disparity has worsened as the economy matures.
“South Koreans had a collective community spirit,” says Yun Suk-jin, drama critic and professor of modern literature at National Chungnam University. But the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s undermined the country’s positive growth and “made everyone fight for themselves.”
The country now ranks 11th on the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the research group for the world’s richest nations. (The United States is ranked No. 6.)
As South Korean families tried to keep pace, household debt rose, prompting some economists to warn that debt could dampen the economy. House prices have soared to the point where housing affordability has become a hot political topic. Prices in Seoul soared more than 50% during the tenure of the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, and led to a political scandal.
“Squid Game” bares the irony between the social pressure to succeed in South Korea and the difficulty of doing just that, said Shin Yeeun, who graduated from college in January 2020, just before the pandemic struck. Now 27, she said she spent more than a year looking for stable work.
“It’s really hard for people in their twenties to find full-time jobs these days,” she said.
South Korea has also experienced a sharp drop in births, driven in part by the feeling among young people that raising children is too expensive.
“In South Korea, all parents want to send their children to the best schools,” Ms. Shin said. “For that, you have to live in the best neighborhoods. It would require saving enough money to buy a house, a goal so unrealistic “that I never even bothered to calculate how long it will take me,” Ms. Shin said.
“Squid Game” revolves around Seong Gi-hun, a gambling addict in his forties who can’t afford to buy his daughter a birthday present or pay for his aging mother’s medical bills. One day, he was offered the chance to participate in the Squid Game, a private event organized for the entertainment of wealthy people. To claim the $ 38 million prize, participants must go through six series of traditional Korean children’s games. Failure means death.
The 456 candidates speak directly to many of the country’s anxieties. One is a graduate of Seoul National University, the top university in the country, who is wanted for mismanaging client funds. Another is a North Korean defector who has to take care of her brother and help her mother escape from the North. Another character is an immigrant worker whose boss refuses to pay his salary.
The characters have resonated with South Korean youth who see no chance of advancing in society. Known locally as the ‘dirt spoon’ generation, many are obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes, such as cryptocurrencies and the lottery. South Korea has one of the largest virtual currency markets in the world.
Like the show’s cash prize, cryptocurrencies give “people the chance to change their lives in a second,” office clerk Mr. Koo said. Mr Koo, whose former employer went out of business during the pandemic, said the difficulty of making money is one of the reasons South Koreans are so obsessed with making money. money quickly.
“I wonder how many people would participate if ‘Squid Game’ took place in real life,” he said.