james debate
james debate

Sunday 24 October 2021

Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk
Network Netflix
Starring Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon
Genre Survival Drama
Running Time 32-63 minutes

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“The exciting thing for me would be if the next Stranger Things came from outside America... right now, historically, nothing of that scale has ever come from anywhere but Hollywood.” These words, spoken in 2018 by Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos can't help but come to mind when watching Squid Game. Ever since they moved into original content, Netflix have poured an impressive amount of resources into the development of world cinema and foreign language productions. Many of these have even met with notable success (see Dark, Money Heist), but none have yet had the global impact of a hit like Stranger Things. Those words loom now, because with Squid Game it appears that the moment has finally arrived.

To say that Squid Game has been a success would be a gross understatement. Number 1 in 90 countries, 117 million viewers in its first month. Squid Game has blown past the record set by Bridgerton to become Netflix's all time most watched series at launch. Not just for foreign language productions, but for all Netflix productions. It is hard to overstate what a remarkable accomplishment this is, for a subtitled Korean series without any actors or production team who are known in the west to have smashed records and become the biggest thing in global entertainment is absolutely unprecedented. How did this happen, and is the hype deserved?

The concept is simple. A group of destitute, desperate people are invited to compete in a series of games with the promise of a cash prize large enough to clear all their debts and generally solve all their life problems. Each game is based around a popular children's game. The catch: if you lose the game, you die. As far as critiques on capitalism go, it's fairly on the nose, but it gets better. 

Part of the mystique about Squid Game comes from its unlikely path to production. Originally written more than a decade ago by writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk, then a struggling writer going through a self-described low point in his life,  much the same as his characters in Squid Game. At the time, the script was rejected by every studio as being too extreme, too unbelievable, and so he put it aside. When Netflix finally picked up the project as part of its push into non-English media (the concept apparently deemed more believable in the 2021 age of class division and social media), it spurred this romantic image of of the struggling writer having his long-gestating project finally realised, but in truth this isn't really accurate. In the years since, Dong-hyuk has gone on to become quite a successful filmmaker in South Korea, with a number of significant hits to his name. He came into this project as a distinguished and recognised name in his home country.

Netflix, for their part, backed Dong-hyuk to the hilt, bankrolling Squid Game to the tune of $21million. This has allowed for a level of production that is up there with the biggest American series, and provided Dong-hyuk with the means to secure the absolute cream of the crop of South Korean actors. I'm not going to pretend to be overly familiar with Korean cinema, but my understanding is that this cast features a wide array of some of the most recognisable names in the region. Series lead Lee Jung-jae in particular is extremely well known in Korea as a charismatic romantic lead, a sort of George Clooney equivalent. His casting here as a desperate miscreant represents something of a casting against type. An exception to this is Jung Ho-yeon, a Korean model of moderate notoriety embarking on her very first role in acting. This breakout performance has seen her instantly transformed into a global superstar, her Instagram followers increasing from 300k to more than 20 million in just two weeks. The former relative unknown is now set to become a global ambassador for Louis Vuitton.

So why has Squid Game become such a global phenomenon? The first thing is the marketing. The cryptic imagery, the masks, the colours, even the name, is immediately arresting. It grabbed my attention as soon as it came up in the Netflix queue even though I had no idea what it was, and I'm sure I am not the only one. It stands out. Squid Game has an incredible sense of style about it that carries into the show itself. Its contrast of bold, over-saturated colours and children's games against bleak subject matter and extreme violence is striking - it brings to my mind a similar series, Utopia, which also stood out for its visuals and brutality.

The style is what hooks you in, but what keeps you watching are the characters. These characters are all distinct, larger-than-life types, brought to life through sharp scripting and consistently superb performances by its A-list cast. Even the unlikeable characters are hugely entertaining and irresistible to watch. You will become very attached to these characters, which makes the brutality of the series' narrative beats hit all the harder.

But ultimately you can't look any further than Dong-hyuk himself. The man wrote and directed every episode of this series, a rarity for such a big production, and he has crafted a world that is utterly absorbing, full of mystery, and stylishly presented. He has written a fantastic lineup of characters and expertly crafted an emotional narrative that ties them all together. It's compelling stuff, an excellent series that fully deserves all the hype. Great credit must also be given to Netflix, who have poured so much money and effort into supporting international production. That confidence is paying dividends now and has vindicated years of Netflix strategy.

Is it a perfect production? Certainly not. The concept often strains credibility and requires a suspension of disbelief, the American VIPs who appear late in the series are abysmally written and performed (surprising given the Netflix funding and Hollywood connections), and the mastermind villain's ultimate goals and motivation is a bit superficial and unsatisfying (unless this gets developed further later on). None of that ruins the experience, however, or detracts from what is otherwise a hugely entertaining series.

I am excited to see where Squid Game goes next. With this compelling world, its distinctive imagery, and now a massive audience, they could have the makings of a major franchise on their hands if they want it.

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