‘Squid Game’ is Also Remarkably Good
A few days ago we heaped praise on the surprisingly good fourth season of Slasher, subtitled Flesh & Blood, for its Battle Royale Reality TV structure. It was unexpected, having grown from a series we never found particularly memorable. Now we have another similarly structured horror show, a more striking and impactful version of the concept, going by the name of Squid Game. With a title like that, we did not know what we were expecting…and we were left delighted with the macabre Netflix title.
The odd title comes from a Korean children’s playground game that involves one-footed hopping attackers attempting to get around defenders and cross the squid shaped court to win the game. It seems to involve a degree of strategy and mis-direction to win, much like the grander and deadlier game the characters of this horrific situation find themselves in. Our point of view character is Seong Gi-hun, played by the charismatic Lee Jung-jae with the right level of humility to make him sympathetic. He’s perpetually down on his luck due to a gambling problem and is at risk of losing his daughter when his estranged wife moves to the USA.
So far, so standard establishing story, until Gi-hun is approached by a weird smiling man in the subway who offer Gi-hun a cash pay-out if he can win at ‘ddakji’, a game involving flipping over a folded paper token by hitting it with their own (known in the West as Milk Caps or Pogs for the commercial version). Although he gets slapped in the face for each time he loses, Gi-hun preservers until he wins with money and an opportunity to win much more by playing more games. He accepts this challenge, and the next thing he knows Gi-hun is waking up amid hundreds of other down-on-their-luck competitors in matching sweatsuits in a room guarded by oddly dressed guards with Playstation buttons on their faces.
What they’ve got ahead of them is six children’s games, with the losers being eliminated and the winners looking to take home a multi-million dollar fortune. The twist, which comes as a surprise to the folk in the games, is that getting ‘eliminated’ is very literal and violent death comes swift when people fail. The first game is an absolute bloodbath.
We won’t go into more detail about the characters or the story, as we came into this completely blind and had all the better experience for it. If you’ve read this far without having seen the show, then stop what you’re doing and go watch it. The one thing you’ll notice first is the bold and unsettling art design of the insidious game they’re now playing. There’s an exaggerated pre-school aesthetic from a previous decade, like a demented Rockwell piece of work. Giant dolls, see-saws and playgrounds in the game arenas are joined by a labyrinth mess of stairs and walkways painted in primary colours.
It’s a violent and shocking ordeal for the competitors. The hundreds of people struggling to be the last one standing are free to leave if they reach a majority vote, but are trapped there due to economic circumstances. They have all found themselves indebted or imprisoned by their circumstances and desperate for a big payday that will change their lives. With so little chance to break free from their societal standing and make their way up the class system, they feel as though they don’t have a choice but to compete for the money. With the realisation that more prize money is added to the pot with each death, the competitors turn against each other in a bid to improve their own chances.
Themes of class inequality and feelings of despair have become common in South Korean break-out hits in recent years, most notably the works of Bong Joon-ho. Most Western audiences may not be familiar with living in a clearly defined class-system, but could well sympathise with the dead-end plight that the contestants find themselves in.
With alliances, betrayal, burning suspense and the overarching mystery of behind the game, this is an addictive watch. It’s not long into the first episode that you find yourself completely hooked. It’s been a while since a show so effectively got its hooks into us. The only points where it waivers is when the new game involves one specific to South Korea. The honeycomb challenge doesn’t make more the most engaging watch. Putting that aside, this is a hell of a good ride. Given its ranking on Netflix, you’ve probably already seen it. If not, go watch it.