For the chance to escape heavy debt, the characters in Netflix’s hugely popular survival drama Squid game would risk everything, even death. Take the protagonist Seong Gi-hun. Unemployed, he spends his days in Seoul playing horse races and has given up his organs as collateral to his creditors. His deficits, both financial and personal, are harming those close to him: he has not paid child support or alimony to his ex-wife; he makes fun of his elderly mother. On her daughter’s birthday, Gi-hun can afford to buy it only tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) and a claw machine. He has little to lose.
In order to regain his dignity and his family, Gi-hun accepts a mysterious offer to play a series of six traditional children’s games for the chance to win millions of dollars (45.6 billion won, to be exact). He finds himself among the 456 candidates who are also in extreme financial distress, including his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo, now a disreputable businessman; Abdul Ali, an undocumented worker from Pakistan; and Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean refugee. At one point, Gi-hun said to Sang-woo, a graduate of the prestigious Seoul National University, “I was slow, crazy incompetent… But you’re with me in this place. Isn’t that interesting? The message is not subtle: anyone, regardless of their background, can be humiliated by debt. In this arena, every player has a supposedly equal chance of winning gold if they successfully complete the games, which have a bloody twist for them. But the show suggests that humans are constantly in debt to a cruel system, whether it’s macabre competition or a punitive societal structure.
Squid game fits into a category of South Korean works grappling with economic anxieties and class struggles, which are rooted in the country’s concerns but resonate globally. Like the Bong Joon-ho movie Parasite, the show accuses the rich of having propagated a false sense of social advancement and the poor of having adhered to it. Like BTS’s song “Silver Spoon”, it is about the physical aches and pains people face when trying to rise above their prescribed stations. And like Lee Chang-dong’s movie Burning, it captures the isolation and resentment of those left behind by rapid development. Squid game uses the popular survival game genre, reminiscent of The hunger Games, Royal battle, and video games Fortnite-to tell an even more universal story and make its real-life allegories particularly striking.
Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk does it, in part, with stunning aesthetics. The arena in the first game is a room painted to resemble an open field, creating the illusion of freedom. A giant glass piggy bank filled with stacks of banknotes hovers above players’ heads, constantly reminding them of what they have to gain. The intricate candy-colored ensembles and green tracksuits of the players are often streaked and splattered with blood, reflecting the perverse way in which modern suffering is often presented as a spectacle. (When a friend asked me how violent the show was, I compared it to Environment.)
The players are reduced to the numbers on their shirts; they wear identical uniforms; they form alliances and rivalries. But the parity varnish is misleading. As in real life, people lie and cheat; they also benefit the disabled, the elderly and women. In the second episode, players briefly return to the outside world, but after remembering how desperately they need the money, many decide to return to the arena. “The torture here is worse,” says a character passing by 001, sharing soju and ramen with Gi-hun outside a convenience store. But the literal Korean translation is a little different from Netflix’s subtitles: “This place is more hell.” This difference in meaning is important: “torture” may end, but “hell” is eternal. For gamers, the daily humiliations of being poor are a worse fate than risking death.
But although the weight of unpaid debts can create a living hell, Squid game surprisingly explores another form of indebtedness: being responsible for others. This is most evident in Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-jae with squint-eyed warmth and wide-eyed empathy. Gi-hun creates moments of genuine tenderness, acting as a surrogate moral backbone in the arena, despite his beginnings as a lousy father and son. He befriends and protects an old man. He insists on knowing the names of other players, not just their numbers. “You don’t trust people here because you can. You do it because you don’t have anyone else, ”he tells Sae-byeok when she hesitates to make alliances.
Granted, friendships in the arena are formed out of necessity, but they’re not just transactional. (Think of Katniss and Rue in The hunger Games.) These connections reveal a deeper truth: that individual success is a myth. No one who survives does it by himself, but because of the sacrifices of others. In one scene, this message is portrayed through a tug of war game, in which the players are physically chained to and to each other. But this is also evidenced through the stories of the supporting characters. Indeed, most are there to help their families in the outside world. Ali hopes to support his wife and baby. Sae-byeok needs funds to save his brother from an orphanage and pay to smuggle his mother across the border. Sang-woo wants to take care of his aging mother. Community needs and individual financial obligations are closely linked. The debt to a cruel system is inevitable and dehumanizing, the spectacle never ceases to remind us. But under hyper-violence, it also suggests that our obligations to others can be a source of meaning, compassion, and, perhaps, salvation.