Stop and Go
I’ve always been a fan of Korean cinema long before Parasite revolutionized Western entertainment 2 years ago. I always hoped that more films and TV shows would become predominant in America after the huge success of Parasite. Enter, Squid Game, a wildly thrilling Korean action-drama that manages to blend excellent tension with character drama and social commentary with masterful technique. It’s a show that not only provides exciting set pieces and thrills but also manages to effectively develop its central characters and earns the impact of some the directions the show takes. It does borrow from different entertainment that we have seen before, but at its core this is a highly original and thrilling adventure that is sure to have you binge watching the show in one night.
The story follows Seong Gi-Hun, a gambler in serious debt and struggling to make a living. When an opportunity comes for him to participate in a contest that promises a huge cash prize of 456 billion won (about 40 million US Dollars), he quickly jumps at the chance to provide a better future for himself, especially when the contest only consists of children’s games. However, the stakes quickly turn deadly, and Seong Gi-Hun and his friends must quickly determine what the true cost of their efforts will get them.
The show will pull you in with its awe-inspiring set pieces and gratuitous and violent deaths. The games that the 456 initial contestants must undertake all seem innocent enough at first, but end having extremely deadly stakes. The first episode is very clear in how dangerous and deadly these games can be, and opportunities that may seem simple at first can quickly become life or death in a blink of an eye. The staging of these games is on a grandiose scale that adds to the already high tension that surrounds the competitions. The way simple childhood recess games are given a grander stage to perform on gives the show a nice cinematic quality that not only serves to benefit the show’s engagement but adds to the overall presentation of its material. When contestants are eliminated, their deaths are presented in such gratuitous fashion to serve the purpose of the true stakes and horror that this competition present. It not only serves to remind the characters of what they are losing in their competition, but for the audience to understand that this is no child’s playground.
While the show’s set pieces and exciting games may be the reason you tuned in for the show, it is the character work and development that will make you stay and binge this entire show in one sitting. While Seong Gi-Hun is our main lead, his childhood friend Cho Sang-Woo, a pickpocket thief Kang Sae-byeok, and a foreign worker from Pakistan Abdul Ali are equally important and vibrant characters. The show smartly establishes each of their motives for being a part of the games early on so you can understand what is truly at stake for them. It adds depth to their characters, and seeing how far some of them will go to win is one of the elements that makes this show all the more tense. You never truly know what each character is going to do and which character may end up being killed off in this game. There were so many times where I was on the edge of my seat gripping with adrenaline and tension for what may happen next. The fact that this show can capture that fine line of tension in each of its nine episodes is truly a brilliant writing and directing achievement.
One of the show’s main themes are classism, poverty, and the power of money. Each of the contestants are on the edge of society, grasping at whatever money they can to make ends meet with most of them being billions of dollars in debt. Some have dragged others into this debt by putting up their families stores, or caring for their wives and children. The show does a great job of establishing just how beat down these people are, so that when they start to do terrible things all in the name of making some money you understand that motivation and feel that plight. It also poses an excellent ethical question of whether everyone has a price and what are they willing to do in exchange for that price. Seeing how far even the most well intentioned individuals will go to get out of poverty provides another element of tension and mystery throughout.
The show is very well paced and does an excellent job of balancing the thrilling and nail-biting games with good character moments and mystery. In between each of the games, there is time for the characters to breathe and process the emotional turmoil they feel they are in. Even the build up to some of the competitions is thrilling, especially when the characters have to pick teams without the foresight of what the upcoming task may be. Seeing them make decisions and then be revealed what their task actually is provided a foreboding sense of doom that heightens the adrenaline for a full 60 minute episode. Yet, when the characters are outside of these games, seeing the scheming, planning, and strategy taking place is able to convey the strengths and flaws each character brings to the fold. You get insight into how much can you truly trust someone in a game where everyone wants the money, and conversely how naive someone may be in their trust that it ends in their doom. That tension and character analysis makes the show feel more than just another Hunger Games or Battle Royale and allows its eventual execution of that concept to be commended with masterful grace.
The show is also going to be one that fans will want to watch over and over again to pick up on the subtle hints of foreshadowing and bread crumbs laid out cleverly by the creative team. The reveals in this show may sometimes feel like they are coming out of left field, but upon closer examination and attention to detail on subsequent viewings you understand that the answers were in front of us all along. Its brilliant writing and directing that allows these subtle hints to be caught, and makes me want to watch it over and over again. The script is tightly packed and lends itself well to having excellent reveals that will gut punch you and leave you craving for more.
The artistic design is yet another high praise for the show. The workers that help run the games offer a insight into the systematic oppression of not just the lower class, but the entire population of this secluded island. Their uniforms and conformity lend insight into a deeper hierarchy and present new levels of creativity to showcase an impending theme and message. The stages for the competitions again are grandiose in scale, and have subtle details that hint towards certain outcomes and dangers. Finally, the musical score provides an optimistically haunting theme that leaves you feeling cautiously optimistic towards which characters will succeed versus which characters won’t.
In terms of flaws, the show has one subplot that really doesn’t pan out well in the long run. It seems like something needed to be thrown into the middle to pad the runtime, but in the grand scheme of things I didn’t truly feel it added anything. It does highlight how the workers are also slaves to the system and that no one can truly escape from this lifestyle, whether they are trying to get out of debt versus trying to hurt those within it. Outside of that, please for the love of God, make sure that you watch this show in Korean with the English subtitles. The English Dub is atrocious and actually hurts the viewing experience. Luckily, you can easily switch those settings, so please please please do this when you watch.
Squid Game proves that Korean entertainment needs to be given higher recognition. The show smartly imbues a tension filled action drama with character driven dilemmas and ethical questions. It’s a show that you won’t stop thinking about even after its end credits roll. You won’t be able to stop watching, I guarantee it! I don’t really think the show needs a season 2 as its narrative does leave enough ambiguity and intrigue for audiences to piece together what may happen next. But if a season 2 is greenlit, I will undoubtedly be coming back for another exhilarating and emotional ride.
(A) Emotionally Tense