Squid Game, Capitalism and the Popularity of the K-Drama

*Spoiler Warning*

What was once a subculture of people willing to read subtitles has now become a popular and normalised activity; Netflix’s new release Squid Game has more people watching k-dramas than ever before. The show certainly has some controversy worth discussion – and I’m not just talking about the reawakened debate of dubbed or subbed – but the deeper meaning and political messages interlaced within the narrative.

I will admit, I have watched many K-dramas and am happy to see the normalisation of watching shows from other cultures. To further admit my bias, I will also reveal I am #TeamSubbed. However, it is important to realise that any multi-cultural exposure is a good thing and Squid Game is certainly putting K-Dramas into the mainstream.

The basic plot of Squid Game follows Seong Gi-hun, a Korean man in debt and a failing father which causes him to enter a challenge to play children’s games for cash. However, there is one important catch – if you’re out, you’re killed. Think The Hunger Games meets Cbeebies. With the presence of a large piggy-bank of cash above their living quarters, the watchers are constantly reminded that money is the reason for all the violence and cruelty that occurs in the show. All the contestants are there by choice, but it is the cruelty of the world that has caused them to show such cruelty to each other.

Image Source: Still via Youtube // Squid Game | Official Trailer | Netflix

The plot takes a very clear anti-capitalist stance. The process of losing money to a capitalist system breaks people and the opportunity to gain a large amount of money causes people to become desperate and therefore dangerous. However, while the show certainly degrades the upper one-percent with the loud, vulgar white men who are betting on the contestants, the show does not seem to suggest in any way that communism is any better. Each of the characters are set up in a communist-like situation, with the same green tracksuit, the same small food rations, the same beds,  and those who receive an unfair advantage are killed, but the show itself presents this all as grotesque and something to be feared. This is especially emphasised during the organ harvesting scenes, which suggests that no organisation can be without corruption. The ‘frontman’ seems to be fine with this too; it is only when they create an advantage for the doctor that he steps in. This shows the hierarchy that fundamentally flawed the communistic organisation and implies that the show isn’t pro-communist but that if we try to completely get rid of capitalism, we will turn into a society that unfairly kills or harms anyone with an advantage above us. A rather bleak picture of humanity. 

Hwang Dong-hyuk, writer and director of Squid Game, reported in an interview with Variety magazine: “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life.” There has been some controversy in whether or not Hwang Dong-hyuk has achieved this using characters “we’ve all met in real life”, especially in regard to the unrealistic nature of the VIP’s. Their English didn’t sound quite right to many people and their personalities seemed archetypal and unrealistic. John D. Michaels (VIP 1) shared in an interview with The Guardian that it was mostly due to the editing process in pre- and post-production. Michaels commented that “non-Korean performers often act with dialogue that is translated by a non-native – sometimes even by Google Translate – so it can sound unnatural,” and since the Korean crew members didn’t speak English, they don’t pick the best takes as they can’t recognise good enunciation. While many people found this disconcerting, I for one enjoyed the strange vulgarity that the VIPs portrayed. Somehow – to me – the English sounding a little off and the acting being a little strange made them less human and more monster. It assisted the plot rather than hindered it.

While Hwang Dong-hyuk has no plans set for season two, I’m sure I speak for many of us when I say there is more to be explored in the allegory of capitalism and the journey of Seong Gi-hun.

– Eliza Brecheisen

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // Squid Game | Official Trailer | Netflix

(Article written before the announcement that Squid Game has been renewed for a second season)

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