Squid Game and Social Commentary: An Age-old Story, Refreshed

While some are surprised by how the nine-episode series goes beyond senseless killing with an underlying tale reflecting Korean society, this isn’t anything new in the world of Korean dramas and movies. So, should we be less surprised by the success of international media? Ignite’s Janelle shares her take on the series and the Hallyu scene.

*Spoiler warning for Squid Game, Vincenzo, and Parasite ahead.*

By Janelle Wong

This is not another Squid Game think piece.

Over the past month, Squid Game has received an enormous amount of love from viewers around the world, praising the set design, the characters, the actors, and most of all, the societal critique it offers. 

And it is good.

Director Hwang Dong Hyuk and his team compellingly weave a narrative of how debt and desperation come together to force a person to live with their life on the line, all at the amusement of wealthy individuals pulling the strings from behind the scenes. One particular article described the survival game television series as so: “Squid Game is anything but your typical, saccharine, soft-glow Korean television drama.”

But is it really that atypical?

In Squid Game, desperate participants compete in South Korean children’s games to win 456 billion won (S$519 million), all while mysterious elites bet on participants behind the scenes. [Photo: Netflix]

Squid Game is not new

In 2021 alone, I can count at least five other Korean dramas released before Squid Game that have addressed society’s ills in some way or form. Vincenzo saw Song Joong Ki as an Italian mafia lawyer taking down a corrupt corporation. Kim Bum and Ryu Hye-young make a compelling duo in Law School that dug deep into the inequality of the judicial system. And in Taxi Driver, the show explicitly addresses one societal problem after another, covering issues like workplace exploitation to sexual violence. (In case you wanted to know, the other two dramas are The Devil Judge and Move To Heaven.) 

I’m not saying that Squid Game is bad or that it doesn’t deserve its acclaim. (Read here for one perspective on how the show references retrenchment in South Korea). But as much as I enjoyed watching all nine episodes, it also doesn’t offer anything new. The games are what arguably makes the show so exciting and adrenaline-inducing, but is what I feel blunts its social critique.

We only get a glimpse of the characters’ life trajectories, not long enough to fully ever understand them and the various ways society has failed them. [Photo: Netflix]

The bulk of the games take place on a remote island, far away from the familiar sights and sounds of the city. It is this distance from familiarity that adds a fantastical element to the series. With the entire set removed from society, the show feels disparate from our reality, instead of forcing the viewer to live in the harsh reality of the participants. 

We don’t even really understand the lives of the characters. The second episode does briefly take us through why the main cast was driven to make such a desperate decision, but we’re never really positioned in a way where we understand the structural inequalities at play. The show makes reference to the problem of rising debt and worker exploitation, but fails to properly concretise it. At the end of Squid Game, we’re still left with questions. Spoiler alert, Seo Gi Hun gets a chance to talk to Contestant 001, but he never really explains his motivations or links the games to any clear societal critique — we only ever get a few weak sentences of moralising on how society refuses to help individuals who are at the end of their rope.

It is made clear throughout Vincenzo that Song’s character is a villain, with no qualms about using any method available to take down the antagonists. [Photo: South China Morning Post]

In contrast, there are other shows that have handled this better. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, for one, places the viewer squarely in the familiar settings of real-life and forces them to confront their lived experiences. How many of these characters do we see in our own lives? They inhabit the recognisable roles of drivers, tutors, and domestic helpers, drawing the clear systemic inequalities that exist. 

Vincenzo’s last episode demonstrates this as well, with Song Joong Ki’s character brutally torturing and killing off the antagonists. Despite the sense of catharsis, there is an underlying sense of unease you’re left with. Vincenzo is still a villain, yet the message is that the system is so broken, justice has to be delivered this way. The actor himself noted in an interview, “I thought this was a sad genre. The reason is that viewers had to cheer for Vincenzo, a villain. The events that take place in [the show] are close to reality … there are so many bad people in real life”.

We’ve seen this surprise before

Squid Game is not the first Korean drama to have an interesting premise, contain exceptional actors, or critique society. What I’m trying to say is that Squid Game’s massive popularity and visibility is because the show has become a hit in the West.

Director Bong Joon Ho (right) and interpreter Sharon Choi (left) at the 2020 Golden Globes. [Photo: Dazed]

It’s not even surprising at this point. We’ve seen it happen with Train to Busan, with Parasite, and now with this. A Korean series or film makes it big, goes viral on social media, and somehow everyone is surprised. Rinse and repeat. Meanwhile, long-time watchers of Korean and Asian media will be inclined to agree that the Korean entertainment industry has been producing quality cinema and shows for years. 

Just like how Parasite did not jumpstart the beginning of quality Korean cinema, Squid Game did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. The Hallyu wave has taken off since the early 2000s and it’s about time it’s given the recognition it deserves. 

In the end, I’m still glad that Squid Game’s popularity has probably increased the number of people inclined to consume more Korean and Asian media. But we have to move forward from being surprised when Asian media is good, and we have to stop stereotyping all Korean media as sappy romantic shows à la Boys Over Flowers. (In fact, I would argue the writing in recent Korean media have been decidedly more feminist and nuanced than some of the media coming from the West, but that’s an article for another time.) 

As sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen eloquently puts it, “Asian cinema and shows have and will continue to shine even without U.S. validation.”. We don’t need to keep explaining the various reasons why an Asian show has suddenly gotten popular. It’s the West that needs to catch up.