Squid Game: A lesson in excellence

by Paul Hong, Opinions Writer
photo courtesy of Netflix

Just as the Korean movies “Parasite” and “Minari” stood in the spotlight in 2019 and 2020, respectively, the nine-episode South Korean Netflix show “Squid Game” has made waves with its debut on Sept. 17. In just over a week, it went from being a relatively unknown series to the most-watched one in Netflix history. As a Korean drama lover, I was thrilled to hear news of the new thriller-drama release. 

“Squid Game” begins by foreshadowing the main character’s journey as Gi-Hun’s childhood self is depicted playing “Squid Game,” a traditional Korean children’s game. Later, we meet Gi-Hun in the present day as an adult facing massive debt, and we see him meeting a lender who forces him to write a body renunciation letter to pay off his debts.

As Gi-Hun’s depressing day draws to a close, he meets a man in a subway station while heading home. He offers him a 100,000 won ($100) reward for winning a game of Ddakji, another classic Korean game. Gi-Hun eagerly accepts the man’s proposition, and upon his first success, he receives a small dose of what his life could look like if he had more money. 

I enjoyed this scene because it ironically shows that humans will do anything to make money depending on their situation, losing their minds in the process. 

After the game ends, the man invites Gi-Hun to take part in more children’s games to win more money, a decision that will change his life forever.

Throughout the show, “Squid Game” informs its audience of the dirty and cruel human nature. When 456 contestants step into their first game, they learn that the true cost of the game is their lives, as the players that lose are brutally shot to death — a fact none of them had been informed of when initially recruited. 

Witnessing their crewmates’ deaths, the characters grow desperate. The remaining people choose to sabotage each other in order to win the cash prize, which would save them from their debt, instead of uniting against the moderators of the game, who never reveal their identities. The result is the contestants fracturing, with the central antagonist expanding from just the gamemasters to an ever-shifting array of factions.

The game scene from the first episode, in which they play Red Light, Green Light, reminded me of our own lives: though not as extreme, we compete with each other constantly to get ahead instead of working together.

Beyond the intricate plot, the diverse character elements of  “Squid Game” also uplift the series. Nowhere is this seen better than in Ali, a Pakistani worker played by Indian actor Anupam Tripathi. Since most K-drama actors are Korean, I was pleasantly surprised to see an Indian actor. Additionally, I was amazed by how well the show utilized Ali’s storyline to criticize the poor treatment of foreign workers in Korea. 

In addition to the well-developed characters, I loved the actors behind them. I was particularly impressed by Ho-Yeon Jung. Even though “Squid Game” was her acting debut, her performance was incredible. She even mastered a North Korean accent, which was one of the parts of her character that stood out most to me. According to director Dong-Hyuk Hwang, it was difficult to find the right actress for the role of Sae-Byeok, but after watching Jung’s audition video, he said that “it felt like God [chose] her for this character,” and he cast the actress right away.

Despite the series’ popularity, Hwang has yet to announce the second season. He said that further brainstorming will be required for its development. As I wait for an official second season, I will be rewatching the nine incredible episodes that have brought the phenomenal six games into my life.