TOM LEONARD: How a savage squid got the world’s viewers in its grip! Brutally violent. Made in South Korea. And set to be Netflix’s biggest global hit ever
Hundreds of contestants are rounded up and forced by sinister men in hoods and masks to play a series of children’s games in a giant playroom, where the forfeit for losing is instant death.
No wonder the police have trouble believing what a would-be whistleblower tells them he has witnessed.
‘I know it sounds crazy,’ he says, as they ask themselves whether he has been taking his medication.
What also sounds crazy is that this is the plot of a South Korean TV series which is sweeping all before it in the battle for global eyeballs.
Ted Sarandos, head of the streaming giant Netflix, has confirmed that Squid Game is expected to become the biggest programme the network has ever shown. ‘We didn’t see that coming,’ he said this week.
But who did? Since it was released on September 17, the nine-part series has gone viral across the world.
Ted Sarandos, head of the streaming giant Netflix, has confirmed that Squid Game (pictured) is expected to become the biggest programme the network has ever shown.
It is Netflix’s top-rated show in 90 countries, including the UK and U.S., despite being in Korean and appearing with almost no fanfare. Some 95 per cent of its viewers are reportedly outside Korea.
A streaming phenomenon whose success has been driven by social media, it once more disproves the notion that only traditional TV — the BBC included — can still guarantee large audiences and the type of ‘water-cooler’ programmes that viewers gather to discuss at work the next morning.
Netflix has had a string of mega-hits, notably the London society costume drama Bridgerton and the gentleman thief series Lupin. But Squid Game is set to be even bigger.
Gratuitous violence, of course, always sells, and the stunning popularity of Squid Game, — which provides endless shots of contestants being mown down by machine-guns or shot in the head by faceless guards standing over them — inevitably speaks to something dark in human nature.
But the survival drama thriller offers more than gore: it is a sharp social satire about rich and poor, some say, but also a relentlessly tense mystery. Who is behind this sadistic spectacle — and why?
The main character, Seong Gi-hun, is a deadbeat dad, chauffeur and gambling addict whose idea of a birthday present for his daughter is whatever he can fish out of one of those crane-claw arcade games.
He is being pursued by loan sharks and banks and is at his wits’ end when he is approached by a mysterious man in a suit who offers a way out if he agrees to play a game.
The man provides a phone number which leads to Seong being picked up and gassed unconscious.
He wakes up with 455 other desperate cases — wearing numbered tracksuits — in a vast underground complex on an island.
Their pink-suited guards, faces hidden behind black masks, enforce simple rules that boil down to ‘play or be killed’. The players can call off the tournament but only if a majority agree.
Squid Game is Netflix’s top-rated show in 90 countries, including the UK and US, despite being in Korean and appearing with almost no fanfare
The hard-luck stories of the contestants vary, and their motive for playing such a lethal game is not always greed.
Seong’s rivals include a terminally ill elderly man, a North Korean refugee trying to raise cash to bring her family out, too; and a Pakistani migrant worker who hasn’t been paid for months.
Other players are less sympathetic — fraudsters and petty criminals —although they are all at rock bottom financially and readily agree to compete in six games over six days.
BLOOD AND GORE
Forget It’s A Knockout. The first game, a variant of Grandmother’s Footsteps (called Red Light, Green Light in Korean), involves players having to creep up on a nightmarish giant doll containing sophisticated motion sensor technology which spots anyone who moves. The game quickly becomes a bloodbath.
Another game involves cutting out a honeycomb sweet shape with a needle without breaking it — cue more gunfire as nerves fray and inevitably shaky hands do their worst.
Players struggle to understand the reason for such violence. But viewers soon discover that rich VIP guests are gambling on the outcome of the games and are even offered ringside seats to watch the slaughter.
As the games continue, the violence becomes ever more shocking, the rivalries between players more extreme and bitterly fought. Gradually, more and more players are killed — with the prize money being shared by an ever-smaller number.
The hapless contestants find out that — as with the eponymous ‘squid game’, a Korean playground amusement in which children push and shove their way around a game area shaped like a squid — there can only be one winner of the £29 million prize. The rest of them have to die.
As for the masked guards and other acolytes of the game’s brooding overlord, the ‘Front Man’, it seems they are not free agents, either. Are they as much prisoners as the players?
Many Netflix series have even more violence than Squid Game, so what is its particular appeal?
Even if the mystery is usually a question of who will be shot dead next, Squid Game certainly keeps the tension high, with every episode ending on a cliffhanger.
TV entertainment is already full of real-world twisted game shows such as Survivor and I’m A Celebrity! where contestants have to do horrible things — ripe for fictional dramas to take the idea even farther.
Gratuitous violence, of course, always sells, and the stunning popularity of Squid Game inevitably speaks to something dark in human nature
However, Squid Game adds another factor: extreme social inequality, and the desperation and exploitation of a poor underclass by the rich.
South Korea, which has little by way of a social safety net and a financial sector widely seen as a Wild West, remains a particularly unequal society, which its film and TV makers are keen to expose.
In 2020, a South Korean film, Parasite, became the surprise success at the Oscars when it won Best Picture and other categories.
The black comedy-thriller about a dirt-poor family turning the tables on a smug, super-rich household certainly chimes with Squid Game’s fixation with an underclass debasing itself for the entertainment of the rich.
A similar theme drove the hugely popular Hollywood film adaptations of The Hunger Games novels, about a dystopian world in which the children of the poor have to fight to the death in a battle televised for the wealthy.
The Hunger Games was, in turn, accused of ripping off a 2000 Japanese film, Battle Royale, in which troublesome teenagers are forced to fight it out on a remote island. (Many critics saw parallels with William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord Of The Flies.)
Squid Game’s creator and director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, reportedly said he got the idea in 2008 from a Japanese manga comic book about people playing an extreme survival game.
However, he had to wait 12 years —during which he suffered his own financial hardship — to find a backer.
‘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,’ he has said.
‘But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life.’
The Hunger Games is not alone in having been accused of plagiarism. Critics have levelled the same charge against Squid Game’s creator, saying he plagiarised a 2014 Japanese film, As The Gods Will, which is also based on a comic and concerns a death tournament using childhood games.
One scene from the film in particular fuelled copycat claims: in it a demonic doll spins around and catches players moving.
But the survival drama thriller offers more than gore: it is a sharp social satire about rich and poor, some say, but also a relentlessly tense mystery
Squid Game’s director acknowledged that similarity but insisted that was as far as the repetition went. Besides, he stresses, he first developed the plot six years before As The Gods Will came out.
The success of Squid Game is another out-of-the-blue winner for South Korea, a country whose reputation for quirky, vibrant creativity means such successes shouldn’t come as a shock any more.
The ‘Korean Wave’, the increasing popularity of its cultural exports, began in the mid-1990s and, despite film successes such as Parasite and Minari, hasn’t just been on screen.
K-pop (Korean pop music) has been a global phenomenon, spawning the boy band BTS and the megahit 2012 song Gangnam Style, which topped the music charts in more than 30 countries and whose dance was even attempted by then Prime Minister David Cameron (and featured in a Strictly Come Dancing sequence starring Labour’s former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls).
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the song a force for world peace.
Squid Game has been equally planet-shaking online. Thousands of players have been logging into virtual game rooms on the platform Roblox to play Red Light, Green Light.
Others share Squid Game-themed recipes. Netflix, which has 193 million subscribers, has announced plans to invest $500 million in films and TV shows in South Korea this year.
It may prove a sounder investment than its reported $100 million programme deal with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
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