‘Squid Game,’ Netflix Hit, Taps South Korean Faires
In the hit dystopian television show “Squid Game” on Netflix, 456 people facing dire debt and financial despair play a series of deadly children’s games to win a $38 million cash prize in South Korea.
Koo Yong-hyun never encountered masked homicide guards or contestants slitting his throat like the characters on the show. But the 35-year-old office worker who watched “Squid Games” in Seoul on the same night said he empathizes with the characters and their struggle to survive in the country’s deeply unequal society.
Mr Koo, who met at freelance gigs and government unemployment checks after losing his stable job, said it is “nearly impossible to live comfortably with a regular worker’s salary” in a city with runaway housing prices. Like many young people in South Korea and elsewhere, Mr. Koo sees an increasing competition for grabbing a piece of the shrinking pie, just like the contestants in the “Squid Game”.
Those similarities have helped turn the nine-episode drama into an unexpected international sensation. “Squid Game” is now the top-ranked show in the United States on Netflix and is well on its way to becoming one of the streaming service’s most-watched shows in its history. “There’s a very good chance this will be our biggest show ever,” Ted SarandosNetflix co-CEO said during a recent business conference.
Culturally, the show embraced a global curiosity online for its distinctive scenes, particularly black masks decorated with simple squares and triangles worn by unknown guards, and Korean children’s games that outlined deadly competitions. Is. The dishes of Dalgona, the sweet Korean treat at the center of a particularly tense showdown, have gone viral.
Like “The Hunger Games” books and movies, the Korean-language show captivates its audience with its violent tone, cynical plot, and — spoiler alert! – Desire to kill fan-favorite characters. But it has also harnessed a feeling familiar to people in the United States, Western Europe, and other places that nominally prosperous countries have become harder to achieve, as wealth inequality rises and home prices rise to unbearable levels. increases from.
“The stories and characters’ problems are highly personal, but also reflect the problems and realities of Korean society,” show creator Hwang Dong-hyuk said in an email. He wrote the screenplay as a film in 2008, when many of these trends became apparent, but was modified to reflect new concerns, including the impact of the coronavirus. (Minyong Kim, head of content for the Asia-Pacific region at Netflix, said the company is in talks with Mr. Hwang about producing a second season.)
The “Squid Game” is just the latest South Korean cultural export to win over a global audience by exploiting the country’s deep sense of inequality and dwindling opportunities. The 2019 Oscar-winning Best Picture film “Parasite” linked a desperate family of grifters with uninformed members of a wealthy Seoul household. The 2018 art-house hit “Burning” created tension by pitting a young deliveryman against a well-meaning opponent for a woman’s attention.
South Korea boomed in the post-war era, making it one of the richest countries in Asia and some economists calling its rise a “miracle on the Han River”. But as the economy has matured, wealth inequality has widened.
“South Koreans used to have a collective sense of community,” says Yoon Suk-jin, drama critic and professor of modern literature at Chungnam National University. But the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s undermined the country’s positive growth story and “forced everyone to fight for themselves.”
Among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the research group for the world’s richest countries, the country is now ranked 11th using the Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth inequality. (The United States is at No. 6.)
As South Korean households try to keep up, household debt has soared, with some economists warning the debt could strain the economy. Home prices have risen to the point where housing affordability has become a hot-button political topic. Prices in Seoul have risen by more than 50 percent during the tenure of the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, and a political scandal has erupted.
The “squid game” highlights the irony between the societal pressure to succeed in South Korea and the difficulty of doing so, said Shin Yeun, who graduated from college in January 2020, hit by the pandemic. right before. Now 27, she said she spent more than a year looking for a full-time job.
“It’s really hard to find full-time jobs these days for people in their 20s,” she said.
South Korea has also suffered a sharp drop in births, in part stemming from a feeling among young people that children are too expensive.
“In South Korea, all parents want to send their children to the best schools,” Ms. Shin said. “You have to live in the coolest neighborhood to do that.” This would require saving enough money to buy a house, a goal so unrealistic “that I never even bothered to calculate how long it would take me,” Ms. Shin said.
“Squid Game” revolves around a gambling junkie in his 40s, Seong Gi-hyun, who doesn’t have the means to buy his daughter a proper birthday present or pay for his aging mother’s medical expenses. One day they are given a chance to participate in the Squid Game, a private event run for the entertainment of the wealthy. To claim the $38 million prize, contestants must go through six rounds of traditional Korean children’s games. Failure means death.
The 456 contestants directly voiced many of the concerns of the country. A graduate from the country’s top university, Seoul National University, is wanted for misappropriating his clients’ funds. There is another North Korean defector who needs to take care of his brother and help his mother escape from the North. Another character is an immigrant laborer whose boss refuses to pay his wages.
The character has resonated with South Korean youth who do not see a chance to advance in society. Known locally as the “dirt spoon” generation, many are obsessed with ways to get rich quickly, such as cryptocurrencies and lotteries. South Korea has one of the world’s largest markets for virtual currency.
Like the prize money on the show, cryptocurrencies “give people the chance to change their lives in a second,” said office worker Mr. Koo. Mr Koo, whose previous employers went out of business during the pandemic, said the difficulty of earning money is one reason South Koreans are so obsessed with making quick money.
“I wonder how many people would attend if the squid games were held in real life,” he said.
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