Netflix's Korean Horror Series 'Squid Game' Plays Deadly Kids' Games for Tons of Cash
There's a twisted lesson about not losing your sense of childhood whimsy among the exploitation of the poor.
45.6 billion Won—equal to more than $34 million—is up for grabs, and all you have to do is win the sort of games you used to play when you were a kid. Sounds easy, until the stakes are revealed: Break a rule, you die. Don't complete the game in the allotted time, you die. This is essentially the plot of Netflix's new 9-episode Korean horror seriesSquid Game, which skyrocketed to the top of the streamer's Top 10 in the US, that has a few things to say about the ways in which the rich grotesquely exploit the poor.
At the start of the show, we see kids playing the show’s namesake, Squid Game, a real playground game popular in late 1970s Korea. One of the kids playing is Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae), who—cut to the present—is an absentee father mooching off his elderly mother's small earnings. He’s got a gambling addiction, is deep in debt, and his day, which also happens to be his daughter's birthday, is about to be wild as hell as he gets lured into a series of deadly games by a mysterious man in a nice suit (Gong Yoo, who you'll recognize from Train to Busan).
As we see Gi-Hun and others inside the game's compound, run by people wearing full-coverage masks and red jumpsuits, the show makes its main stance, that being in dire economic straits has the ability to make you desperate enough to do anything, even endangering your life. When you’ve tried nearly everything to dig yourself out of a deep financial hole, your breaking point is far closer than you think. Gi-Hun has been given very little information about the games ahead of time, other that he can win a handsome chunk of cash, and apparently has very few questions, even when he’s picked up in a mystery van full of people who are asleep. The only thing that’s important is that there is a chance for some seemingly easy money to be made.
Later he wakes up in a room full of people, 455 others to be exact, including a childhood friend Cho Sang-Woo (Park Hae Soo), and a pickpocketer who stole gambling earnings off of him the other day, Kang San-byeok (Jung HoYeong). Everyone reads the clauses of the game (there are only three), signs a waiver, and starts to play. The first game ends up being a murderous version of Red Light, Green Light overseen by a giant animatronic doll, where if you get caught moving on red, you get shot with a sniper rifle. After realizing this is a very real situation, the players try their hardest to make it to safety, but more than half of them are dead by the end of the game.
Once back inside the main room, those remaining want to stop playing because no money is worth dying for. Then the masked benefactors show the prize money of 45.6 billion won to a room full of hustlers, addicts, or just severely broke. One of the clauses is that if the majority of players want to end the game they can, the majority wins by just one vote and they all go home—but nearly all of them return about two days later, willing to risk their lives for financial security even knowing the outcome of failure.
This isn’t a new concept—the poor have been doing this out of necessity forever. No matter the twists and turns in our lives that have caused us to be financially unstable, quite a few of us do what we have to do just to barely survive. So when presented with the opportunity to finally have financial stability, even if you might die, many would take the chance. It’s the mentality that things can’t be much worse than they already are, so why not?
[FYI: Spoilers for Squid Game follow below.]
Squid Game doesn’t just focus on the poor but also the ultra-rich, and how dangerous it can be when they get wildly bored. We find out that the game has been happening since the late '90s. It’s being watched, first virtually and then IRL, by the VIPs—mostly American white men—who place bets on the players and the games, and also use the staff as their servants and sexual playthings. There have been many movies where the rich toy with the poor for their amusement, from the playful ones (The Pest) to the more intense (The Hunt) to the downright silly (Money Plane). Their money allows them to build hidden worlds within our own to use as their playgrounds, where they extort the less fortunate and then dispose of them when they are done. In the show, it's just a boat ride away from Seoul.
We live in a society where the rich have the power and the poor are forgotten, and the world of Squid Game is no exception. In the game, the creators do it under the guise of offering an opportunity, that they are giving the poor an equal playing field with the chance to start over. They make themselves feel better by reminding viewers (and players) that everyone is there by their own free will, no one is forcing them to play—but that could be arguably untrue. Yes, they signed up, but every player was specifically sought out. They actively looked for the desperate, the lonely, the scared, and the broke, and presented them with the possibility to rid themselves of their financial burdens. Preying on the weak and then offering to help doesn’t absolve them of the harm the players will later experience.
As the games continue on and the players dwindle down, survival mode and childhood ways kick in. Bullies make themselves known. Cliques start to form. Backstabbing inevitably ensues, and in the end stands a winner. Ultimately, Squid Game shows the great divide between classes and proves how easy it can be for anyone to leave their moral codes behind for a chance at a life-changing amount of money. And I don’t know how many films and shows we have to make to get this point across, but when a well-dressed stranger asks if you want to play a game, your answer should always be no.