Squid Game (Season 1)
The Korean hit is an unoriginal and tonally indecisive series
Capitalism is an economic system that while having taken over most of the world, has also gotten incredible criticism; this of course earned, in the way the system can be incredibly exploitative and unequal. Since capitalism began to reign supreme, so have its criticisms in art. However, such criticisms vary widely, from the simplistic condemnation to the larger pondering of its allure and arguments for it. The latest to focus on this critique is the massively popular Korean series Squid Game (2021).
Squid Game is about a group of heavily indebted strangers, who agree to participate in a round of deadly children’s games for a large cash prize. We specifically follow deadbeat dad and gambler Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), who finds in the promise of money a solution to all his problems.
Squid Game is entirely written and directed by filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, who has shown an admirable versatility between genres. His breakout hit the sweet comedy Miss Granny (2014) was remade into 14 languages across the world, but instead of staying in such a genre, Dong-hyuk switched to the period drama with The Fortress (2017). His latest move has been the satirical and wonky Squid Game, his first foray into TV. Dong-hyuk shows a rather capable hand at crafting an episode structure; each episode ends with a witty tease as to the next occurring events. However, Dong-hyuk also relies on too many elements that are simply not original.
The concept of Squid Game is an amalgamation of many better original ideas from before. In my mind it seemed like a mix between The Hunger Games (2012), Money Heist (2017-2021), and The Platform (2019) in how it chose to speak about capitalism. Its symbolism is too on the nose for viewers to appreciate, and redundant after the first couple of scenes. This latter problem is perhaps the worst of all, apart from criticizing how exploitative money can turn humans, it really has nothing else to say. Thus Dong-hyuk resorts to exploitative violence and generic character arcs to complete the remaining episodes.
One of the biggest weaknesses in Squid Game is the lack of a clear tone. By not deciding whether it wants to be a somber philosophical critique or a bizarre Saw-like show, the two tones clash distastefully. This is very evident in the performances. Dong-hyuk has a strong cast, yet they seem completely misdirected, with the majority overacting in ways that feel like each performer thinks they’re in vastly different projects. The same can be said about the dialogue and writing, which seems to lean in on clunky and obvious statements and have the emotional complexity of a telenovela. Dong-hyuk doesn’t trust his viewers to be intelligent enough to follow his story either. He litters the most frustrating and incomprehensible flashbacks to moments viewers had watched a mere five minutes ago. This exaggerated handholding leaves little to the imagination or to the subtlety of visual language.
The Squid Game plot can carry you through with relative investment given your natural curiosity for which way the tone and violence are going to lean into. Yet this is pretty much the same hypnosis that kept the Saw franchise alive for so long (and still beating as of this year’s Spiral: from the book of Saw (2021)), viewers simply are curious as to how characters will die; it is a gladiatorial instinct that is rather shamefully exploited by today’s media. The characters do grow on you throughout the series, but this is rather a credit to the performers’ charisma seeping through rather than the clunky writing.
In the end, Squid Game is a rather unoriginal watch. The violence and soap opera structure are effective at keeping you mildly invested, but there is little else to allure. The exaggerated thematic commentary paired with Don-hyuk’s indecisive tone and direction make for a rather forgettable series.