Squid Game: the smash-hit South Korean horror is a perfect fit for our dystopian mood

On track to be Netflix’s biggest success to date, the blood-spattered thriller taps into our post-lockdown anxieties about returning to the rat race

If you are one of the many millions of people around the world living in a city taking tentative steps out of lockdown, you may be like me in that among my jumble of feelings – excitement, relief, joy – is also a surprising degree of anxiety.

And perhaps if you are also one of the many millions around the world who has now watched the latest Netflix hit Squid Game, the show and its blood-splattered, horror-tinged violence may have provided a thrilling catharsis.

The South Korean thriller, which reached No 1 in 90 countries in 10 days – with 95% of viewers outside of Korea – is on track to be Netflix’s biggest hit ever. Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, the premise is simple enough: hundreds of desperate, debt-laden contestants compete for a huge jackpot – more money than they could ever dream of. All they have to do is survive a series of disturbingly cruel, win-or-die, kill-or-be-killed children’s games. There are obvious nods here to Battle Royale and the Hunger Games.

The compelling trailer will prime you for nine hours of torture porn. That all the stabbing, shooting and killing orgies take place in bright, pastel sets with oversized toys that render adults kid-sized, recalls Japanese television game shows that decades ago pioneered the genre of humiliation television, long before it morphed into a western reality TV show staple.

On one level, Squid Game is your classic Faustian bargain. Like a dumb dare question on TikTok, it revels in showing us through a gleeful splatterfest exactly what sick, depraved things an ordinary person might do for a life-changing amount of cash. The fact the money is won via childlike games (red light, green light; tug of war) has a touch of Lord of the Flies about it: oh how quickly “civilised” people devolve into savagery.

But what is not captured in the trailer is how bighearted the show is, how joyfully funny and compassionate it is to its characters. Our protagonist Seong Gi-hun is a part-time chauffeur, full-time gambling addict. In a wonderfully expressive depiction by Lee Jung-jae, his emotions-writ-large moves us effortlessly from the heart-wrenching guilt of seeing his long-suffering mother head wearily to work to the slapstick humour of raiding the cookie jar for her credit card before hitting the racetrack.

Later we learn how Seong Gi-hun’s life took a turn for the worse when, following layoffs at his car factory, he witnessed his colleague killed at a worker’s strike. A case of PTSD was followed by the breakdown of his marriage, and some of the show’s most painful scenes are between Seong Gi-hun and the light of his life – his 10-year-old daughter – who will soon move with her mother and stepfather to the United States.

And so it is with every one of these contestants, an almost Dickensian suffering is threaded through their backstories: a teenage North Korean defector at the mercy of people smugglers-cum-scam artists; an impoverished Pakistani migrant worker whose factory boss refuses to pay his wages; a businessman whose weight of social pressure and expectation drives him to commit riskier and riskier deals.

A still from Squid Game
‘These are people who are barely managing to keep their heads above water in a system designed to crush their spirits.’ Photograph: Netflix

What Hwang Dong-hyuk wants us to know is that these are not bad people. These are desperate people. People who are barely managing to keep their heads above water in a system designed to crush their spirits and strip them of every dignity. And how he does this is through one of the show’s small but clever departures from battle royale convention: the contestants are given a choice, to stay or go.

The fact that most contestants elect to remain in this hellish torture chamber (as one of the characters acidly points out, it’s “just as bad out there as it is in here”) is an indictment of modern society, told in the darkest, funniest way possible. The worse the abuse, injustice and cruelty our contestants are willing to endure (and inflict on others) becomes a yardstick for just how abusive, unjust and cruel the “real world” is.

As Squid Game raced to the top of Netflix charts around the world, I wondered if it has struck a chord because so many of us are feeling burned out, “over it”, and we’re searching for a path of least resistance out of the daily grind. We are toying with joining the “Great Resignation”; we are finding inspiration from those laconic revolutionaries of the slacker-style Chinese movement tangping or “lying flat”.

A still from Netflix series Squid Game
‘Moments of human connection and cooperation counterpoint scenes of contestants dressed in identical green tracksuits.’ Photograph: Youngkyu Park/Netflix

For the contestants of Squid Game, acts of resistance are similarly gentle and mild. These can be as simple as splitting a corn cob, or asking another contestant their name rather than using their assigned number. Moments of human connection and cooperation counterpoint scenes of contestants dressed in identical green tracksuits, marching in step through an Escher painting of stairs and doorways – a striking visual metaphor of the rat race.

Squid Game reminds us that normal life wasn’t sunshine and lollipops for all of us. So before we go rushing back out there, what might we do to make “out there” better?

• Squid Game is streaming now on Netflix. For more recommendations of what to watch in Australia, visit our Stream Team column


Monica Tan

The GuardianTramp

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