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K-drama ● Review: Squid Game

English Title: Squid Game

Korean Title: 오징어게임

Director(s): Hwang Dong-hyuk

Screenwriter(s): Hwang Dong-hyuk

Studio: Siren Pictures Released: 2021

Runtime: 9 episodes, ~1h each.

Starring: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon, Wi Ha-joon, Anupam Tripathi

My Verdict: Another game show survival thriller. Although generally predictable, it is amusing. It is undeniably a good production with a tight narrative, but I wouldn’t rave about it.

Squid Game

● Seong Gi-hoon (Lee Jung-jae) plays the down-and-out male lead. He is divorced, his ex-wife has remarried and he has limited access to their daughter. He lives with his elderly mother, has no steady income and is also a gambler. One day, he is recruited into a game held at a secret location with about five hundred other individuals. All are there for the same reason: the opportunity to survive all six games and win a lot of cash.

● What follows is basically a survival thriller. Whilst generally predictable, it is, perhaps strangely, nonetheless moderately intriguing and entertaining. For example, the general significance of certain characters is quite apparent even if the specifics are initially unknown.

● Some of the more obvious questions are addressed quite early on, which is good. The series avoids delaying these expositions to the end as if it is some important twist when they are not.

● The structure of the series does avoid the straightforward “gauntlet run” by at least taking some time to build up at the start.

● Gi-hoon is presented as a guy “with a good heart”. No one is perfect and it seems some of his life misfortunes were not his fault. However, he is a gambler and can be too indecisive at times, making him a little difficult to sympathize with.

Seong Gi-hoon (Lee Jung-jae)
Seong Gi-hoon (Lee Jung-jae)

● Throughout the games, Gi-hoon is tested but he remains decent whereas his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo, who is also a contestant, takes a more pragmatic approach. The series makes the obvious point that when desperation is combined with a change of rules, some people will be brutal regardless of their background.

Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo)
Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo)

● There is no shortage of gore. I don’t think it is necessarily intended as a black comedy but it is sometimes difficult to take it seriously. And to be fair, it probably isn’t intended to be either.

● The performance of the main cast does a fine job, including relative newcomer Jung Ho-yeon. She plays Kang Sae-byeok, a defector from North Korea who is trying to provide for her young brother and reunite with their mother. Jung plays the “quiet snobby chick” well enough; she seems snobby only insofar as she is guarded, not because she thinks she is better than everyone else so the pathos is still there.

Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon)
Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon)

● Like many K-dramas, the costumes and set designs are very colorful, the inappropriate playfulness of it very fitting to the premise. Without going into details, the use of certain classical music and references to certain artwork is also interesting. The score too by Jung Jae-il, with its seemingly lighthearted and fun approach, is amusing.

● To break up the plot regarding the contestants, the story also follows police officer Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) who sneaks into the games in an attempt to find his missing brother. This also gives us an additional viewpoint character to see the staff who runs the games without, of course, seeing too much. Without Jun-ho (or someone similar), any behind-the-scenes insight will feel too unnatural since the contestants see none or very little of that.

● The weakness that is most jarring is the masked VIPs from overseas. Since they are masked, a degree of overacting is necessary and expected, but they are horrible. It’s as if it’s another case of an Asian production failing to get decent English-speaking actors and/or they’re not well directed for its minor roles. (The same can be said of some English-speaking productions that are unable to execute their performances involving foreign actors.)

● The series is an obvious commentary on the rich and powerful taking advantage of the unfortunate. And probably also intended is to hint that the world is run by faceless (masked) puppeteers who use money (financial system) to maintain control over what they perceive as the little people by playing them against each other. Another interesting point is that the game is meant to treat every player as “equal”, as if to point to the imposed marxist/communist philosophy with its feigned equality.

● The games are meant to be variations of children’s games. As such, there is nothing particularly creative about them. Although they can be more interesting, this avoids being pretentious. There is one game that doesn’t seem to be a children’s game. It tries to be interesting and comes across as a bit much. But still, they generally work well enough for dramatic purposes.

● Although generally predictable, the plot is still mostly amusing—at a tight nine episodes, each at approximately 60 minutes with the exception of episode 8 at 32 minutes, it can get away with being predictable. The production is very good but, in many ways, it’s just another “game show thriller”. If one is not into that, then skip it.

Contestants about to start playing "Red Light, Green Light" (episode 1).
Contestants about to start playing "Red Light, Green Light" (episode 1).

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