Speculating on 'Squid Game' - Korea Times
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Speculating on 'Squid Game'

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This undated photo released by Netflix shows cast members, from left, Park Hae-soo, Lee Jung-jae and Anupam Tripathi in a scene from 'Squid Game.' AP-Yonhap
This undated photo released by Netflix shows cast members, from left, Park Hae-soo, Lee Jung-jae and Anupam Tripathi in a scene from 'Squid Game.' AP-Yonhap

By Peter Y. Paik

After the unprecedented best picture Oscar won by "Parasite," another South Korean cultural product, "Squid Game," has achieved global prominence. It is now the most-watched show on Netflix, having drawn over 111 million viewers during the first 17 days of its release.

In the series, a group of impoverished and desperate Koreans play a series of children's games in their quest to win an enormous cash prize (the equivalent of $38 million). The catch is that the games are set up so that losers in the game are not only disqualified but also killed.

Detractors of the series have pointed out that the series is derivative of earlier works, such as the Japanese film "Battle Royale" and the American novel and film, "The Hunger Games." The storyline where ordinary people are compelled to kill each other in a brutal and bloody competition for survival is nothing new.

Yet there does appear to be something different about Squid Game. True, the show is excessively graphic in showing the corpses of the losers being dissected for organs before being shoved into furnaces. And critics who decry the thinness of its characters have a point. The pacing of events serves to kill off key participants too abruptly. The tattooed gangster, the girl whose father was killed, the kind immigrant worker, and the scheming middle-aged woman all die before they can fulfill their promise as fictional characters.

But the visual scheme of the series has an almost hypnotic effect on the viewer ― the pink uniforms worn by the faceless guards in black masks provide an arresting contrast to the dark green tracksuits worn by the players. The environments in which they play their games are often painted in bright pastels or bathed in a golden light, evoking a nostalgia for childhood that accompanies them to their doom.

The most fascinating aspect of Squid Game may also be the most shocking one. The series routinely juxtaposes the heart-rending distress and gut-wrenching anguish of the players with the repulsive and disgusting sight of their bodies being lowered into coffins with garish pink ribbons wrapped around the lid.

But the effect of the scenes where the faceless pink-suited workers dispose of the corpses is curiously anticlimactic. All the agonized pleas for mercy, the impassioned protests against cruelty and injustice, are reduced to an inhuman silence by the sight of the bodies, including of those characters for whom the viewers have come to feel a strong sympathy. The game must go on. It is more important than the feelings of identification that the viewer establishes with the suffering characters onscreen.

The pacing of the story, in other words, is determined by the game more than it is by the interest we may take in the characters. And the rapidity with which the characters are killed off, more than making the audience feel moral outrage at the vicious and predatory nature of the competition, serves to anesthetize the viewer. Indeed, what lingers longer than our sorrow at the violent deaths of the characters is a helpless sense of defilement at the sight of their violated and bloody corpses.

Such an unpleasant and disagreeable sensation creates an unsettling parallel between the viewer and the wealthy VIPs who show up to take in the bloody proceedings. For it may not ultimately be the spectacle of murder and mayhem that attracts these corrupt and jaded rich men, but rather their desire to witness the raw and intense emotions produced by the threat of violent death.

In this respect, the VIPs are not very different from the viewers of the series. They simply wish to see in real life a suspenseful drama that we want to enjoy on screen. But the series closes on a note indicating that all is not as it appears to be. Not only was one of the VIPs a participant in the game, but the Front Man, played by Lee Byung-hun, carries out his duties with both stern professionalism and unexpected tact. He had himself been a winner of the game in a prior year.

The Front Man does not behave as a sadist relishing the sight of human suffering. His face is thoughtful, his bearing somber, and he appears to be motivated by the need to perform a terrible duty rather than by the desire for selfish gain.

While this prognostication may prove to be a spoiler, the series seems to be setting us up for the revelation that the Front Man sees himself as the protector of the nation, and that the purpose of these cruel games might be to prevent something far worse from happening to the country.

For the bind in which Korea finds itself is having achieved enormous prosperity and now worldwide cultural influence under an economic system that seems to consign much of its population to poverty, childlessness and despair. The harshness of this system is not in doubt, but it appears to be the only game in town.

What would it mean to stop playing this game, where so many pay the price in hardship, loneliness, and desolation, but where others have achieved great prosperity and produced outstanding cultural achievements?

The talent and professionalism of the Front Man may express the determination to make the best of a game that Korea itself did not chose, but was forced on the country through political upheaval and economic crisis. The well-being of Korea, however, may well depend on being able to imagine an alternative to a system that has brought the country much distinction while also depriving it of its future.

Peter Yoonsuk Paik (pypaik@gmail.com) teaches in the English Department at Yonsei University. The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.

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