Squid Game, a Netflix series made in Korea by Hwang Dong-hyuk, was released on 17 September and within 10 days was the platform’s highest-ranking show in 90 countries. Squid Game is perhaps a critique on the problems with capitalism and owes its popularity to anxieties of modern life. It is the first South Korean drama to top the US Netflix charts and its core message is ‘can l ever repay this debt’
The leading character Seong Gi-Hun is in debt, troubled and living off his mother’s meagre earnings. Gi-Hun is divorced, has a daughter he cannot support and battles with alcoholism and gambling addictions. Seong together with hundreds of cash-strapped contestants then accept an invitation to compete in children’s games for a tempting prize (45.6bn Korean won (about R568m), but the stakes are deadly!
The 456 contestants are horrifically introduced to their fate in the first game “Red Light”. In this game a giant robot shoots to kill anyone who moves after it shouts, ‘red light!’ an instruction to freeze and not move.
More than half of the participants are killed without mercy. Panic sets in for the remaining contestants and a voting system is decided on either to continue with the game or not. The irony is towards the end of the season, contestant number one, a dying old man with a brain tumour and who makes the deciding vote to end the games initially, leading to the release of all participants turns out the be one of the rich who initiated the game in the first place for their amusement, the ‘VIP team’.
Squid Game has nine episodes, each running for an hour long at most. Korean children’s games are played in each episode as and anyone who fails any of the games is eliminated, in this case, killed. Squid Game depicts a dystopian, macabre society in which marginalised people are pitted against one another in traditional children’s games. While the victor can earn millions in cash, losing players are killed.
Various factors start to interact and influence the group of contestants in Squid Game. From the formation of tribes (borders, nationalism, ‘them and us ‘etc), turning on each other as resources ‘deplete’ (artificial scarcity created by the rich and powerful to betrayal, hedonism, suicide, challenging the ‘God’ concept, as each participant fights to survive and win the prized money which increased with each dead contestant.
The drama is quite compelling.
Squid Game and Capitalism
Capitalism is often thought of as an economic system in which private actors own and control property in accord with their interests, as supply and demand freely set prices in markets in a way that can serve the best interests of society as postulated by Adam Smith the father of free market economics.
Squid Game was written and created by Hwang Dong-hyuk. Hwang says he originally developed the script in 2008 when he was in a bad financial situation and living in a Manhwabang, reading Japanese survival manga books such as Battle Royale, Liar Game and Gambling Apocalypse.
It is not a suprise the time period the author was inspired to create and write Squid Game as 2008 saw the world in the depth of global economic crisis. In America many people lost their homes and livelihoods, and the ripple effects were felt through the world. Rates of suicides increased, and the dystopia of a capitalist world came to visit most people’s home in jarring and irreversible ways.
Capitalism which has been sold as fair play for everyone, allowing anyone to be successful if they followed certain rules. However, this has turned out to be both an individual and collective myth. In modern society where the rich are super rich and the middle class is falling away.
Most people are scrapping for breadcrumbs and ‘used’ as ‘puppet dolls’ for entertainment for the rich and powerful, showing the drawbacks with Capitalism.
Capitalism ignores peoples’ needs, leads to wealth inequality and denies people equal opportunity. Capitalism also encourages mass consumption, is unsustainable, and provides an incentive for business owners to harm the environment for monetary gain. Capitalism is also ineffective and unstable. Covid-19 if anything has showed us how ineffective and unstable Capitalism is.
Death game genres like Squid game, Survivor series, Fear Factor, The Hunger Games among others are important critiques and commentary of Capitalism as a system of social organisation.
In dystopian surroundings, whether that’s Battle Royale, the Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Exam, or Squid Game, characters play to the death. Life is trivial, victory is lavish, the rules are strategic but there’s a huge amount of luck involved: in Squid Game, there’s a tug-of-war.
Johnson elaborates over Zoom: “If you get put on the weaker team, you just lose, bad luck, you die. In Battle Royale, and you have a flick knife instead of an Uzi, you just lose.”
In his view, the genre is, at heart, a critique of the “central implicit idea of the late-capitalist world, that everything is hard work, everything is skill, everybody gets to where they belong in a perfect global society. All those claims are shown to be nothing.”
Squid Game owes its success to underlying anxieties of modern society, COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened those anxieties. The threat is debt, poverty, ever growing inequalities etc.
Squid Game is a media representation in film of the real everyday lived experiences of people throughout the world. In Africa according to a Lancet Global report in 2017, mental illness has become the leading cause of disease burden. Suicide has also become the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults.
Helen Garnham, head of equalities at Rethink Mental Illness, describes how debt brings together denial, a sense of impotence because it often feels as though “nothing can be done, it can just seem overwhelming”, and a “huge stigma, people don’t like to admit to debt or seek help, they feel they have to manage it on their own”. Garnham points out this irony, that so much work has gone into reducing the taboos around mental health, “that’s what we’ve been trying to say, it’s OK not to be OK”, but debt, such an important tributary to mental illness, is still wreathed in shame.
Household debt in South Korea has risen in recent years and is now equivalent to more than 100% of GDP – a level not seen elsewhere in Asia. Indebtedness has gone hand in hand with a dramatically widening income gap, exacerbated by rising youth unemployment and property prices in big cities beyond the means of most ordinary workers.
As Squid Game illustrates, a sudden redundancy, a bad investment or simply a run of bad luck can force people to turn to high-risk lenders just to keep their heads above water.
Recently, Facebook went down for about 6hours together with it’s other platforms like WhatsApp, and Instagram.
How is it possible that most of the wealth and power is centralised to a handful of people?
The 456 contestants are a media representation in film of most real people today; hence the series is popular and relatable across all cultures, race, language etc.
The misery of crushing debt and a failing capitalist system is universal.
There is only so much pacification of the masses the rich and powerful can do before it all implodes.
We are in real-time all in a Squid Game!