Netflix’s Latest K-Drama ‘Squid Game’ Is A Deadly Survival Battle Based On Childhood Games

Would you risk your life and battle against 455 other competitors for a cash prize? Make that 45.6 billion won, or about SGD52 million, to pay off your debts and turn your life around, all in a series of deadly childhood games. That’s the novel premise that contestants find themselves in on Squid Game, a new South Korean drama written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk. The 9-episode series airs on Netflix on 17 September.

When the trailer first showed up on my suggested feed, I was immediately intrigued. In it, lead character Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) dials a number on a mysterious business card, and ends up in a large-scale dormitory with 400 over others. They then end up playing a traditional children’s game familiar to Koreans, ‘Red Light, Green Light’, to, well, bloody results. There are sinister masked men in jumpsuits, yes, and yet, it was the bright primary colours of the game sets that really caught my eye — how ironic, I thought. Think of this as a show with the calculating ruthlessness and violence of Japanese film Battle Royale, that’s then paired with the kid-friendly aesthetics of popular online game Fall Guys.

According to director Hwang at the official press conference on Wednesday, Squid Game is meant to be an allegory of modern society, in particular, the endless amount of competition and intense pressure we face when pitting ourselves against real, or imagined, foes. “It’s something I used to play as a child at the schoolyard or the small streets of the neighbourhood,” he says of the title of the show. “I thought the game was most symbolic to showcase various aspects of the highly competitive society we are in.”

Another thing the show has going for it is depth, which was apparent after I got to watch the first two episodes of the series ahead of its premiere. It’d be almost easy to just crank up the most entertaining, vicarious aspects of the games for pure visual spectacle — but  Hwang had way more in mind. The sets were great, no doubt, but we actually spent more time getting to know the characters, their personal stories, and their deep motivations. Suddenly, joining an extreme survival game doesn’t sound that ridiculous anymore.

Whether it’s protagonist Gi-hun, a down-and-out “loser” who’s easy to root for, or Sang-woo, a successful graduate from the prestigious Seoul National University who got ahead of himself and landed in deep financial debt, these are people who are driven by desperation and at their wit’s end, exactly the kind of people who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by joining the games, even it if means putting their precious lives on the line. Squid Game, then, is a show that ironically contrasts childhood games and nostalgia with the stark reality of poverty, greed, and human struggle — and we’re here for it.

(Left to Right) Heo Sung-tae, Park Hae-soo, Lee Jung-jae, Dir. Hwang Dong-hyuk, Jung Ho-yeon, Wi Ha-jun.

Ahead of the global launch, we hear from the cast and crew of the series, which ought to convince you to binge-watch the show starting this weekend.

This is a high-stakes survival game show that’s shockingly violent — but also realistic in its depiction of gore. 

Interestingly enough, director Hwang had finished his first draft of the script as early as 2008. “It was after my very first debut film, and that was the time I frequented comic book stores. I thought of creating a similar comic-style story, but set in Korea,” he shared. However, the violent concept he had in mind was too ahead of the time and “not very commercial” for investors, which meant he had to put his idea on hold until more than a decade later.

Now working with Netflix, he shared that he got full creative freedom to work on his concept, as there was “no limit on how graphic the scenes can be”. Still, it takes a deft hand to work out just how much violence audiences would like to experience on screen, before we become desensitised to it. For Hwang, he mentioned that he was going for believability and realism. “I didn’t exaggerate it. I tried to make it so the audience would feel like [losing in the game] is a natural consequence, that it is inevitable.”

The survival arenas are based on children’s games, which introduces a twisted irony, and allows the show to focus on the losers, not just the winners. 

If we think about it, survival game shows are often recurring themes in popular media — you’ve got YA fiction-turned-trilogy The Hunger Games,  as well as cult 2014 Japanese horror film As The Gods Will, which Squid Games has already been compared to. What then makes the show stand out among other films and series of the same genre? Kids’ games.

“The essence of the survival game is the level of entertainment and seeing how the participants struggle to win,” said Hwang. He elaborated on how the rules of children’s games are often easy to understand, even if the audience isn’t familiar with that aspect of Korean culture. “Because of the simplicity of the rules, Squid Game puts focus on how the participants act and respond. We also focus on the losers of the game, not the winners — without losers, will there actually be winners?”

Squid Game is really about the people, and the series carries both emotional depth and compelling characters.

Of this, all of the main cast raved about the script that Hwang had written, sharing how they were inevitably drawn to both its premise and the exploration of their character. “When I read the script, there were various emotions played out in a different way and I thought it was a fascinating story,” said lead actor Lee Jung-Jae. “Every day on the set was filled with excitement.” Actor Park Hae-soo, who plays Sang-woo, also talked about how he was moved by the character growth and arc, as well as the unique universe Hwang had created, while actress Jung Ho-yeon professed how she had stayed up all night reading the script.

Here are some brief insights on each character, as told by the actors who play them:

    • Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-Jae): “He’s very positive, optimistic, but has a lot of thoughts in his head. He has a mother who’s ill but he’s not making a lot of money, so that’s why he’s taking part in this game with a cash prize.” Hwang also shared that playing Gi-hun went against the typical cool, charismatic roles that Lee had often been cast in. “Even when he’s playing a cool character, you could always experience a streak of humanity in him, which I wanted to explore here,” he said.

    • Sang-woo (played by Park Hae-soo): “He grew up with Gi-hun, went to a prestigious school, and because of his choices, got into heavy debt. As the series goes on, he experiences some changes within him, which is something exciting you can look forward to… I would say that he’s the one who blurs the lines between good and evil.”

    • Sae-byok (played by Jung Ho-yeon): “She’s a pickpocket, and she’s looking to live with a house with her family.” Hwang mentioned that it took a lot to find the perfect actress that fit the role, but was taken by Jung after receiving her audition tape. “The tone of the voice, the glare, the aura, everything was perfect,” he said.

    • Deok-soo (played by Heo Sung-tae): “He’s part of a gang, a role I play often, but he lost a lot of the gang’s money and is on the run, which is why he’s putting everything, including his life, to win the money back.” Hwang elaborated that Deok-soo’s not “100% a tough guy”, and believes that Heo was able to bring that out with subtle emotions in his acting.

    • Joon-ho (played by Wi Ha-jun): “He’s a decent and righteous undercover cop, and he is searching for his missing brother, so he goes undercover into the Squid Game and the organisation behind it.” The character is essentially an audience proxy who investigates what we’re curious about, he continued.

On the masked men and captivating set design.

Those red jumpsuits and masks look mighty familiar to the ones in Money Heist, but put it this way, we’re not rooting for them, yet at least. These are the people who are running and operating the games, said Hwang, who shared some insight on the shapes plastered on their masks: ‘Circles are the workers, triangles represent the soldiers who are armed, while squares are for the managers. I got the idea from worker ants, who have one purpose and one purpose only within the colony.”

As for the game sets, Hwang made it a point to build these elaborate physical set-ups, while relying on as little CGI as possible. “I wanted the actors to be immersed in it,” he said. True enough, plenty of them appreciated the effort and the scale of the arenas, including actor Hoe Sung-tae who said that he had high praise for the art team in charge of the set design: “There are a lot of hidden details in the set, which will give you chills when you discover more.”

Hwang also elaborated on the aesthetics of the set design. “If you look at survival game shows, the space is usually dark and moody. I wanted something different, to bring in old nostalgia, from the colours to the objects that are set in place.”

The point of the show — entertainment, but also something more. 

When asked what he hoped audiences would glean from the series, the director shared that he wishes, first of all, that we’d be entertained. “When you watch the show, it’s not the same competition we experience in our daily lives. This is a virtual one, so you’ll be able to enjoy it without much burden, and that’s the entertainment aspect of it,” he said.

However, he also urged us to dig deeper and think about how the themes explored by the show can apply to our everyday lives. “After you finish the show, it might lead you to think, why am I living so hard, why do I have to compete all the time, where did this all start and what is it leading to? That is something I’d like the audiences to feel after watching the series.”