Korean cinema has long shown that it can produce great content. Drama, sci-fi, thriller, horror it doesn’t matter. The level of the production is always high. It has a lot of fans worldwide, mainly because it able to mix Korean and western culture into one, creating something, which can be easily “digested” by the viewers. With the latest hit serise Squid Game, they elevated that even more. But is it truly the masterpiece, advertised?
Produced by Netflix, the story is quite simple and to be honest, not original at all. Asian culture loves Battle Royal themes. Japan has several movies, manga and anime on the theme, pitting against each other high school students. In the end, only one emerges victorious. So seeing it here is not something new. However in most iterations, people have to fight each other in direct combat with whatever means provided in order to survive. Here there is an extra layer added.
In this version, the contenders play not only against each other, but also against an organization. The latter offers 456 contenders 45.6 Billion Won (38.6 Million USD or 33 Million Euro) if they attend six “games” and complete them. All of the games are child ones, played by young Korean kids. Most of them are in some way similar to western child games. At the beginning, nobody even suspects what each of the games is and what will happen to the ones who lose. This however, becomes painfully clear during and after the first one. I will say a few words for each of them, but first I want to mention the main characters (with their hard to pronounce Korean names). They are:
- Lee Jung-jae – the protagonist looser, whom is deep in dept and is on the verge to loose his family.
- Park Hae-soo – his childhood genius friend. Working in finances, he lost millions. Everybody is proud of him, not knowing how deep in trouble he is.
- Wi Ha-Joon – a policemen, who infiltrates the games. His sole purpose is to find his lost brother.
- Jung Hoyeon – street rat and fugitive from North Korea. Nothing will stop her in her pursuit to reconnect with her family.
- Oh Yeong-su – the old man, with dementia and a dark secret. Wants to live his final moments, chasing the thrill.
- Heo Sung-tae – the mafia member, who stole from his boss. With huge bounty on his head, playing the deadly games might be safer.
- Anupam Tripathi – the good gullible guy, who wants nothing more than to feed his family.
- Kim Joo-Ryung – as the woman ready at anything to win. The embodiment of a snake.
- Tom Choi – as the supervisor of the games. His role is to make sure, nothing goes unplanned.
Engaging in the games, all of them find out more about themselves and each other, forming alliances and rivalries. During the season, most of them grow a lot like characters. Now for the games.
As already mentioned, they are six in total and are based on Korean child games, but with a “deadly” twist. What is unique is that all of the 456 contenders are there voluntarily. They were presented with the option to win the cash prize in exchange of signing a simple contract, which has one very important clause. The games can be halted at any time, if the majority of participants vote for that. That exact thing happens after the first game.
Red Light, Green Light
This children game is quite popular in the west as well. One kid with his back to the others sings random songs, while the other have to get to her. Once the kid turns to the others, they must freeze at place. If they move, they are out of the game. Green light is when they can move, Red light is when they must freeze. The objective is to get to the kid who sings and “check”. Then you win. To most extent, the game is exactly the same. The exception is that the players, who are caught moving are shot on site. The participants didn’t really expect that, even though the word “terminated” was used several times during the rules explanation. All of the main characters pass the game and Lee Jung-jae (protagonist) is saved by one of them, starting his lucky roll. After each game, the money prize increases based on the people who die. In the first one 255 participants die and the remaining 231 vote for the game to be suspended. Winning with a close margin of 1 vote, all of the participants are released and able to return to their “normal” life. However, as most of them are either broke or wanted, they quickly decide to turn back to the games. Given their lives, winning the prize money is their best shot of turning their luck around. 187 participants return to continue the games, fully aware that they might die at any time.
Here is where the first subplot starts with the police officer Wi Ha-Joon, who infiltrates the organization in order to find his long lost brother. Let’s talk a bit about it, before continuing with the second game. The organization is unnamed and they offer money in exchange for participants putting their lives on the line. It is structured in a simple hierarchy. At the bottom are the Round faced minions. They don’t carry guns and are mainly there to supervise the participants, take out the corpses and clean. They live in small rooms somewhere in the compound where the games take place. The police officer infiltrates the games as one of them.
Above them are the Triangle shaped minions. They are the muscle, carrying guns, executing the participants who lost and maintaining order. If there is a riot, they will step in and terminate anyone involved. Their orders are laws for the Round shaped minions.
One step above are the Square shaped minions. They carry one simple pistol and monitor the games. They explain the rules and supervise the execution of failed participants. They report directly to the Front Desk Men.
On the very top, reporting directly to the organizers of the games, is the Front Desk Men. His features are different from all the minions below. He wears silver costume with a mask that unlike the others, has some facial features. He supervises everything, gives out orders and maintains order. If there is an issue, he must resolve it, which in most cases comes down to killing the participant or minion involved. Once the police officer is discovered, the Front Desk Men engages in pursuit to eliminate the threat.
This hierarchy maintains the order and makes sure that all go as planned. Of course, not all goes as planned, as several subplots unravel, including one for organ harvesting, but “hey, mistakes happen”. Now back to the games. After the 187 participants return, they almost immediately engage in the second game.
This game is specific to the Asian region, being mainly played in Japan, China and Korea. A sugar candy is melted into different shapes and kids have to extract the shape without breaking the candy itself. Simple as it sounds, when a time limit is induced and no additional tools are allowed, but a simple iron pin, things get dangerous. There are 4 shapes that can be extracted: Star, Triangle, Circle and Umbrella. Of course out of all these, the Umbrella is the most difficult and nearly impossible to extract. All the participants divide in lines and are presented with a shape, before they know what the game really is. Once they discover it, things start to get dark and all of them, who fail to extract the shape are terminated. This game is cleared by 108 players, who continue on to the third game.
Before that, the organizers decide to thin down the participants even more by temporarily removing one of the rules, which states that “Participants, can’t kill other participants!”. This turns out in a survival “mini game”, in which people divide into teams to survive a brutal night, filled with violence and death. After this, the player number is reduced to an even number.
3.Tug Of War
This one is a simple game of rope. Divided into two teams of 10 people, the strongest team must pull the weakest over to their side or in this case into an abyss. The members of the losing team, fall to their deaths. The previews “mini game” psychologically laid the ground for this one. Pushed to survive as a team, they must once again join hands in order to win. As the protagonist team is composed of physically weaker people, the old man comes up with a strategy, which helps them win. As this game is decided by more than sheer strength, the quick thinking and composure of the protagonist team was crucial. 80 people engage in this game, out of which 40 people survive.
This game is also familiar in the west. Two people are given 10 marbles each and they must play against each other or against another team, with the objective been to leave their opponents without marbles. In this specific game, they had to play against each other, something that was not given as information. Thus, each choose their most trusted companion which made this game specifically emotional. People were forced to kill their friends and family. 20 people cleared this game.
5. The Glass Tile Game
In this game, the remaining survivors choose a vest number. By this number, they must go across an abyss, laid with glass tiles. They must choose from two options, one being reinforced glass, the other normal one. The normal will shatter, sending whoever is on top to the ground below. All of this against a timer. The psychological moment here is that if the first person refuses to move forward, all of them will die. So, this game basically comes down to sacrifice. Will the first people sacrifice themselves for the ones behind them to live? Tough choice. Three people clear this game.
What follows is a simple three-way standoff marked as a final meal. The three survivors must engage in a knife fight in order for the final two participants to remain. One of them is of course the protagonist – Lee Jung-jae.
6. Final game – Squid Game
This game is specific for Asia. To be honest I couldn’t really follow on the rules. It basically goes as two or more people engage, one being defender and the others attackers. The attackers must jump on one foot, until they cross the defender and move to the other side. Then they can use two legs. The objective is to push the defender or attackers out if the square. This is it more or less. Only one person emerges as victorious, winning all the money.
it might be obvious, but I won’t disclose who is the winner, what are the mini games and what are the plot twists. But I will talk about my issues with the series and the are three:
- From the start, the games look like they require wit and if participants work together, they can clear most of the games together. However this is inconsistent. There are many games in which, the moment the participants think of working together, the organizers think of something to stop them. In the end, the false teamwork feeling is somewhat cringe.
- The luck of the protagonist. During all of the games, sheer luck was what kept him from dying. The one exception being the second game, in which he came out with the solution himself. Other than that, if it weren’t for his team members he would’ve died miserably. Maybe in western culture we’re accustomed to the protagonist being the strongest and smartest one.
- The organizers, which are rich bored people. They speak English, while everyone speaks Korean. If all the Korean actors are great, the English ones are extremely bad. Their conversations feel like bad dubbing.
Despite these issues, the series are as advertised, truly amazing. Season 1 promised and delivered, keeping the viewer roped to the seat. There were almost no weak moments during the whole 9 episodes. The subplots were also great. The most important thing was the psychology. So let me ask you. What would you do for 33 million euro?