HEIDI SCHUBERT WRITES — A new Netflix series called “Squid Game” is a popular, ultraviolent drama in which people take part in a fatal game derived from traditional children’s activities. In doing so, it provides a window into how South Korean people might behave towards one another and what they’ll do to thrive or, in this instance, survive.
People can’t seem to get enough of it. Maybe that’s because this commentary could be applied to the culture of countries beyond South Korea.
In the series, hundreds of characters from South Korea’s most disadvantaged populations, including a debt-ridden parent, a North Korean defector, and a migrant factory worker compete in children’s activities, like Tug of War, in the hopes of earning about $38 million in prize money. The twist to this nine-episode series: while the script makes it clear that these games are watched and financed by the idle affluent in South Korea’s population, losing participants are killed.
‘Squid Game’ has become a hot political topic in South Korea since its Sept. 17 premiere, and, as Deadline noted, it swiftly rose to Netflix’s Top 10 rankings in the United States- the first Korean program to do so. And it has become a worldwide success.
According to Areum Jeong, a Korean cinema specialist at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute, the narrative has struck a chord with South Koreans who are outraged by increasing financial disparity in one of Asia’s wealthiest countries.
The popularity of the subject has inspired politicians from all sides of the political spectrum in South Korea to try to cash in on the success of ‘Squid Game.’
The series has been used by potential and actual presidential candidates to criticize one other. The public in turn has used one such comment on a growing controversy about how the son of a well-connected politician came into a considerable amount of money. Specifically, Lee Jae-Myung, front-runner to represent the center-left Democratic Party, suggested that a new competition was taking place among conservatives in South Korea, which he dubbed the ” 5 billion-won game.” He appeared to be alluding to an instance that surfaced of a right-wing lawmaker’s son who won 5 billion won in payments after quitting an asset management firm.
More to the point: Conservatives have often referred to ‘Squid Game’ in their speeches. For example, a scenario from the show in which a female competitor clasps her hands around a gangster bully and leaps over a bridge reminded Hong Joon-Pyo, a conservative People Power Party presidential candidate, of a “particular politician,” he claimed. This comment also would seem to be a reference to Lee Jae-Myung, who has been publicly accused of abruptly ending an extramarital affair with a renowned actress.
Huh Kyung-young, a small party leader who has campaigned on populist themes in the past, said that ‘Squid Game’ encapsulates the current Korean mentality: Enemies on all sides, ostracization, destruction, danger and being stuck in a culture with grave financial problems from which they can’t escape. Is this really how South Koreans view their country?
Given its astounding success, it is no surprise that many politicians are using the popularity of ‘Squid Game’ to appeal to the citizens of South Korea. One wonders: When the series ends, onto what other popular cultural attraction will they align themselves?