Creator: Hwang Dong-hyuk

Cast: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon, O Yeong-su, Anupam Tripathi, Wi Ha-joon

Genre: Survival Thriller, Action

Country/Language: South Korea/Korean

Release date: September 17, 2021

9 episodes, approximately 1 hour each

Rating: 18+ for heavy violence, gore and disturbing themes

Since the last decade, South Korea has been culturally taking the world by storm. First, there was the early generation of K-pop groups, followed by the BTS wave. Then came K-dramas, followed by ‘Parasite’ sweeping the 2020 Oscars. And now, ‘Squid Game’ is the new craze to crush all competition.

This web series is 2021’s answer to last year’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and 2017’s ‘Money Heist’ as the action thriller is on its way to become the most-watched show on Netflix. Behind the massive success of the show is writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk who laboured for over ten years to acquire studio support for the show which was constantly rejected until Netflix grabbed it.

‘Squid Game’ centres on a deadbeat dad named Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) who lives with his elderly mother and is burdened with crippling debt. One day, he encounters a mysterious salesman (played by Gong Yoo from ‘Train To Busan’) who invites him to take part in a top-secret tournament. Over a week, he’s told, Gi-hun must play a series of children’s games. And if he makes it to the end, he will win the lump sum of 38 million dollars. It’s a tempting offer and of course, Gi-hun agrees to participate. Too bad he doesn’t know that those who lose will get immediately killed, often brutally.

But what’s shocking is that even when the participants realize the deadly nature of these games, most of them agree to continue. And there lies the depressing backbone of the script: South Korea’s economic crisis. Korea has been witnessing skyrocketing housing prices and increasingly widespread debt among its citizens, debts which are getting impossible to pay. This is because getting a loan in the country is as easy as purchasing a cup of coffee while the interest rate remains high. No wonder participants would rather risk their lives to win the jackpot than live a miserable indebted life outside the games. ‘Squid Game’ is extremely popular because it is anchored in a real-world concern and is sparking debate among Koreans, and others, on issues of economy and class.

A still from Squid Game

The mysterious workers at this deadly tournament wear striking red jumpsuits and hide their faces behind a mask. The masks give off the feeling of something uncertain and therefore, sinister. But over the next episodes, the layers are peeled off for us to see the faces of these workers: ordinary, but emotionally numbed, men who carry out the killings and disposing of corpses as if it’s your average stint at a pizza place. It should be warned that the show gets progressively disturbing and intense. We see broken legs, spilled brains, mouths sputtering with blood and bodies falling over one another like a massive pile of clothes. Definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

Thankfully, in this godless gag fest, we see a glint of humanity in the form of Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon). Hwang is a cop who finds himself investigating this top-secret location due to personal reasons. It is just as nerve-wracking to watch him get close to getting caught by the game runners as it is to watch the players play the actual games. These games see the players play tug-of-war over a bottomless pit, jump over a fragile glass bridge, or play the famous squid game… but with knives.

It’s an ambitious concept. The tournament can feel unconvincing at times. After all, how is it that so much money has been spent on building a structure for the tournament just off the coast of Korea, but it is still somehow a well-kept secret? And how are countless people across the dark web betting on the participants but the government seems to harbour no suspicions about this online ring? In other cases, this will pull viewers right out of the story and frustrate them. But Don-hyuk somehow makes this journey so entertaining, and busy with compelling characters and situations, that you don’t get time to ruminate on the plot holes.

A snap from Squid Game

The scenes of betrayal or deaths of beloved characters are simply devastating. This is how you know that the writer has succeeded in writing fully fleshed out characters for you to root for. The sets at the tournament (such as the maze-like passageway for the players) and the statement-like colour grading (with bright red jumpsuits and dark green tracksuits) are truly a feast for the eyes.

Movies and shows about characters trying to survive in a deadly ‘game’ is not an original concept. The ‘Saw’ movies, Japanese web series ‘Alice In Borderland’, ‘The Hunger Games’ franchise and action movie ‘Battle Royale’ all come to mind. However, Dong-hyuk’s acidic humour, Chae Kyung-sun’s immaculate art direction, and Jung Jae-il’s phenomenal music score – a highly overlooked, but integral, aspect of this series – help the show in transcending the survival genre, and making it a top-notch series to binge-watch.

A special shoutout must also goes to the incredibly talented supporting cast: Jung Ho-yeon plays Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector and pickpocket; Indian actor Anupam Tripathi plays Ali, a Pakistani immigrant worker with a heart of gold; the hilarious Kim Joo-ryoung plays the eccentric Mi-nyeo; Park Hae-Soo is Sang-woo, a once-promising Seoul University-graduate who is hit with the reality of embezzlement and fraud; and Oh Il-Nam (O Yeong-su), a mysterious old man with a brain tumour.

The beauty, or horror, of this thriller lies in that a children’s game is turned into a cutthroat competition which, if not done properly, will result in blood bath. And so, every shot, which would otherwise seem innocent, such as grown-ups playing tug-of-war, or the meticulous tracing of a candy, or freezing like a statue, is imbued with a sense of heart-thumping anxiety.

Afterwards, some viewers might even catch themselves carrying out simple tasks like slicing fruit or finishing an assignment, and imagining themselves failing at it resulting which, the viewer imagines, one will get eliminated. This ‘elimination’ is, of course, hypothetical. But it’s scary nonetheless. You won’t be able to shake off the habit of charging yourselves with tasks and then anticipating the dreaded result of it. You may be caught in a never-ending ‘Squid Game’, all taking place inside your mind. Such is the power of ‘Squid Game’.

‘Squid Game’ is now streaming on Netflix. It is currently ranking #1 in India Today.

Also read | ‘Call My Agent: Bollywood’ to debut on October 29 on Netflix

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