By all measures Korean cinema and television has been experiencing an unprecedented level of international success. Just two years ago, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite captured audiences with its genre-bending portrayal of the absurdities of late capitalism in South Korea. Now, a new auteur to western audiences, Hwang Dong-hyuk has delivered not just an arthouse hit like Parasite, but a piece of work that has captivated viewers across the world and is on track to become Netflix’s most watched show of all time. Thankfully, its popularity is warranted by its quality, boasting strong characters, excellent writing and thematic density.
Our protagonist, Gi-hun is down on his luck. In deep with loan sharks, divorced and trying to be a better father, his best way out appears to him when a random stranger approaches him with a game and a wager. After winning a modest amount of cash, and suffering copious physical humiliation, he is invited to a second, more mysterious game in a remote location. With no other clear paths out of poverty, he tries his luck and finds himself in a series of children’s games against 455 other players for the Korean equivalent of $40 million. The only catch is that the losers of each game are killed on sight, making each and every game massively intense.
The entire cast of actors help sell the stakes and struggle of the series with an extensive list of standouts including but not limited to Lee Jung-jae (Gi-hun), Park Hae-soo (Sang-woo), Jung Ho-yeon (Sae-byeok) and O Yeong-su (Il-nam). The excellent performances stand out thanks to a deep and complete understanding of each performer’s character’s motivations, fears and relationships to one another. Unfortunately, the uniform quality of the Korean performances is lost on the American cast members thanks to shallow characterization, awkward dialogue and what I imagine to be a discomfort directing English language performances.
The show’s cinematic language is varied and never uninspired but often can feel slightly gimmicky because of this constant experimentation. The thing that keeps audiences engrossed throughout is the clear allegory at the heart of the show’s main hook. A cutthroat game of politics that pits normal people against one another to survive might seem like an obvious reflection of modern capitalism, however the sharp script never leans on clichés to make its points. It is consistently emotionally engaging and intellectually poignant.
Thanks to great writing and a bevy of excellent performances, Squid Game is not only incredibly watchable but has substance to sustain the nine-episode series. Despite being somewhat unbalanced, it is easy to recommend a watch to just about anyone. Squid Game is available to stream on Netflix. – 3.5/5 stars