South Korean film director and screenwriter Hwang Dong-hyuk’s latest project, survival drama Squid Game has seen him move from the big screen to the small screen. However, while his new TV show has quickly become one of Netflix’s most successful titles ever he’s revealed that it’s taken some time, over a decade in fact, to make the leap from script to screen. With striking similarities to the likes of Battle Royale and The Hunger Games his drama sees 456 players competing to win a grand prize of 45.6 billion won (£28.2 million) by taking part in 6 different traditional Korean children’s games, but these versions are life or death. Hooked already? Of course you are.
The common factor that each of the players share is that they are all in major debt and in desperate need of cash, quickly. Some are on the run from loan sharks, whilst others require money to reunite loved ones or to pay for hospital bills. Hwang makes it evidently clear what is driving each of the main characters and viewers will quickly sympathise with many while despising others. It’s Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) who is the show’s main protagonist, but Hwang’s drama introduces us to numerous characters across it’s series, doing so with ease and making sure it’s always straightforward for audiences to follow. With so many characters to keep track of it could have quickly become a struggle but Hwang’s clear storytelling and the cast’s strong performances mean that this is never the case.
The series is spread over 9 episodes with most ranging between 50-60 minutes long and the pacing across the series is probably one of the strongest elements. The first episode “Red Light, Green Light” has a slightly longer than desirable introduction, especially if you know the overall concept of the series, you just want it to get to the games! However its final act doesn’t disappoint and completely delivers on the potential of the premise. The longest episode of the series, “Hell” is somewhat of a comedown after the shocking events of the previous episode however it masterfully succeeds in teasing audiences for what’s to come and you would have to exercise some serious restraint not to immediately hit that “next episode” button. The following two episodes “The Man With the Umbrella” and “Stick to the Team” are arguably the best of the series, they demonstrate the full possibilities of the show’s concept and manage to manoeuvre an unexpected shift in tone that somehow creates more lighthearted moments among the sheer terror often on display. The second half of the series expands the narrative somewhat and audiences get more of a glimpse behind the scenes of the games. Whilst this section still has it’s high points, specifically “Gganbu” and “VIPS”, it’s more inconsistent than the first half and the expanded story is never quite as exciting as the games themselves.
The range of games featured here allow western audiences some exposure to Korean culture, albeit through an extreme and exaggerated lens nonetheless making Squid Game a compelling and insightful watch. It’s the game sequences which audiences will find themselves looking forward to and entertained by the most. They vary in levels of intrigue and excitement but Hwang always ensures that each has ample amount of tension, whether this be through the actual activity of the game itself or the more character driven drama constantly developing as they play out. In addition to the games Hwang is able to include many storylines unique to South Korea, again allowing for further introduction and education on important issues concerning their history and culture.
The impressive set and costume design also deserves to be praised as the series is a visual feast as well as a narrative one. Whether it’s the brightly colour blocked staircases that take the players from their resting quarters to the gaming areas or the array of fabulous masks and pink boiler suits Squid Game is constantly drawing audience attention and you won’t be able to look away. These visuals combined with an eerie and mysterious score consistently help to contribute to the captivating quality of the show.
Ultimately, Squid Game’s short run of episodes make it entirely bingeable but there’s also enough content here to spread the viewing out over a longer period of time. The bizarre and extreme concept infused with the more traditional elements of Korean culture make this a fascinating watch on several different levels. Hwang and his cast also achieve deeper character driven successes as well, creating a range of characters that audiences will easily invest in and care for. It’s vast influences hold it back from being an out-right television masterpiece but it does more than enough to be worthy of its buzz, making living up to its hype appear no more than child’s play.
Squid Game is available on Netflix now!