Squid Game: How a hyper-violent Korean series became Netflix’s biggest hit

Depending on your tolerance for onscreen blood-gushing, by the end of the first episode of Netflix’s Squid Game – when a giant animatronic doll triggers gunfire at unlucky dawdlers during a game of the childhood classic “Red, Light, Green Light” – you’ll either be chuckling in shock or peeking through clasped fingers.

But if the show’s global success is any indication, there’s zero chance you’ll stop watching.

Star Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun, Squid Game’s No. 456.Credit:Netflix

The Korean series, about a group of debt-ridden social dropouts who offer themselves to a masochistic gauntlet of doom for the chance of winning a ₩45.6 billion ($53 million) prize, has struck a chord with Netflix viewers around the world.

Currently the top-trending show on Netflix both in Australia and globally following its debut almost two weeks ago, on Tuesday the streamer’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos said the series “will definitely be our biggest non-English language show in the world, for sure, and there’s a very good chance it’s going to be our biggest show ever.”

For a brutal Korean language series that echoes The Hunger Games and Battle Royale in its savage games of survival, and Lord of the Flies and the Saw franchise in its dive into the inter-personal alliances and betrayals that emerge in the face of gory fate, its word-of-mouth success has been startling.

Dr Sung-Ae Lee, an expert in Korean film and television from Macquarie University, says the show’s focus on the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor has perhaps proved timely for audiences.

“It’s about Homo economicus, rather than Homo sapiens – these are people who only think about money,” she says of the show’s characters. “We’re living in an era where people follow neoliberal ideology without even knowing, so I think the audience identifies themselves in the story.”

Written and directed with cinematic flair by filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, who has described the series as an “allegory or fable about modern capitalist society”, Squid Game shares much thematically and tonally with 2019 Oscar winner Parasite, that other recent Korean breakout which skewered wealth disparity with biting satire.

Much of Squid Game’s appeal comes from that shockingly bleak streak, the way familiar characters are instantly dispatched with dispassionate precision, a sudden shot to the head from a faceless foot soldier. (The bloody body count during episode three’s honeycomb challenge, for example, makes the Red Wedding look like a baby shower.)

The Korean series is Netflix’s most successful non-English language show ever. Credit:Netflix

Dr Lee says Korean filmmakers have been increasingly attracted to black comedy to explore social ills, pointing to Hwang Dong-hyuk’s previous films Dogani (2011, also known as Silenced), about the sexual assault of deaf children in a school for the hearing-impaired, and Miss Granny (2013), about a 70-year-old woman who reverts to her 20-year-old body, which tackled sexism and ageism.

“These films were hugely popular, dark and funny but poignant about social issues,” she explains. “This tone has become very common in Korea.”

While internationally successful films like Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003) have lent Korean screen culture a reputation for bloody dynamics, Dr Lee says Squid Game’s wild violence is an anomaly in Korean TV where the dominant “Hallyu-style” exports are generally romantic comedies and melodramas.

She cites period-thriller Kingdom, Netflix’s first original Korean series which premiered in January 2019, as the TV show which opened the “channel to a world audience” for the success of Squid Game.

“Hopefully it continues,” she says. “Because I guarantee there are more, and even better ones, actually.”

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