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It's pretty dark that Squid Game is a triumphant poster child for global cultural dominance

  • "It’s hard to not think about apocalypse while watching Squid Game," says Kathryn VanArendonk of the South Korean Netflix series that quickly became a global sensation. "Or maybe it’s hard to not think about apocalypse because it’s 2021, and that’s when we’re all watching Squid Game. Whatever the case, although Squid Game does plenty of post-apocalyptic musing about how humanity might behave under extreme conditions, the sense of collapse is different. In Squid Game, as Gi-hun frantically scrambles to locate some bottom to the bottomless pit of inhumanity he finds himself inside, the show is most intense and horrifying, most fully and confidently itself, at the moments when there seems to be no end to the abyss. The show’s gorgeous, intense visuals work best early, when it’s still full of mystery, when the terrifying doll’s eyes see everything and there is no hope of escape. As Squid Game’s ending reaches for answers and for a future, it gets less surprising and less visually virtuosic. It’s not the kind of apocalypse story that longs for hopeful human resilience; it’s most eloquent on the topics of financial despondence and weaponized nostalgia. All of that makes Squid Game’s life as a triumphant poster child for global cultural dominance pretty dark. The show the whole world wants to watch right now is a show that’s best when it’s about realizing that the end has already come, and we’re all just grabbing at straws to distract from how bad it already is. That’s pretty bleak, but that’s also the way Squid Game would want it to be."


    • Squid Game wants to have it both ways when it comes to violence: "It’s telling that the show feels the need to push this hard to insist that the people who’d watch the Squid Game for entertainment are so much more morally degraded than people who’d, say, simply watch Squid Game for entertainment," says Daniel D'Addario. "Like Joker, there’s a having-it-both-ways insistence that a culture that could create violence is inherently sick and deranged, while playing out a wildly overstated version of sick derangement in a manner designed to be maximally tense and amusing. To be clear, there is an obvious difference between spectatorship of real-world and fictional violence, even before Hwang’s script dramatically draws it out. But it might be easier to see that distinction if the pile of bodies had been slaughtered in service of an idea more interesting than that inequality is bad." D'Addario adds: "In relishing fictional death, the viewer of this series is told he’s doing something virtuous. And in enjoying gruesomeness while also tut-tutting at a system that would create such gruesomeness and rooting for its takedown, that viewer is experiencing a double pleasure, a sense of enjoying a show while also perching above it that ends up being the most complicated thing about Squid Game."
    • Squid Game's sloppy English subtitles reduce the global hit to violence porn: "Netflix has been making a major investment in Korean-language content, producing more than 80 original shows and announcing plans to spend nearly half a billion dollars in 2021 alone," says Sharon Kwon. "But the company is falling short in the final stretch, botching translations in ways that can seriously compromise audiences’ understanding. Class and income disparity are central to the plot in Squid Game. It’s why the story of Ali, a Pakistani immigrant who risks his life to save Gi-hyun in the very first game, is so gut-wrenchingly tragic. South Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world, with 99 percent of its population identifying as ethnically Korean. The other 1 percent includes foreigners who immigrate to Korea to work the fields and factories and send money back home to their families. However, their presence is not welcome by all, with nearly a third of South Koreans stating that they 'did not want foreigners or migrants as their neighbors' and more than 60 percent believing that employers should hire Koreans first in times of high unemployment. Ali represents a small but significant population in South Korea—one that, as Squid Game illustrates, is often overlooked, othered, and exploited. As the games begin and the players become acquainted with one another, Ali calls his peers sajangnim, a title that is typically reserved for the big boss of a company or business. Netflix translates it as 'sir,' minimizing the impact this self-declaration of inferiority has on the story and the rest of the characters. As the games progress and alliances are formed, Gi-hyun and Sang-woo’s growing discomfort become apparent as Ali continues to refer to them as his boss. At one point they tell him that neither of them are bosses, and to stop calling them by that name. That’s how Sang-woo and Ali come to the conclusion that Ali should call Sang-woo hyung—older brother—a title used among close friends. Instead, the translation simply has Ali calling him 'Sang-woo.' Calling Sang-woo hyung signifies a new relationship, one based on equality, friendship, and brotherhood... ang-woo’s desperate scramble to lie and cheat for money, even if being the boss means getting blood on his hands, illustrates the pitfalls of capitalism—which Netflix’s translation subtly but significantly deemphasizes."
    • Squid Game's flawed subtitles mar the pride of seeing a Korean show succeed globally: "I can’t recall ever feeling personally attacked by subtitles before Squid Game," says Eileen Cho. "My French partner and I binged the Netflix show – now poised to become the most-watched show in the streamer’s history in any language – just in time to watch the show take off globally. But I found myself often getting worked up and hitting pause to explain what was actually being said in Korean, because the subtitles were just plain wrong." Cho reached out to James Chung, a Korean-American translator based in Seoul, to see what Squid Game's English translation got wrong. “I watched Squid Game with other bilingual friends and we would pretty frequently look at each other in confusion whenever there was a weird translation for the subtitles,” he says. “The English subtitle was reasonable for some basic lines, but then there would be glaring issues for culturally specific lines or for portions that were put in for subtle character development. It's possible that lines are shortened to let the subtitles fit the screen, which also sometimes happens for English to English subtitling, but that didn't seem to be the case for most of the issues here.”
    • Squid Game's success illustrates the benefits of globalization and free trade: "I have been greatly entertained not just by South Korea’s Squid Game but also by Israel’s Fauda and Shtisel, France’s Lupin and Call My Agent!, Germany’s Babylon Berlin, Norway’s Occupied, and Britain’s The Crown," says Max Boot. "My favorite is the French series The Bureau on Amazon Prime. It is, in my opinion, the best spy show ever — and one of the greatest TV shows, period. No one should be surprised that so many of the best shows are no longer made in America. The United States, after all, has only 4 percent of the world’s population. It stands to reason that the other 96 percent would produce a lot of great content. The miracle is that we are now able to see so much of it. The Internet offers an infinity of choices, and the more choices you have, the better the prospect of finding something great to watch. Good thing Washington isn’t limiting imports of foreign shows to protect producers grousing in Malibu diners about how they can’t get their shows on the air anymore. Globalization has opened up a vast marketplace for the U.S. entertainment industry — but also ensured that it no longer enjoys a monopoly on the domestic market. That’s a good thing."
    • Squid Game's global success is a long time coming: "TV monoculture is virtually non-existent in the age of streaming services, algorithms, and niche programming, so the global success of a show from South Korea came as a surprise to many, but really, it was a long time coming," says Therese Reyes. "South Korean TV shows, or K-dramas, have been popular in Asia for at least the last two decades. Unlike Squid Game, most of the shows in the early 2000s were less bloody and more soapy, with dubbed versions broadcasted on primetime by local TV stations around the region. By the 2010s, genres had diversified to include romantic comedies, action, and coming of age stories, and shows were made available for streaming or download in both official and unofficial websites. Its stars became household names, appearing on TV commercials, billboards, and fan meets. K-dramas had a more niche audience in the West, then, in 2016, Netflix entered the picture. In subsequent years, the streaming platform helped boost the genre’s popularity internationally and has since released a number of South Korean films and shows, including original productions and partnerships with local companies. No longer just for those who know where to find them, people around the world could now discover K-dramas alongside The Crown."
    • Squid Game's fashion explosion is interesting, if a bit disconcerting: "The fashionification of a new hit streaming show isn’t anything new—we've seen this dynamic at play with shows as diverse as Stranger Things and Bridgerton," says Eileen Cartter. "Halloween being a few weeks away is almost certainly a factor here, and let’s not forget the Sopranos tracksuit revival, still going strong. (The easy browser tab jump from streaming platform to online retailer makes this an even flatter feedback loop.) But there is something a little odd about a trend that stems from a show whose plot is so deeply dystopian—or, as with Squid Game, explicitly sending up the depravities of capitalism. I'm reminded of uncanny moments like Kylie Jenner’s Handmaid's Tale-themed birthday party, or those few weeks when people got really into wearing tonal red-and-orange outfits like the real-life Rajneeshpuram cult members in the docuseries Wild Wild Country. But, then again, speaking of Kanye: in the era of fashiontainment, maybe trends that emerge from unsettling pop culture are the only trends that make sense anyways."
    • A Korean filmmaker who teaches East Asian Studies in California recalls initially finding Squid Game revolting: "When I first started watching it, I was disgusted because it felt to me a violation of a certain kind of an innocent memory that I’ve got," says Kyung Hyun Kim, who teaches at UC Irvine. "Hwang Dong-hyuk, the director and writer, is basically the same age as me. Hwang is 50 years old. I came to the US when I was age 9 or 10, so I remember all of these games that are featured in the drama. I know my memories are very fond and intimate, and then to use it in such a violent way — not the violence itself, because I don’t get scared with the gory and bloody stuff — that felt to me like a violation. Of a certain kind of, I dunno, fondness and intimacy that you built surrounding these games." But Kim realized that was the intention: "Yeah. That’s the intention, right, that there is a certain notion of innocence that is being trampled upon," says Kim. "You can’t let go, you still cling on to those memories, and I think these memories of your youth and innocence are now obviously kind of permanently stained. So there’s that. But I get it. The end (of the series), I think, is trying to tell a moral tale that is probably not that different from something like Parasite that is basically a film that tries to critique the effects of new liberal capitalism and the violence and the ruthlessness and the cruelty that is associated with it."
    • Koreans are divided over the merits of Squid Game: "Regardless of its popularity, Squid Game is too violent for my taste,” Kwak Young-shin, a 20-something woman who describes herself as a Korean drama addict, tells Variety. “My father, on the other hand, stayed up all night binge-watching the series and only dragged his feet to our (holiday) Chuseok celebrations the next morning.”
    • Squid Game creator/director Hwang Dong-hyuk denies claim he ripped off the 2014 Takashi Miike Japanese film As The Gods Will: The film, like the show, features a "Red Light, Green Light" game. “It is true that (the first game is) similar, but after that, there aren’t any similarities,” says Hwang. “I worked on (Squid Game in) 2008 and 2009, and at the time, the first game (had already been) fixed as 'Red Light Green Light.'”
    • Hwang says there is potential for a Season 2: "There are some loose ends I'd like to explore if I were to make a second season," Hwang admitted, adding: "Writing, producing and directing a series alone was really such a big task. When I think about doing the same for Season 2, I'm personally kind of worried. There's nothing confirmed at the moment, but so many people are enthusiastic that I'm really contemplating it."
    • Ali Abdul actor Anupam Tripathi hopes his role leads to more representation of non-Koreans on Korean TV: “I have played mostly migrant worker roles in movies and dramas… Ali was different in so many ways,” says Tripathi, who moved from his native India to South Korea for college in 2010. “It was my first full-fledged character… The way he looked, the way he behaved, his background—so many questions were in my mind on how I was going to portray him.” He adds: “For me, it’s all about portraying Ali to the best of my ability, and in the future, to play a variety of different roles so that we can see more representation across various platforms in Korea, and the world beyond.” 
    • Sae-byeok actress Jung Ho-yeon recalls laughing and crying when she first read the script: Squid Game marked the first acting role for the Korea's Next Top Model alum. "I read it all in one sitting," she says of the script. "I started reading the script probably around 9, 10 P.M., and it was quite lengthy but I managed to read it all until very late in the night. I laughed a lot and cried a lot. So I felt excited about the project but at the same time I was worried whether I could pull it off, and since the script was so enthralling, I read it wishing that I would not weigh down on the project but have something to bring to the table." What was it that made her cry? "The scene that made me cry was when Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi) and Sae-byeok were talking to each other," she says. I felt that the lines themselves were very well written by the director, and I saw this interview where he said that he envisioned this scene to be one with two people who are the most innocent out of all the contestants." Meanwhile, thanks to the success of Squid Game, Jung has become the most-followed Korean actress on Instagram and has landed major fashion gigs with Adidas and Louis Vuitton.
    • Wi Ha-joon, who plays police officer Hwang Jun-ho, had to learn to portray his character's emotions without many lines: "He’s a character that witnesses these shocking events, so the emotional development had to be shown in my eyes, or through my breathing — everything had to be portrayed through my body," he says. "Thankfully, our director gave me a lot of detailed notes."
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    TOPICS: Squid Game, Netflix, Anupam Tripathi, Hoyeon, Hwang Dong-hyuk, Wi Ha-joon, Subtitles