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Netflix's Squid Game is a brutalizing modern parable and the perfect show for our current dystopia

  • "There are, of course, subtler visual metaphors to be made about capitalism than to suspend a shining, golden ball of cash above a crowd of game participants, casting every face aglow as each considers whether they’re willing to watch their competitors get gunned down in order to win," says Delia Cai of the Netflix Korean dystopian drama that has become a surprise worldwide hit. "But this is the scene, arriving a few minutes into episode two of Netflix’s Squid Game, that will almost certainly remain indelible as a cultural reference point for our time, as the South Korean drama continues its trajectory toward worldwide phenomenon. Just this week, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos estimated that the show was on track to be the platform’s biggest hit ever, making the success of previous international shows like Money Heist and Lupin pale in comparison. A shimmering sphere of money, it turns out, needs no translation. The premise of Squid Game is one western audiences recognize from familiar dystopian thrillers like Snowpiercer and Hunger Games in which class struggle is literalized via a series of trials devised for the downtrodden by the elites. Somewhere off the coast of South Korea, hundreds of people who find themselves on the brink of financial ruin for various reasons have been recruited to play a series of children’s games in order to compete for $45.6 billion won (about $40 million dollars, to save you a google). To lose (or disobey) means getting eliminated, i.e., shot dead on the spot. It’s a television series about opportunity in the same way that Breaking Bad was about legacy, or Mad Men was a meditation on ambition: It’s a vivid, violent show that wrings a supposed societal value inside out to expose the unspoken clauses—and tacit horrors—lining its premise."


    • How can Squid Game be so popular when it's one of the most disturbing shows ever made?: "It was a little over 40 minutes into the first episode of Squid Game when my eyebrow arched in confusion, I squinted closer at the TV, and, without realizing it, stopped breathing," says Kevin Fallon. "Over the next minute, I reflexively started to lean back into my couch, as if my body was trying to run away from the TV, and began to make this weird combination gasp-yelp sound. I sort of shielded my eyes, but also couldn’t look away. I wonder if I’ll ever stop thinking about it? When I talk about how disturbed I was by Netflix’s hit series Squid Game, it’s not in the way that, at brunch with friends, someone might exclaim, 'Oh my God, you guys, this show totally creeped me out,' for dramatic effect and attention. The violence, the psychological warfare, the haunting real-world feasibility of something seemingly so outrageous: it pierces you, but then it stays there. It’s the show’s own brutal gameplay with the audience. A metaphorical stabbing. Few series in the age of streaming have ever become word-of-mouth phenomena at the scale and speed with which the South Korean thriller has since its Sept. 17 debut. Especially in this last week, that peculiar title—what the hell could a Squid Game possibly be??!—has been everywhere, spreading its tentacles, so to speak, to news headlines, social media feeds, and group texts, where friends and family debate each episode’s twists and commiserate over the trauma. Proving both how clever and exquisitely cinematic the series is, but also maybe how desperate people are not to be left out, Squid Game is currently the No. 1 show on Netflix in 90 different countries. The streamer is on record saying it is on track to be its most-watched series ever. So here we have this interesting dichotomy: Squid Game may be the most upsetting series I’ve ever seen, and it also may be the most globally popular series in modern times."
    • Netflix’s global TV head, Bela Bajaria, says her colleagues at Netflix Korea predicted big things for Squid Game: “But we could not imagine that it would be this big globally,” Bajaria tells Vulture. “We always knew it was going to be a signature title for Korea, but there’s no way to have anticipated it would be this big.” Bajaria credits Netflix's ability to put a show into 200 million homes around the world at once. Subscribers “tweeted and TikToked about it, and it just grew through word of mouth,” Bajaria says. “People hear about it, people talk about it, people love it, and there’s a very social aspect to that, which does help grow the show outside of what we do.” It also helps that Netflix offers subtitles in 37 languages and dubs its shows in 34, far more than any other major streamer. The dubbing allows for subtitle-averse viewers to easily enjoy foreign titles.
    • A TikTok user says Squid Game's "botched" subtitles are doing a bad job of translating the dialogue: Comedian Youngmi Mayer, who is fluent in Korean, said that the closed-caption English subtitles on the show are “so bad” that they often lose the nuance and impact of the original script. The dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved,” she said. In a video shared on TikTok on Thursday, Mayer pointed to the “low class” character of Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-Ryoung) whose swearing she said is often “sterilized” by the translation, with her comments changed to take away what she stands for. In a separate Twitter thread, Mayer explained: "not to sound snobby but i’m fluent in korean and i watched squid game with english subtitles and if you don’t understand korean you didn’t really watch the same show. translation was so bad. the dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved." Meyer adds that "the reason this happens is because translation work is not respected and also the sheer volume of content. translators are underpaid and overworked and it’s not their fault. it’s the fault of producers who don’t appreciate the art. i want to make one more point before muting this.. how stupid is it that in this country the media run by and large by white people get to criticize art? they don’t even know what we are saying. this is language but same goes for food art music etc…"
    • Why is Squid Game's English-language voice acting so bad?: "Squid Game is a superb series, impressively executed from start to finish," says Kayti Burt. "Its assets include its stellar cast, filled with veteran actors and newcomers alike delivering moving, complex performances. Sadly, the deep bench that is the Squid Game ensemble does not apply to the crew of English-language actors, who come in to fill the various VIP roles in Episode 7 with all the nuance of a high school quarterback bombing an audition for the spring production. Why are the English-language actors in Squid Game so bad? You can probably already have some guesses, but I’m going to break it down for you anyway…The phenomenon of bad foreign-language acting is not specific to Squid Game, nor is specific to Korea. It’s logical to assume that any country’s entertainment industry would have a harder time casting good actors in a language that is not native to that country, especially when you think about how that pool is further diminished by work visa requirements. Unlike the United States or some other countries, Korea is a highly homogenous country, which means a majority of the people who live there are of Korean ethnicity. Therefore, when casting a bunch of white, English-speaking dudes for Squid Game (or any other Korean drama), it’s going to be a bit of a challenge. While English is not one of Korea’s official languages, it is taught in school, which means most Koreans of the younger generations have a familiarity with the language. Because of this, Korean TV directors who are producing a series for a domestic audience in addition to a potential global one may prioritize a slow, clear delivery for the English-language lines, giving Korean speakers with some English-language skills a chance to understand the dialogue without the use of subtitles. This could have been the case with Squid Game, in which the VIPs deliver their lines in a measured, unnatural manner...Honestly, given the role the VIPs role in the narrative, the stilted performances of the English-language actors kind of works."
    • Although the weight of unpaid debts can create a living hell, Squid Game surprisingly explores another form of indebtedness: being responsible for other people: "Squid Game fits into a category of South Korean works that grapple with economic anxieties and class struggles, which are rooted in the country’s concerns but resonate globally," says Morgan Ome. "Like Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite, the show indicts the rich for propagating a false sense of upward mobility and the poor for buying into it. Like BTS’s song 'Silver Spoon,' it speaks to the physical pains that people face when trying to rise above their prescribed stations. And like Lee Chang-dong’s film Burning, it captures the isolation and resentment of those left behind by rapid development. Squid Game uses the popular survival-game genre—reminiscent of The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, and the video game Fortnite—to tell an even more universal story, and to make its allegories to real life particularly stark. Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk does this, in part, with stunning aesthetics. The first game’s arena is a room painted to look like an open field, creating the illusion of freedom. A giant, glass piggy bank filled with stacks of bills looms over the players’ heads, constantly reminding them of what they have to gain. The intricate, candy-colored sets and the players’ green tracksuits are often streaked and splattered with blood, reflecting the perverse way that modern suffering is frequently presented as a spectacle. (When a friend asked how violent the show is, I likened it to Midsommar.)" Ome adds: "Everyone’s community needs and personal financial obligations are intertwined. Debt to a cruel system is inescapable and dehumanizing, the show constantly reminds us. But beneath the hyper-violence, it also suggests that our obligations to other people can be a source of meaning, compassion, and—just maybe—salvation."
    • Squid Game belongs to the growing category of recent books, movies, and TV shows that use genre elements to construct an allegorical critique of social evils: "Get Out used horror to anatomize American racism; Squid Game uses the survival thriller to anatomize economic exploitation," says Brian Phillips. "(People will say it’s a critique of capitalism, and it is, but the story of money, power, and corruption it depicts would have been familiar in the Middle Ages.) The last surviving player on the island will leave with a fortune worth almost $40 million; this minuscule hope of riches, combined with the pressure of life-or-death competition, persuades players either to betray their true natures or to reveal their true natures, depending on how Lord of the Flies you like to go with your personal view of humanity. Seemingly normal people become conniving and vicious. Seemingly proud people submit to extreme degradation. Gi-hun’s relationships with other players—including a childhood friend, an old man, a Pakistani immigrant, and a young North Korean pickpocket—unfold as a series of moral test cases. Can people ever trust each other when they’re forced to contend for limited resources? Can they work together? At what point do 'good' people decide to betray each other? Do our affections have any meaning? If you strip away society’s comforting fictions, are people anything to one another but bodies? The island, in other words, is an allegorical microcosm, a kind of snow-globe miniature of human relations in which the white flakes are paper money. None of this is remotely subtle. Squid Game makes Parasite, the Oscar-winning Bong Joon-ho film with which it shares its class-skewering themes, look like a Nicholson Baker novel."
    • Meet Squid Game's Gong Yoo, one of Korea's most popular actors
    • Read an interview with Squid Game's breakout Robot Doll star
    • How to dress as Squid Game characters for Halloween
    • Squid Game may have powered Netflix's stock to new highs this week
    • Netflix installed a replica of the show's murdering doll in a mall in the Philippines
    • Squid Game's hashtag #SquidGame has generated more than 14 billion videos on TikTok and has wreaked havoc worldwide
    • Squid Game cast to visit Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show on Wednesday

    TOPICS: Squid Game, Bela Bajaria, Gong Yoo, Dubbing, Marketing, Subtitles