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Squid Game feels very much a show of the moment

  • "It’s been nearly a month since Squid Game premiered," says Alan Sepinwall of the Korean Netflix hit. "It’s always impossible to know how many people are watching anything on a streaming service, but this one certainly feels like a phenomenon. It’s far from the first international series to hit big for Netflix (see also Lupin, Money Heist, and Elite, among others), but the level of sustained online chatter about Squid Game rivals few of the streamer’s shows outside of Stranger Things and Bridgerton. This response is a testament to the filmmaking craft of Hwang and his collaborators: This is an exciting (if at times stomach-churning) yarn, told with flourishes that enhance everything that’s happening. But Squid Game also feels very much a show of the moment, even if (creator/director) Hwang (Dong-hyuk) is far from the first to tell this kind of story onscreen (think 1987’s The Running Man, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale). The world has been through so much economic, physical, and emotional hardship in the past couple of years, even as the fortunes of the wealthiest have increased. We live in a time when the border between parody and reality feels agonizingly thin, to the point where if we found out there was a real Squid Game–style tournament happening somewhere, not only would many of us not be surprised, but there would be cable-news personalities and members of Congress lining up to defend the practice within hours of this discovery."


    • The worst Squid Game memes completely miss the point of the show: "It’s not surprising that TikTok has latched onto Squid Game: It’s currently Netflix’s most-watched show, surpassing Bridgerton, another TikTok phenomenon in and of itself," says Rachelle Hampton. "The show’s popularity, along with its inclusion of easily mimicable games made it ripe for a trend cycle, of which this very website is taking part in. And unlike Bridgerton: The TikTok Musical, which saw users writing and performing musical renditions of scenes from the show, taking part in Squid Game content requires little to no musical talent. Squid Game memes are, however, another example of how quickly the internet, and TikTok specifically, manages to turn everything⁠—even a gruesome piece of social commentary about financial desperation—into a joke. It’s a little uncanny, if not unexpected, to watch (in many cases, mostly American) users debate whether they’d survive a game that preys on the despair and strain of insurmountable debt. And it’s more than a little funny watching TikTok turn a show about the ethics of spectatorship into yet another spectacle to be viewed and consumed and replicated. Still, there’s already an element of satire to Squid Game, with its adult-sized kid games and its almost one-dimensional depiction of the billionaires who come to bet on them. It would be too easy to look at the videos above and label them insensitive. The Squid Game meme cycle, in all its gleeful gaucheness, is just turning the dial one notch further—satirizing the already satirical. No, the award for Squid Game thoughtlessness belongs not to teens on TikTok writing themselves into the world of Squid Game for a laugh but the usual worst meme offenders: brands."
    • Squid Game relishes in the bleak fatalism of debt: "Squid Game is a broad critique of capitalism, but it’s largely about how hopelessness in the face of debt translates to real-life decisions and actions. In the show, hundreds of people crippled by personal debt make the decision to participate in a series of childhood games in exchange for a cash prize—$45.6 billion won or roughly $38 million dollars—which accumulates in a glowing gold orb suspended over the contestant’s shared barracks, the metaphorical carrot dangling in front of their eyes. The rules are simple: Play the games to advance to the next round. If you lose, you die, executed by a sniper or at close range by a team of silent masked Managers, dressed in pink jumpsuits, executing orders like Stormtroopers...The trick of the game is that there is no freedom, after all—or at the very least, freedom comes at a cost. Squid Game’s contestants have accepted this fatalism into their hearts, because climbing out of their debt otherwise is inconceivable. Debt, in this case, is fatal. In that way, Squid Game is less dystopian than it might seem."
    • Squid Game's women deserve better than their supposedly heroic acts onscreen: "There's no doubt that nearly every contestant on Squid Game has a powerful personal story and reasons for playing the games," says Kylie Cheung. "But 240's story stands out among those we know of men like No. 456  Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and his gambling problems, or Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), No. 101, and his debts as a gangster. Ji-yeong is a survivor who ultimately sacrifices her life to help another young woman reunite with and take care of her family. Losing Ji-yeong shortly after hearing her story and witnessing her kindness is tragic, but it's also frustrating because like so many other narratives about women told by men, it uses abuse as a mere storytelling device. It's a shorthand approach to building a deeper understanding of motivation and character, instead of offering her more focus, unpacking and screentime to build a narrative properly. Ji-yeong cheated in her marbles game to sacrifice herself, and we as viewers feel cheated as well."
    • Squid Game has made tracksuits hot: "Squid Game is full of players wearing banal teal-green tracksuits, generally speckled with blood and dirt, as they are forced to play children’s games to the death in a drive to pay off their debts. Referees in hot pink boiler suits and black masks watch the spectacle (and shoot anyone who breaks the rules of the game)," says Vanessa Friedman. "Sometimes the players take off their zip-up sweatshirts to reveal white baseball shirts bearing matching teal sleeves and the identifying number they have been given instead of a name. It’s the normcore-ization of dystopia. That the black masks and stained sweats shot almost immediately to the top of many people’s Halloween costume list isn’t so surprising. But the fact that the signature outfits and gear of Squid Game are proving trendy in the style sense seems a little harder to explain." She adds: "Tracksuits have become almost a universal reference point after months of isolation. So have slip-on shoes. By opting for the costumes of the everyday, Squid Game upped the shock value and humanized it at the same time. It is why, even as the final three players change into black tie for a last meal — and later, the winner dons a nicely tailored blue suit — the teal uniform of the games remain seared in our memory. They’ve gone beyond basic. It is proof positive, if any were needed, that our changed viewing habits are likewise altering not just what we watch and how, but what we wear. A new Louis Vuitton tracksuit is really not that hard to imagine. (Balenciaga and Celine already have their own.) Call it the trickle-pixel theory: Mass media consumption begets mass outfit obsession. In the cutthroat game of fashion, it’s increasingly a way to win."
    • Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk recalls how his own personal struggles inspired Squid Game: "So back in 2008, I had a script that I had written, which I was running around with trying to get investment, but it didn’t work out and it wasn’t made into a movie," he says. "So that actually put me into a really difficult financial situation — I was broke. So I spent a lot of time killing time in comic book cafes, reading. And I read a lot of comic books revolving around surviving death games — manga like Liar Game, Kaiji and Battle Royale. And well, I read some stories about these indebted people entering into these life-and-death games, and that became really immersive for me because I was struggling financially myself. I was even thinking that I would love to join a game like that, if it existed, to make a bunch of cash and get out of this terrible situation. And then that got me thinking, 'Well, I’m a director. Why don’t I just make a movie with this kind of storyline?' So that’s how it all got started. I decided that I wanted to create a Korean survival game piece in my own way. That’s how Squid Game was initially conceived in 2008, and then I wrote a script for a feature-length film version throughout 2009."
    • Hwang points out that advances in streaming have opened the gates for film and television creators to have their art viewed around the world: “Before, with older media, when one country’s filmmaker wanted to go to bring their film to another country, there were a lot of barriers with time and language,” he says. “For example, if it’s a Korean movie venturing into the U.S. market, we had to go to the film festivals and find a distributor in the U.S. But now we have streaming services and YouTube, so we have the infrastructure to go global in everything that we make. I think now, if there’s good content, the global audience is just waiting to watch it. I think Squid Game is proof that this is possible. The only possible problem that’s left could be the language barrier, but I think people are warming up to that, as well.”
    • How Netflix's top executive in Asia learned Squid Game was a global phenomenon: Minyoung Kim, who joined Netflix in 2016 with the task of establishing the company’s first office in Seoul, says: "For me, Squid Game was really a learning moment, because it’s difficult to expect something you’ve never experienced before. Something like this has always been our ambition, but I never thought that a Korean-language show, with a Korean childhood game at its core, would be racing toward being our all-time global number one show. So, when it first launched, it seemed to be getting a lot of attention from our members, but Korean content tends to be pretty popular. So we just said, 'Oh, OK, this is another one of our successes. That’s awesome.' We’ve had Kingdom, Sweet Home and others that have also done really well. But then internally I started getting messages from my colleagues from all over the world — L.A., London, other places — saying they loved the show. So, I thought, ‘Hmm, my colleagues must genuinely be really liking this, because you have to really enjoy something to bother writing an email and reaching out like that.’ But they’re my colleagues, and of course they have their eyes on what Netflix shows are out there, right? But then I started seeing more and more posts on Instagram and TikTok. And then I watched as Ho-yeon Jung’s Instagram following grew from 400,000 to over 14 million in less than a month. And even on LinkedIn, most of my whole feed started to be about Squid Game, which is really rare. So, sitting here in Korea, it started to feel very surreal for us."
    • How Squid Game's larger-than-life set came together: "All spaces in the game world are built in sets," says production designer Chae Kyoung-sun. "The art teams had to think like a designer who created the games. At the initial design stage, we imagined how the world of Squid Game would unfold across this remote island and arranged the spaces accordingly."
    • Anupam Tripathi had to build up his body to play Ali: “At that time I didn’t have the correct body shape because I had just come back after eating home food, and once they said, ‘OK you are doing this character,’ I was like OK now I have to put on weight, I have to work for it,” says Tripathi. A friend helped him build up his body. “I gained 5 or 6 kilograms and at least looked like somebody who has some power.” 
    • Wi Ha-Joon admits he had to overcome a fear of water to film his scuba scene: "The most challenging scene to shoot was the one where I made an underwater escape wearing scuba gear," he says. "I haven’t mentioned this in interviews, but I have a serious fear of water. It took a lot of time to overcome that fear. I took quite a few swimming lessons to shoot that scene, but I was able to complete it well so I’m very happy about the outcome."
    • Mumbai, India police use "Red Light, Green Light" to call on motorists to stop at red lights
    • British police had to reassure motorists that a Squid Game-looking sign had nothing to do with the show
    • How to make your own Squid Game Halloween costume
    • How to play every game from Squid Game and survive
    • How to watch Squid Game if you can't stand violence
    • Is Squid Game merch about to turn us all into capitalist pigs?
    • Etsy creators who typically make colorful toys, scrunchies, and home goods have a new top product this Halloween: Squid Game masks
    • Do foreign language shows like Squid Game have a viewership ceiling in the United States?

    TOPICS: Squid Game, Netflix, Anupam Tripathi, Chae Kyoung-sun, Hwang Dong-hyuk, Wi Ha-joon, Marketing, Production Design