Culture

How “Squid Game” Channels the Anarchic Spirit of the New Korean Cinema


In the first March of the pandemic, a friend in Pennsylvania e-mailed me about the slim pickings on TV. I told him about “Crash Landing on You,” a Korean drama series on Netflix. “The setup: a high-powered female business owner, next in line to take over her father’s conglomerate (over her two older brothers), is testing one of her company’s products—a paraglider. A tornado (à la Wizard of Oz) transports her up over the border and into the Demilitarized Zone. A North Korean soldier takes her in.” I noted that most of the K-drama’s “16 very long episodes” take place in the D.P.R.K., and called the show “really good, kind of demented.” I tried to sell him on its self-awareness. “The corniness is undercut by one of the North Korean soldiers who is secretly a fan of South Korean soaps: whenever there’s a tight situation, he imagines what would happen in a soap (and then that thing either does or doesn’t happen).” Two days later, I e-mailed a friend in Arkansas about this “goofy” but “irresistible” show, pitching it more succinctly. I synopsized it again for a friend in Rhode Island. That same day, I asked a Korean American novelist friend, “Have you seen Crash Landing on You? (We all just finished.)”

After “Crash Landing,” we—my wife and two sons, then nine and twelve, and I—plunged directly into another hexadecalogue: “Itaewon Class,” set in the cutthroat gastropub biz. A drawn-out love triangle is eclipsed by a simmering revenge plot, as an ex-con restaurateur vows to destroy the food-service mogul who ruined his life. (The violence was more intense, but not above a PG-13, or maybe our parental standards were just slipping.) Next up was the longest and the best: “Reply 1988”—twenty episodes, each one the length of a feature film—a nostalgia trip filled with love, hardship, and awkward fashion choices. Set in a humble Seoul neighborhood, the series follows a group of high-school friends (and their parents) from the eve of the Summer Olympics to graduation and beyond, as they all eventually leave their community behind. It’s hard to imagine watching thirty hours of this now, but we were hooked, and the world outside wasn’t safe. We hardly moved throughout the day, and we saw only one another, like participants in a reality show about a family. Later, alone, I found the “Reply 1988” theme song on YouTube and played it over and over, getting misty-eyed.

It was becoming clear that our trip to Seoul, planned for late June, 2020, was not happening. We kept watching K-dramas straight through the summer. The plotlines have tangled in my mind. There was “Romance Is a Bonus Book” (a publishing drama), “My Shy Boss” (he wears a hoodie and turns out to be a great chef), “Love Alarm” (an app pings when your secret match is within a ten-metre radius), and “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” (more gothic, set partly in a psychiatric hospital). I can’t remember the title of the show where a rich twentysomething layabout finds that his ne’er-do-well friends are now his roommates. My older son splintered off to watch K-dramas that his friends recommended; my wife and other kid started “Start-Up”; I tried a few that no one else was interested in (“Chicago Typewriter,” about writer’s block).

Then, at some point, the K-hole closed. The wild plot twists grew repetitive. The Netflix home screen became overwhelming, the algorithm serving up an endless menu of multipart Korean fare. We fell into separate routines as school started up again, carved out our own spaces in the apartment. As fall turned to winter, I associated K-drama with the early, most frightening phase of the pandemic.

So when the Netflix-produced K-drama “Squid Game” turned into a ubiquitous hit, becoming the platform’s most-viewed title in some ninety countries, I wasn’t inclined to watch. But then, on a FaceTime call, my parents mentioned finishing it; I could tell they’d been riveted, although they emphasized that it was not appropriate for kids. The next evening, I met a couple who’d just binged it with their daughters, ages fourteen and twelve, watching most of it in a single day. My older son, I discovered, was already watching, having heard about it from his high-school friends. I turned on Episode 1: the hopeless gambler Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) signs up for a mysterious contest that could land him more than enough cash, more than enough to pay off some killer loan sharks, comfort his mom, and win more time with his young daughter. Delivered to an undisclosed location, Gi-hun and hundreds of equally desperate contestants play a savage version of Red Light, Green Light, featuring a huge doll with motion-sensor eyes and pinpoint ordnance. (The players are policed by magenta-suited guards, their faces ominously obscured, their own motives unclear; masked one-per-centers pay to watch the proceedings.) The swift mass killings—and the contestants’ utter confusion and terror—evoked the constant drumbeat of death from a year and a half ago. K-dramas had been a comfort at the start of the pandemic. Now, despite a far-fetched premise, “Squid Game” hit too close to home. I turned it off.

The next night I watched past 2 A.M., wondering how Gi-hun and his hundreds of new frenemies would survive against the odds: Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), whose financial misdeeds have the police at his back; Ali (Anupam Tripathi), a Pakistani immigrant with a young son; Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), a tattooed thug; and Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a young North Korean defector who was ripped off by the smugglers promising to get her family to the South. A grizzled oldster (Oh Yeong-su), who has the dubious honor of being contestant No. 001, lends gravitas to the frenetic proceedings, even as he can’t seem to remember his name. He shores up spirits, brings dignity and a warm smile to the infernal events. In the instantly infamous Episode 6, Oh’s character literally loses his marbles as his younger partner deviously, regretfully feeds him bad information in order to win. At the end, Oh reveals he’s been onto him the whole time. His seeming sacrifice—one of several tear-your-hair-out twists—reads as a holy act of forgiveness.

The death-match conceit has invited comparisons to the dystopian Y.A. epic “The Hunger Games,” the torture-porn franchise “Saw,” the game show “Fear Factor,” and the Japanese film “Battle Royale”; the series’ economic dead-endism surreally elaborates the atmosphere in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite.” But the bleakness of “Squid Game,” created by the writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk, stands out. We see just enough backstory to understand how this sprawling cast of characters wound up on the margins. (Episode 2, ironically titled “Hell,” finds them briefly returning to everyday Seoul, only to realize that they want back into the murderous game.) In a twisted way, the sheer artifice of the film’s look enhances the characters’ humanity. Chae Kyung-sun’s sets feature Escher staircases in startling color chords, a vast barracks with metal bunks stacked like bleachers, and killing fields that are also the kinds of spaces you’d see in a preschool or play gym, with sky-colored walls. The faceless guards move about like silent stagehands. (The repeated strains of “The Blue Danube,” in contrast to the ultraviolence, drift a little close to “A Clockwork Orange” territory for me.) When the apparent winner is told afterward to pretend it was all a dream, to do so seems like the only sane response.

Some Korean speakers have bemoaned how the Netflix captions miss the nuances of spoken Korean. I don’t think there’s an entirely different narrative to be excavated from under the linguistic haze. It’s notable, however, that the Korean title for Episode 1 reads “The Rose of Sharon Has Blossomed”—that’s what the demonic doll is singing during the first contest, although the dynamics of the game are otherwise identical to Red Light, Green Light. The hardy rose of Sharon (mugunghwa) is the official flower of South Korea, and is embedded in the second verse of the national anthem, which was written at the turn of the nineteenth century—a paean to endurance composed just before Japan annexed the nation, and well before Korea was split in the aftermath of the Second World War. The next lyric is “Great Korean people, stay true to the great Korean way!” The irony of the underprivileged dying for the delectation of foreign V.I.P.s is a concept that travels well, as Netflix has discovered, but Hwang’s stylishly blunt critique of capitalist spectacle may land even harder at home.

What is the “Korean way,” vis-à-vis moving pictures? The first K-drama I ever watched was “Dae Jang Geum” (“Jewel in the Palace”), from 2003, set in the royal kitchen of the fifteenth century. The popular fifty-four-episode show was like “Harry Potter” meets “Iron Chef.” Historical epics remain on the K-drama menu—“Mr. Sunshine” portrays independence fighters in the early twentieth century, and “Chicago Typewriter” flips between a contemporary author’s angst and the adventures of Korean patriots in the thirties—and a not so subtle nationalism runs through these works, a feeling of mugunghwa resilience. There are supernatural K-dramas (“Uncanny Counter,” “Sweet Home”), action-driven series (“Iris”), techno-thrillers (“Memories of the Alhambra”), workplace romances, and at least one dramedy about a Korean orphan who becomes a Mafia consigliere (“Vincenzo”). For all their superficial variety, these shows are well-behaved, the violence and discreet sex safely in the PG-13 realm.

By contrast, some of the notable Korean films of the past decade—Bong’s “Parasite,” Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” and Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden”—have more unsettling effects. All three directors were leading lights of what’s often called the New Korean Cinema, a burst of brash, energized filmmaking that emerged in the early two-thousands. What Hwang has done with “Squid Game,” I think, is channel the anarchic, impolite spirit of that age into the format of the K-drama, in order to make something more than a well-oiled entertainment.

Hwang isn’t generally considered part of the New Korean Cinema cohort (although his début, “My Father,” came out in 2007). His 2011 feature, “Silenced,” was based on a true account of physical and sexual abuse at a school for the deaf and a subsequent miscarriage of justice; it generated enough outrage that South Korea overturned the statute of limitations on sex crimes. South Korea takes pride in its shiny cultural exports—both the smoothly produced K-dramas and the country’s chart-topping K-pop acts, such as BTS and Blackpink—but Hwang seems to be drawing from a grimier and, in some ways, more vital tradition. Netflix’s warning strip at the start of each episode reads, “Language, violence, sex, nudity, suicide, smoking”—practically the DNA for the New Korean Cinema.

Is Hwang acknowledging these furious forebears? The intensity of “Squid Game” tracks with the show’s predecessors, and there seem to be overt nods as well. At a late point in the series, we see a brooding Gi-hun dressed in black, his brain blasted by the whole inhumane ordeal. His wild mane and thousand-yard stare directly recall the appearance of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), the doomed hero of “Oldboy,” Park Chan-wook’s breakthrough film, from 2003, and perhaps the highest-profile title from the New Korean Cinema. (The movie won the Grand Prix at Cannes.) The gruesome second part of his loose “Vengeance” trilogy, “Oldboy” was a maddening puzzle box of gore, animal instinct, and perverse domination, filled with disquieting images that live in the mind for years: Oh Dae-su eating a live octopus; a ferocious sequence in which he wields a hammer against a corridor full of foes. Like “Squid Game,” “Oldboy” was controversial in its time, and even generated rumors that the Virginia Tech shooter, a Korean American, had been influenced by the film (a link amplified in the Times and the Post, and later discredited).

An even more potent callback is the casting of Oh Yeong-su as the old man in “Squid Game”—contestant No. 001, whose name is revealed to be Oh as well. The actor was familiar to me from the late Kim Ki-duk’s rapturous gut punch of a feature, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring” (2003). Kim, like Park and Jang Sun-woo (who directed the 1999 film “Lies,” about a sadomasochistic relationship), designed his movies to shock. His breakout festival film, “The Isle,” makes a beautiful lake setting as terrifying as “Friday the 13th,” with literally piercing images that go toe to toe with anything in “Oldboy.” Even his publicity campaigns courted controversy: The poster for “Samaritan Girl,” from 2004, showed its high-school-age star visibly topless beneath a nun’s habit.



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