October 13, 2021

Contains mild spoilers

The pivot point of Squid Game, the captivating South Korean miniseries that has become Netflix’s most popular series at launch, is its second episode. By now the premise has been vividly established: 456 financially desperate people have been transported to a private island to compete in a series of homicidally souped-up children’s games to win a jackpot of 45.6 billion won (£29 million). The winner takes all; the losers die.

It’s not hard to track the DNA of this death-game concept through The Hunger Games and Purge franchises, the 2000 Japanese smash Battle Royale, and the 1970s Stephen King novellas The Running Man and The Long Walk, all the way back to Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game. Usually, though, such contests are conducted by the state in a near-future dystopia. While the island resembles the micro-dystopia seen in the Sixties TV show The Prisoner — with which Squid Game shares a playground colour scheme, tone of sinister courtesy and replacement of names with numbers — the world it inhabits is present-day South Korea.

Another traditional premise that showrunner Hwang Dong-hyuk rejects is the idea that there is no escape. According to the rules, contestants are free to abandon the game and return to society if a simple majority votes to do so, which is what happens in episode two. Game over? Of course not. The show then explains how the characters’ everyday lives are so brutally, intolerably restricted that even near-certain death seems like the better option. During the vote, one character says: “Will it be any different if we leave? Life out there is hell anyway, damn it.” Another agrees: “I’d rather stay here and die trying than die out there like a dog.” Ultimately, 93% of the contestants choose to rejoin the game. The episode is called “Hell”.

These scenes of lives under hideous financial pressure are not a world away from the work of Bong Joon-ho, whose 2019 film Parasite, the most successful South Korean movie ever, won four Academy Awards. Whether he’s working in a realist mode (Mother), science fiction (Snowpiercer) or a hybrid of the two (Okja, The Host), Bong is obsessed with inequality and injustice, although his conclusions, especially when it comes to solidarity among the have-nots, are diverse and contradictory. He is not alone: Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 arthouse hit Burning also depicts the human cost of economic desperation.

Squid Game may not have the thematic complexity of Parasite but both are thrilling class-war allegories with mass appeal. (It has received the ultimate phenomenon-confirming accolade of a ridiculous moral panic about schoolchildren mimicking games which are, minus the fatalities, simply old-fashioned children’s games.) But even though inequality has recently become a common undercurrent in Hollywood movies, from Nomadland to Joker to Us, there’s no equivalently popular explicit satire in the US, which raises two questions: Why are these stories coming out of South Korea? And why are they sweeping the world?

“Korea, on the surface, seems like a very rich and glamorous country now, with K-pop, high-speed internet and IT technology,” Bong told the Guardian last year, “but the relative wealth between rich and poor is widening. The younger generation, in particular, feels a lot of despair.”

Starting in the Sixties, South Korea experienced a hyper-accelerated version of capitalism which pulled tens of millions out of poverty. In recent decades, GDP growth has only dipped once, during the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis. But this frantic expansion also introduced an unfamiliar dog-eat-dog mentality to Korean society. “Korea achieved economic development in a short span of time, which is why competition can be more intense here than in other countries,” says Jung Ho-Yeon, who plays the sullen North Korean defector Kang Sae-byeok. The net worth of the country’s top 20% of earners is 166 times that of the bottom 20% and rising fast. The birth rate is falling because many young people feel unable to afford a family.

Hwang, who conceived Squid Game in 2008 when his own family was struggling with debt, believes that inequality in South Korea had to get worse before anyone would commission it. “Sadly, the world has changed in that direction,” he recently told Korea Times. “The series’ games that participants go crazy over align with people’s desires to hit the jackpot with things like cryptocurrency, real estate and stocks.”

South Koreans work some of the longest hours in the world but that is not always enough to stay on top of rocketing house prices, inflation and medical bills, so many workers turn to get-rich-quick schemes. South Korea is the world’s third largest market for cryptocurrencies, some of which are fraudulent. When Squid Game’s main character, the shambolic gambling addict Seong Gi-Hun, is first invited to join the game, his initial response is scepticism: “Is this some sort of new pyramid scheme?” He’s not wrong.

The other option for the so-called “dirt spoon” is debt. Squid Game incorporates a real TV news clip reporting that the GDP to household debt ratio has risen to 96.9%, but it is already out of date: by the end of 2020 that figure was 103.8%. The average debt equals 171.5% of annual disposable income, rising to 270% for millennials in their 30s. It’s no surprise that debt is the leading cause of suicide in South Korea — or that it is debt, rather than poverty, which plagues most of Squid Game’s players.

South Korea is at a stage where social pressure to succeed no longer aligns with the chances of success. Squid Game, then, is an extreme example of a common malaise: what happens when people who have been told they can thrive as long as they work hard and play by the rules discover that the game is broken and they cannot win after all?

But the show also combines this economic reality with Korea’s long tradition of satire, to which the concept of han is fundamental. Dating back to the 1910-45 Japanese occupation of Korea, the meaning of han is so fluid and contested that it is effectively untranslatable, though the scholar Suh Nam-dong gives a taste of its complexity and inadvertently captures what it’s like to watch Squid Game: “a feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong — all these combined.” This version of han breeds a potent satirical blend of black comedy, violence, protest and despair.

Squid Game may not be strictly concerned with class — some players never had anything; some had it and lost it — but they have all encountered more snakes than ladders. Debt and desperation are the great levellers. Key characters symbolise different fractures in Korean society. Kang Sae-byeok speaks to the lasting trauma of a country split in half in 1945. Player 244, a corrupt pastor, represents the evangelical megachurches that sprang up in the Eighties and Nineties. Abdul Ali is an undocumented Pakistani migrant trapped by an employer who refuses to pay him. The embezzling banker Cho Sang-woo shows that even overachievers can be destroyed by their aspirations. One of the show’s many tragedies is that nobody really needs 45.6 billion won. After a certain point, the survivors could split the pot and all escape their financial abyss, but sharing the spoils is antithetical to the rules of the game.

The black-masked “Front Man”, who runs the game for its unseen creator, insists, in an episode called “A Fair World”, that it is more just than capitalism: “Everyone is equal while they play this game. Here, the players get to play a fair game under the same conditions. Those people suffered from inequality and discrimination out in the world, and we’re giving them the last chance to fight fair and win.” Even before we discover that this is complete bullshit, we see how the game breeds its own inequalities, whether by fomenting division between the players or requiring them to make choices without understanding the consequences. In the second game, players must choose one of four shapes before learning that they must carve it out of thin honeycomb with a needle. “What kind of a sick game is this?” protests one doomed player. “Why do some get an easy shape when others are stuck with difficult ones?”

Squid Game’s most hateful characters are the cold-eyed realists who understand that morality is a fatal luxury in this game. Empathy and collaboration occasionally pay dividends but the gangster Jang Deok-su finds that violence and ruthlessness are just as useful in the game as they are in real life, while the canny Sang-woo proves adept at abusing the letter of the rules. Inside and outside the game, fairness and equality of opportunity are perfomatively celebrated but not practised. There is no relief from han.

The show’s only serious blunder is the introduction of some super-rich VIPs whose cartoon villainy reminded me of a line from The Simpsons episode “Kamp Krusty”: “Gentlemen, to evil!” Hwang says that they represent “the power elite, the global CEOs” but a sustained metaphor for structural injustice does not benefit from a gilded clique of irredeemable bastards. Unlike Parasite, which is smart enough to make clear that the solution to an unjust system is not simply nicer rich people, Squid Game threatens to squander its satirical momentum.

Fortunately, the finale is a suitable downer, confirming that the game is not just a sham but so corrupting and brutalising that victory cannot be enjoyed by anyone with a conscience. (Its bitterly ironic title, “One Lucky Day”, references a classic 1924 Korean novel about backfiring aspiration.) For all the memes and merchandising opportunities, Squid Game is so shatteringly bleak that I find it hard to agree with Jung Ho-yeon that it teaches viewers “to have faith in humanity”.

But even if you frown on its spectacular violence and relatively broad strokes, you have to acknowledge that this savage allegory for a splintering society is reaching exponentially more people than Burning, or even Parasite, and you have to ask why. For ultimately, the sense that the game is rigged is not just South Korea’s problem. Squid Game has the power to fill anyone with han.