Squid Game – the first Korean show to top Netflix’s charts – follows the country’s long cinematic tradition of examining inequality and power relations. The story focuses on a group of indebted people who accept a mysterious invitation to participate in a series of children’s games for a chance to win approximately USD 40 million. However, the contestants discover that these games are actually lethal, and they begin playing to survive rather than to make money.
The unmistakable criticism of today’s economic precarity has been a feature in other recent hit Korean films such as Parasite and Train to Busan. But on-screen critiques of inequality and its accompanying abuses of power go back to the beginning of Korean cinema. The 1926 movie Arirang is essentially the story of the tragic choices that powerless people – Koreans under Japanese rule, the mentally handicapped, and women in a predatory society – are forced to make.
But why are these Korean stories only now taking off globally? This is in no small part because of the attention that K-dramas, K-pop, and other Korean media products brought to the country’s cultural products in the last two decades. It also parallels the rise of online platforms like YouTube and Twitter that have allowed well-placed media products to go viral beyond the borders of their origin. In fact, Squid Game was spread organically by word-of-mouth (and then by the Netflix algorithm once it began trending) without a concerted advertising campaign.
There is a more pessimistic interpretation: the experience of powerlessness and injustice that Korean movies and shows seek to portray are becoming more commonplace across the world. As a consequence, the shared feeling of vulnerability and precarity is helping global audiences overcome the barrier to entry posed by a foreign language, unfamiliar actors, and unrecognizable settings. Perhaps the popularity of Squid Game says more about the world than it does about South Korea.
This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.
Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Janet Hong and Yubin Huh. Picture courtesy of Korea Times.