Squid Game is the latest unlikely smash from Netflix, but the show’s success shouldn’t really come as a surprise as the Korean horror-thriller is just one in a long line of similarly sadistic format meant for our viewing pleasure.
Tracing its origins back to Battle Royale, the cult 2000 film directed by Japan’s Kinji Fukasaku - a film that seems like it could only ever have come out of Asia - Squid Game builds on the template of people knowingly, unknowingly or semi-coerced into taking part in a game that promises anything from safety to freedom or riches.
We recognise these game show formats from shows like Takeshi’s Castle and Banzai - where contestants compete and humiliate themselves in order to entertain a particular audience and take home their share of the spoils. In these films, the audience is of particular importance. It’s also not who you’d think it would be.
Usually shows are made with the viewing audience in mind - us at home. In these films, though, we are more like omnipresent onlookers than the direct audience. In Battle Royale's sadistic format the audience is more like a totalitarian regime. This dystopian trend is one of many threads that binds these shows together.
Another recent Netflix hit, Alice in Borderland - based on a popular manga (as BR was based on a book) - utilises this human safari game-show style to similar effect, pitting opponents against each other in games that run the gauntlet from baiting cruelty to requiring participants to make deep emotionally impactful choices.
Whilst both Alice in Borderland and Battle Royale were popular, Squid Game has been a phenomenon. Based in Korea, the premise is simple. Building on the theme of the duality present in the experience of poverty - a popular dynamic in Korean film that was brought to wider audiences in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite - we are presented with several protagonists that are suffering from a life lived in perpetual and crippling debt.
To emancipate themselves from their financial foibles, an invisible controlling force, as sadistic as those in the aforementioned, have set up a series of games, based on those from childhood, where willing participants compete to take home a huge sum of money at the end. Victory requires guile, honesty, cruelty and a large degree of self-control. The character's primal desires should be embraced in these circumstances, never blocked out or allowed to consume them.
As mentioned, there are higher forces at play here. The viewers at home aren't the primary audience, but just onlookers to the chaos. The true and intended audience of Squid Game are the handful of ultra-wealthy funders who pay to see sadism in the flesh. Placing bets on their favoured personnel, the players are pawns of this extreme brand of entertainment. This is acute social commentary, shining the light on the increasingly global gulf between haves and have-nots.
And its popularity? Well, through all of its sadism, which is undoubtedly appealing on a conscious or subliminal level to many, there is a raw humanity rarely explored so explicitly - people stripped down to their most base, stalking each other like prey as they all hunt for the same bit of meat needed to survive. For every betrayal is a genuine truce, every act of hatred comes counterbalanced by one of affection.
Like Lord of the Flies, almost 70 years ago, we see parts of ourselves in each character. We also question how we’d fit in. How would we do? What would we be willing to do to win? These are heighty philosophical notions explored in a thrilling way. Squid Game is an intriguing entry into the canon of extreme Asian filmmaking, a true surprise to many, although not at all to those initiated in this type of show.
Now, eyes opened to its thrilling premise and the questions it leaves us asking ourselves, interested viewers can begin to work backwards, flicking through all of the shows and film that influenced Squid Game. No doubt, with this new global hunger, this is a genre that will soon be beefed up through Netflix’s swollen budget.
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