Squid Game – Netflix – a short, intense thrilling Korean drama that pits heavily indebted people and, initially unknowingly, their lives on the line for money

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Netflix has a big Korean hit on its hands in Squid Game (or in my version of Netflix which is entirely Japanese, Ika Geemu) and it’s worth watching for the thrills, the shocks and the twists. The characters are interesting, though not all are as interesting as the two or three key casts members, and the idea of pitting some of society’s less fortunate against each other for the chance to win money, though not novel, is very engaging when you add that players pay the price of losing in a game with their lives. The amount of shock and brutality that you witness by the end of the first episode will probably either get you invested or you will want to drop the series then and there. By all accounts, the first game in Squid Game for its innocence is even by the end the best set up and scene.

For me, my wife recommended this show. She had finished it and I thought given she rarely recommends anything to me, that it must be worth be worth watching.

For sure, I was engaged after the first episode. In fact, over the course of 24 hours, I had completely finished the series, all 9 hours of the show in almost one sitting. A rare feat for me given my work commitment and child. It was very satisfying to watch.

The show follows Seong Gi-hun, a two time failed business person and former car plant worker, who is heavily in debt to loan sharks and even more to the banks. He is barely living and relies on his frail mother for money. His mother cares for Gi-hun but at the same time is disappointed in his son for unable to properly care for his daughter, her granddaughter. Between buying fried chicken for his 10 year old daughter’s birthday or using the money for gambling, he chooses gambling…

Gi-hun’s story is one of pity and sadness. He is a good person at heart, as seen when he gives a stray cat some fish and when he shares some of his winnings from a horse racing bet with the attendant. In real life, he is a less desirable person to be around since begs for money, he gambles, and takes drugs and alcohol. His problem is that he cannot get out of this tragic circumstances. He is on a debt spiral to hell. While some people say that it is his fault for his predicament, a viewer with a heart would sympathize with Gi-hun and understand why he does the things he does. He is one of those people who was dealt a bad hand, losing his job at a car plant, failing in business, etc.

Gi-hun and many others like him are invited to contact an unknown organization comprised of squares, circles and triangle. Destitute and on the brink of desperation, Gi-hun contacts this organization not knowing what to expect. He calls the number and is picked up in a pick-up van. His gassed asleep and eventually finds himself in a room with 456 other people on a remote island. Gi-hun, like all the other participants, at first appear puzzled by the circumstances. But all is made slightly clearer with the arrival of pink track suited soldiers who explain their predicament. It is made clear that all the participants’ history are known to this organization, including the fact that they are all heavily indebted, and that the organization is giving them all the opportunity to change their lives with the reward of money. (We are talking, a lot of money here.)

The 456 participants are invited to play some Korean children games for an opportunity to win money. Obviously the show takes its name from one of these Korean children games, which is shown at the start of the series. All participants, if they want to win the money, only have to complete all six games. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The participants sign their consent to join the games and are then escorted to a field with a pastel backdrop to make it seem child friendly. All appears friendly and straight forward. The first game will be Red Light, Green Light. The participants have 5 minutes to cross the line on the other side of the field. There is a doll that will turn its head from time to time and if its head is facing the participants, the participants must stop moving or else they are eliminated.

The participants get themselves ready. Some not sure what they need to do. After the first round, some of the participants start moving forward. But unfortunately for one of the participants, he accidentally moves and is eliminated. Though its not quite sure what happens since he just falls face forward. Another contestant gets closer and notices that the first participant has blood oozing from his head, he goes into a frenzy at the wrong time and is shot. This second participant’s blood from the back of his head is sprayed onto another participant which then causes a chain reaction frenzy amongst most of the other participants, who collectively lose their cool on realizing that losing actually means being actually shot and killed. Many of the participants go into a panic, rushing to escape through back door. It is at this moment that the Squid Game is at its finest. It’s a shocking scene, even for Korean drama standards.

The six games each have their twists and turns. But they are not the centerpiece of this well executed thriller. It is the story of people and how income inequality and debt can enslave people into being willing to put their lives on the line for money while also being willing to kill others to get to the prize. It is a miserable state of affairs. Further into the series, we learn that there is an organ trade happening, that wealthy people are betting on the game (and treating the participants as horses), and that these games have been going on for many years. This isn’t the first Squid Game by any stretch and it seems that each game is supported by a wealthy person.

Another story unfolds within this series. There is a cop, Hwang Jun-Ho, who goes undercover to try to locate his lost brother when he overhears Gi-hun’s story at a police station. He realizes that Gi-hun’s story may lead to Jun-Ho finding his lost brother. While his story doesn’t have a satisfying ending, I think it was necessary because his story allows us to glimpse into things that Gi-hun and his allies can’t see. In many ways, Jun-Ho is the other main character and it is through him that we understand who are behind the masks for the pink track suited people and a whole bunch of other mysteries.

There was a twist that I saw a mile away and kept mentioning it to my wife. Just pay attention and you may see that twist from even the first episode. The foreshadowing is there and it never disappeared until the twist made its appearance. Rather than sit on it, I made a bold prediction from episode two on what I thought was going to happen and my wife just said, yeah yeah. (By the way, I was completely right.) But I am sure people may still find it a surprise and it may not be obvious.

The cast of characters are all very good. There are some very high profile Korean actors and actresses in this show. For the most part, they all play their roles very convincedly, except I don’t think having a six pack works when you are Gi-hun and some of the other characters.

Satisfying, engaging and worthwhile. It’s a series you will likely revisit and talk about for years to come. It draws some of the best from things like Parasite and Battle Royale, but it is in a league of its own. While the ending leaves some scope for a season two, I doubt season two will be any good given that season one was so good. The moments of intensity, where you know things are going to go wrong, was all done exceptionally well.

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