3.5 out of 5 stars

Hwang Dong-hyuk conceived of Squid Game in 2009 as a movie, taking inspiration from his own financial struggles and the class division in his native South Korea — a country also bisected in the sense its neighbour, infamous dictatorship North Korea, is a radically different society where people with ancestral links to the south don’t enjoy the same privileges and freedoms. Squid Game couldn’t get financed at the time, but with Netflix keen to expand their international programming portfolio, Dong-hyuk reconfigured the concept into a TV series the streamer paid $21.4M to produce. And it’s now become Netflix’s most-watched show ever, with a reported 142 million views in its first month of release.

Partly inspired by Kinji Fukasaku Battle Royale (2000), only with a candy-coloured prison drama vibe, Squid Game follows divorced chauffeur Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a gambling addict whose young daughter is moving to Los Angeles with his ex-wife and her new lover. Living a comparatively pitiful life with his elderly mother in an impoverished part of town, Gi-hun is persuaded to participate in a big-money game by a mysterious man at a train station. Gassed and shipped to a secret island upon agreeing to play, Gi-hun awakens to find himself the designated last player (“456”) in the titular Squid Game — a competition where participants compete in six children’s games given life-or-death stakes. The first example is ‘Red Light, Green Light’, where players run to cross a finish line whenever a giant automaton girl isn’t looking their way, or else get picked off by snipers if they’re spotted moving.

Squid Game is a prime example of high-concept entertainment, where a juicy premise is simple to communicate (“hundreds of adult gambling addicts play deadly kid’s games in order to win a fortune”), and easily entices those on its wavelength. Some will be turned off by the show’s bloodthirsty perversion of innocent games, but most will find something to enjoy in the chutzpah of Squid Game. The show certainly isn’t entirely shallow, although I wouldn’t say it’s particularly deep either, but Hwang Dong-hyuk at least understood his show would never work if it was just watching lots of people die in playground atrocities. There’s naturally something here about the have’s exploiting the have-nots for sick pleasure and sport, but for the most part Squid Game functions along the same lines as a standard prison escape drama.

Gi-hun meets and befriends some other players —-old classmate and fallen idol Cho Sang-woo / “218” (Park Hae-soo), young North Korean defector Kang Sae-Byeok / “067” (Jung Ho-yeon), the sick and elderly man Oh Il-nam / “001” (O Yeong-su), lovable and naive Pakistani migrant Abdul Ali / “199” (Anupam Tripathi) — and wisely keeps his distance from the dangerous or unpredictable participants, like manipulative Han Mi-nyeo / “212” (Kim Joo-ryoung) and immoral gangster Jang Deok-su / “101” (Heo Sung-tae).

Once the novelty of Squid Game has worn off (by episode 3 perhaps), its best run of episodes are those that build and pay off the relationships made inside the Game. Unfortunately, once most of the notable characters have been eliminated, Squid Game never fully recovers from having to focus on only a few survivors. But the show doesn’t derail itself completely, no matter how often it threatens to along the way —first with a silly subplot involving harvesting the organs of dead players (which diminishes the perceived power of those running the game), a perplexing decision to have the organisers turn a blind eye to murders happening between scheduled games (seemingly done to extend the premise and add a different threat), the disappointing arrival of the “VIPs” (masked men with cod American accents, with one leaning into an outmoded stereotype that elderly gay men are predatory), and the unfortunate fact that a few of the games in Squid Game aren’t actually that good. The best ones happen early on to grab attention, and at least one (involving a bridge) isn’t something kids would have been able to put together. The final game also dissolves into a knife fight, which for me prompted questions about why the players don’t just kill each other before, during, and after each game if there are no consequences to ignoring the task at hand.

Think about Squid Game too deeply and a great many things stand out as being illogical and dumb, but it’s also undeniably captivating and enjoyable to watch unfold. The core characters are pleasingly different types of people who have fallen on hard times, becoming desperate to win money to improve their lives, and each of the principle actors do excellent work. Lee Jung-jae is particularly good as 456, blessed with such an open and expressive face; the most nuanced character is revealed to be intelligent 218 in many ways, who Park Hae-soo does a wonderful job with; and I was immediately delighted by the soulful and ironically childlike performance from 77-year-old O Yeong-su as 001, a man suffering from dementia ontop of everything else.

I don’t know if Squid Game would have been better as a single movie it was conceived as, as it may have felt as fun but ephemeral as Escape Room (2019) —which it shares some DNA with. But it doesn’t entirely justify nine episodes, even if one of them’s only a little over half-an-hour long. There’s a much tighter and stronger five or six-part series here, which would eliminate some of the weaker subplots and nonsensical developments. It also doesn’t go anywhere too unpredictable by the end, although there are certainly a handful of well-crafted surprises along the way — even if a few stretch credulity a little. But the undeniable fact with Squid Game is that, for a potentially nasty, mean, bleak, and repetitive exercise in storytelling built around easy shock-value, it’s more humane and intelligent than expected. The fun characterisations and sharp performances keep it on track, and the best episode delivers an emotional string of gut-punches that singlehandedly made Squid Game worth investing time in.

A second season is teed up by the end, which Squid Game’s astonishing worldwide success has guaranteed will be made, but I don’t think seeing more is conceptually wise or a good idea. Maybe setting the Game in a different country’s culture, with new games and fresh characters, could work as a way to essentially “remake” this series and try not to make it feel stale… but a direct sequel is going to be a tough nut to crack. Hwang lost six teeth writing and directing every episode of the first season because it was so stressful, so I wouldn’t want to be his dentist right now.


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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Hwang Dong-hyuk.
starring: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon, O Yeong-su, Heo Sung-tae, Anupam Tripathi & Kim Joo-ryoung.