Squid Game is a hit and hopefully a gateway show to more Korean shows but also content that covers the horrors of capitalism. Why would people willingly enter a murder-game? Gabe talks about how this show stands out from other murder-game plots, some problems with the women represented and about issues with captions or things you missed if you aren't familiar with S. Korean culture. Kat discusses how the stressful debt situations shown in the show hit a bit too close to home.
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Media from this week's episode:
Squid Game (2021) Director: Hwang Dong-Hyuk
Summary by IMDB: Hundreds of cash-strapped players accept a strange invitation to compete in children's games. Inside, a tempting prize awaits with deadly high stakes. A survival game that has a whopping 45.6 billion-won prize at stake.
Squid Game: Murder Games, Capitalism & Culture
by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
People are going nuts for Squid Game and I totally understand. There are people who see this as being one of the best shows about murder games, those people have never seen anime but it’s okay. You are allowed to enjoy things. I am a huge fan of S. Korean media. I eagerly await the day we can cover Kingdom (zombies + classism!? Sign me up!). I get genuinely excited covering the amazing critical media by Bong Joon-ho but I also indulge in many K-Dramas. Yes, I am a Koreaboo.
When I first saw the trailer on Netflix for Squid Game I was like, “What is this strange and playful but definitely murderous show?!” My younger sister begged me to watch, saying it “had more twists than a road in Tennessee.” and I’m sure that means something. So I binged it. I am a sucker for murder games - series’ in which normal folx (sometimes even just children *cough* Battle Royale *cough*) have to fight to the death. A good deal of the characters in these shows/films fight simply to survive, someone has to die and it won’t be them. There are alliances to be broken, gory deaths to be had. Other murder games that director Hwang Dong-Hyuk could’ve been inspired by are Battle Royale, featuring a bunch of school kids killing each other just to surive. This predates Hunger Games (some have argued HG was ripped off from BR) and I highly recommend if now you have been bitten by the murder-game bug. There’s also As the Gods Will by Takashi Miike. Do yourself a favor and look up the trailer. We covered Takashi Miike in a special episode just for him and found the absurd film, Happiness of the Katikuris to be absolutely delightful and fun - Gods Will is very much like that. I love Miike’s wild and crazy mind so much. Many people have been referencing other murder games and saying Hwang Dong-Hyuk stole these ideas from the films/series I mentioned but murder-game plots are free, friends. He’s not the first, sure, but he won’t be the last. Our entire series this month is about Murder Games!
Later, we’ll be covering Alice in Borderland which is truly terrifying to me because you have to win by being smart. Under pressure. Many of the murder-games have this plot where the games are logic-based and I immediately tap-out. In an article on Variety titled, 'Squid Game' Director Not Hurrying to Capitalize on Global Success by Patrick Frater, director Hwang said, “I freely admit that I’ve had great inspiration from Japanese comics and animation over the years,” he said. “When I started, I was in financial straits myself and spent much time in cafes reading comics including ‘Battle Royale’ and ‘Liar Game.’ I came to wonder how I’d feel if I took part in the games myself. But I found the games too complex, and for my own work focused instead on using kids’ games.” So thankfully, we’re met with childhood games warped into murderous challenges of wit, endurance, and sanity.
The show starts us out with the sad and deplorable Seong Gi-hun as he spends all of his money (intended to buy his daughter a birthday gift) to get more money. We see Gi-hun at his lowest and is not a likely hero/protagonist at all. In Murder Games, the characters are often motivated by the need to survive the games themselves but sometimes the motivation is money, as is the case in Squid Game. This results in an incredibly heavy societal critique that Kat will go into in her section. This angle turns the games into something a bit more than the typical rich-elite are bored and need to watch people fight to death for entertainment narrative and into a “people will do anything for money” statement. It’s one thing to just need to survive, sure people will do anything to survive including killing people they care about. But when that motivation evolves out of simply surviving into cunning and strategy to inherit wealth no matter what - it becomes a bit more sinister.
Hwang said in that Variety interview, “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life,” Hwang said. “As a survival game it is entertainment and human drama. The games portrayed are extremely simple and easy to understand. That allows viewers to focus on the characters, rather than being distracted by trying to interpret the rules.”
*Now entering Spoiler Town for Squid Game*
Capitalism & Squid Game
What set this show apart from the other Murder-Games shows was the second episode. In the second episode, the characters find a way out in the rules they’ve agreed to. If the majority of players choose to end the game, it ends. This is after the surprising reveal that they were all in a murder-games game and not a fun game of Red Light, Green Light (the hibiscus flowers bloomed.) Everyone is shaken and watched people murdered in front of their very eyes. Characters beg to be released, they have families and a life outside of the game. So they have an intense vote to decide if they go home without any money (the money gained so far by the deaths of the other players will be returned to the deceased player’s families instead) or continue playing to get the money themselves. What’s more, the votes aren’t anonymous. You have to walk in front of everyone and choose - money or freedom. It sets the tone immediately. But what got to me most was that they got out.
The majority, barely, voted to leave. Everyone returns home and here is where we see the true message behind the series. All the characters we learn to care for are suffering. Every one of them has strong motivations for being in a murder-game that could give them more money than their wildest dreams. They’re not just money-hungry people, they’re desperate and dying.
Gi-hun is no one. He is a gambling addict, a terrible father and son, and though he has a good heart he’s got a dull brain. Cho Sang-woo, a childhood friend of Gi-hun who “made it” after getting into Seoul National University and becoming supposedly successful, he resorts to suicide because he can’t keep up with the debts incurred from (similarly to Gi-hun, was spending money to make money). I read somewhere that some people missed that he was committing suicide in the bathtub but that’s what he was doing before being told he could return to the game. Kang Sae-Byeok, everyone’s favorite character is a North Korean refugee who lost her father, her mother is trapped in China (that’s the route to get out of N.K.) and her younger brother is in an orphanage waiting for her and their mother. Ali Abdul, everyone’s other favorite character and best boy, is an immigrant with a new baby who needs money to protect his family. Everyone is sad and broken, perfect victims for muder games organized by the rich elite.
The show is fun and gory. It plays well with suspense. In the Tug-o-War episode, we are stressed and lured into a false sense of security by the success of our favorites. This sets up the viewers to be as vulnerable as possible in the next episode with the Marbles. We, like the characters, are being led through the games. It’s a beautiful system that plays with our relentless desire to hope. Especially in American media, the good guy usually wins so we feel like in the end, it has to work out! But, this is murder-games friends. We can only have one winner. All the people you love and care for, they’re going to die.
Portrayal of Women in Squid Game
Now I want to talk about some other parts of the show that’s not plot related but integral to the understanding and appreciation of the impact of the series. The fascination with Squid Game by South Koreans reminds me of people’s misguided obsession with The Great Gatsby - people get all glamoured and glitzed to party Gatsby-style and completely miss the, albeit sloppy, commentary on upper-class society. In an article on Aljazeera titled, Why some Korean women are boycotting Squid Game by Ann Babe, they interview a Korean woman who was very disappointed in the series’ portrayal of women. Hyunjun Min, a film studies major at Yonsei University in Seoul in the article, mentions how, “Squid Game shows the shameful side of Korean society. But the sense of pride is way bigger than the sense of embarrassment.” And the more interest international audiences express in Squid Game, he says, the more pride South Koreans feel. Like the movie Parasite before it, and the song Gangnam Style before that, neither of which were immediate smash hits in South Korea, according to Min, it is actually this attention abroad that makes Squid Game so popular at home. Now, given its pop culture super status, feminist boycotters say, their voices seem to be especially unwelcome. Rather than be acknowledged, they say, they are dismissed as killjoys who would rather rain on the national parade than simply be happy for their country’s success.”
I get it and similarly to Min, feel that we, the Ghouls Next Door, are often seen as kill-joys when we discuss issues in otherwise popular films. Don’t get me wrong, I love this show. I had a lot of fun. However, the terrible use of femme-presenting characters was not lost on me. Many of the women characters were tools for male characters either to give them depth, prove their compassion (Gi-hun and Sae-Byeok) or to bring their demise after being scorned (Han Mi-Nyeo and Jang Deok-su). One of the examples in the Aljazeera article is about Mi-Nyeo, an incredibly misunderstood character (in American audiences at least). Ju Hui Judy Han, an assistant professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the United States said, “it is important that the debate surrounding Mi-nyeo extends beyond whether her representation is realistic to more broadly consider the questions she raises about “what sexual empowerment means and how that could actually look in real life.”
“It’s one thing to say that [Mi-nyeo] is sexualised, but its another question, and a complex question for feminists, to think about what sexuality means for women who are put in those precarious situations.”
At the crux of the visibility discussion, then, Han says, is questioning the agency of the characters, the vantage point of the story, and our own tendency as viewers to value and empathise with certain narratives more than others. “It’s only when we start disrupting that … that we can start to pay attention to the importance of the more marginalised characters,” she said. “Mi-nyeo is kind of a badass in her own way, but is she a feminist heroine? I’m not sure. I just wish someone like her could have been the main character.”
And these points make sense to me. I understand the anger that these women have about being represented in such a way. Considering how popular the series has been in America, thinking that this may be the only glimpse into Korean culture that Americans get and furthermore into Korean women, it can be harmful. Lee, a 25-year-old student living outside of the South Korean capital Seoul, is part of the feminist group Haeil, which means “tsunami” in Korean. Like Lee, some other members of Haeil have joined the boycott of Squid Game in hopes that it will send a message to writer-director Dong-hyuk Hwang that women deserve better. For now, critical conversations have taken place on feminist forums as the boycotters say they avoided posting on wider platforms for fear of harassment in a country where feminists routinely face online vitriol. They want Hwang to treat women’s stories with more sensitivity and complexity as he plans for Season 2.
Decent representation is not too much to ask for. Considering the real harm that is happening for women in South Korea, creating media that reinforces or even creates stereotypes about these women is simply another form of harm. Hwang has said he has no intention of a second season, but I do hope that he hears these women out and puts a bit more work into the women of whatever his next project is.
Language & Culture Mistranslations for American Audiences
As mentioned above, I’m a Koreaboo. I indulge in a lot of Korean media, whether that's Manwhas, K-Dramas, K-pop and R&B, films, etc. In all of that, I have become familiar with some of the culture things that are very different from us in America. For example, in Korea there are words you give to friends that are akin to family, and they tend to be specifically related to age differences and how close you are to each other. In one of the most heartbreaking, or the most, episode our best boy Ali is betrayed by the villainous Sangwoo. This scene is made even more heartbreaking when you learn that Sangwoo asked that Ali call him ‘Hyung.’ Hyung is what a younger man would call an older man affectionately, it is like a big brother. In the series, I recall that difference being expressed in the subtitles (they mistranslated ‘sajangnim’ to sir instead of boss which shows audiences that 1. Ali is pure but also foreign so he’s using a far too formal and inappropriate term, 2. That their relationship jumped leaps and bounds from boss to brother). The depth in meaning for that word on someone like Ali, who is a foreigner and the sweetest boy that ever lived, makes it so hard to watch. They became equals and partners in just that one word shift but we don’t get that with the loose translations. Another instance of the familial names being misused in subtitles specifically was with Mi-Nyeo who continually gets a bad rap when it comes to subtitles in this show. She calls mobster, Jang Deok-su, ‘Oppa.’ This is a term used by younger women for older men, affectionately and also kind of brotherly. The subtitles had her saying, ‘babe.’ which made Deok-su’s response a little puzzling. He asks her, “How old are you?” Because she is an older woman and Oppa is a word young girls use affectionately. This is another attempt by Mi-Nyeo to garner sympathy, she wants to be seen as cute and for them to want to protect her, care for her. This woman really got to me. Everyone is hating on her but the woman was trying to survive a murder-game! I’d be annoying as hell too!
A tiktok user went into some other translation flaws and I appreciate their information. Youngmi Mayer went over some of the issues on Tiktok and on Twitter. They said, "If you don't understand Korean you didn't really watch the same show. Translation was so bad. The dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved. The reason this happens is because translation work is not respected and also the sheer volume of content. translators are underpaid and overworked and it's not their fault. It's the fault of producers who don't appreciate the art."
Some of the translation issues were from Mi-nyeo’s character and if they were translated properly may’ve given American audiences a better, more-informed, view of Mi-Nyeo and why she was the way she was. “For example, at one point the subtitles read 'I'm not a genius but I can work it out', whereas the actual Korean was 'I'm very smart I just didn't get a chance to study'. That's important, apparently, because it's the 'entire purpose' of the character, and represents a trope of Korean culture.” Mi-Nyeo is intelligent and conniving. Had she been given the same opportunities as say, Sang-woo, would she be in the Squid Games at all?
Another example I found interesting was in the heartbreaking marbles episode. You know which one. Oh Il-nam, the terminally ill and elderly rambunctious player calls his teammate and friend, Gi-hun his ‘Gganbu’. He explains this is the name you give a friend you share your marbles with. He explains that with this name, it means there’s no “yours or mine” and that there’s “no debt between gganbu.” which is an important point to make in the midst of a murder-game where money is the motivation. In the translations, these lines are either mistranslated or omitted completely.
With all that being said, Squid Game is a fun and heartbreaking show. I say believe the hype. Make sure your subtitles are set to the English subtitles and not English (cc) which translates the dub.
Oh fun fan theory my sister and some others had was that if Gi-hun had chosen the pinkish red square in the slap game in the beginning, then maybe he would’ve been one of the pink folx who helped run the game. Clearly those folx were also struggling - it was like a social experiment (Stanford Prison Experiment, anyone). I could talk about that too but we’re out of time. Sorry!
Squid Game: When Death is Better Than Debt by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
The appeal of squid games is unsurprising to me, as someone who has witnessed the depressing impacts of a failing capitalistic society. Being from a generation who has widely witnessed and fallen victim to the impact of mass debt, and low pay (despite being highly educated), that has left us unable to afford housing, student loans, and basic living needs, the message of squid games was very deliberate and pointed. South Korea has delivered some of our favorite capitalism critiques with Parasite, and Snowpiercer both holding a special place in our hearts. Squid Games, both because it is a show instead of a film, allowing it more time to flesh out ideas, does a fantastic job showing the result of vast income disparities, and extensive debt on a society. The inspiration behind these themes is as bleak as capitalism usually is.
Fun fact, coming to you from a vox article titled What Squid Game’s fantasies and harsh realities reveal about Korea written by Aja Romano, Netflix has seen a fantastic payoff from their decision to invest $500 million in Korean entertainment in 2021, which has resulted in it’s stock to boom. The irony being that Squid Games is entirely about socioeconomic divides, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the desperation of Korea’s financially destitute class of laid-off workers. Hopefully with the giant magnifying glass zooming in on corruption and exploitation, horror can be used as a catalyst for social change, as horror often is. The show does a great job giving a less than subtle nod to class issues within South Korea, highlighting worker strikes (and the violence done upon them by exploitative companies), a younger generation largely impacted by debt (that leaves them financially incapable of taking care of their elders), the horrors individuals under immigrant status face from exploitative companies, and the societal pressures to thrive and attend expensive schools in hopes of reaching a higher income bracket.
Something that may be very relatable to Americans from the Millennial and Z Generations is the concept of mass debt. Debt that is so high, it keeps you from being able to afford housing or other basic needs that previous generations were able to achieve. As well as signing loans for a degree that we were told as children would give us access to better jobs, that instead have left us overqualified and under or unemployed. An article on NBCNews titled, 'Squid Game' is entertaining the world. But there's a different feeling in South Korea written by Jennifer Jett and Stella Kim speaks on what this is like in South Korea. The article highlights the success that South Korea saw in the 1960s due to rapid industrialization that made it the world’s 10th-largest economy. “But as in many other countries, a university degree and a white-collar job don’t guarantee the financial security they used to, Saeji said. With an average income of about $42,000 a year, many Koreans now find they have to borrow to keep up.” The influx of borrowing stemmed from low interest rates, which now has the household debt in South Korea equal to the country’s annual GDP (The US household debt is about 80% the GDP). The cause of this debt development is multifaceted, but seems to stem from a precedent set with banks to begin the debt process. Once you’ve taken out a loan to afford various livelihoods, it becomes easier to wrap your head around that kind of “investment”.
The article highlights the housing market as one of the causes, stating that the average price of an apartment has come close to $1 million, and continuing to rise. With most of the population already seeking loans to afford basic needs, their subjugation under corporations is inevitable. They now NEED this money to pay back their loans, and because of that are more likely to become victims of unjust labor practices and exploitation. It also leaves them more vulnerable to loan sharks and other high interest institutions that further this subjugation. The article goes on to highlight the high risk, high reward situations many young people in S Korea are seeking to get out of this loop. Specifically taking out loans to invest in Cryptocurrency or gambling. “When you look at the characters in the show who are participating in this game, they represent that demographic of the Koreans who are in the worst possible situation because of their personal debt,” Koo Se-Woong, a commentator on Korean culture based in Germany said.“The story stems from a deeply rooted perception of how society looks at failure, especially individual financial failure.” This fear of failure pushes many people away from seeking bankruptcy and instead pushes them towards more risky solutions. It pushes people further towards the risk of having to seek out second-tier lenders and loan sharks that lead them down the path that we saw many in Squid Games walking down. In fact, the article states that approximately 400,000 Koreans are in debt to loan sharks. A number that could very well be higher, and doesn’t include the number of individuals in debt to second-tier lenders or banks.
In comparing this to my upbringing, and the deeply rooted fears surrounding failure for my entire generation this made a lot of sense to me. Having an entire generation so scared of failure that they give out participation trophies is something many Americans of the Millenial and Z generation can relate to. Adults so scared of seeing their children experience failure that they remove the safe ways to do so from areas of competition. When as a society you don’t allow failure, you in turn don’t allow success, because you have to fail in order to reach success. It further fuels the desire for quick fixes because the process of failing is so incomprehensible. In S Korea, Bankruptcy is seen as a devastating fate. In the show when a contestant is given the option to leave is argued to be an example of this. “In the regular world it’s not just the death of their body, it’s the death of their pride. It’s the shame of having to be such an unsuccessful person in front of your family.” This fear of failure is something that makes starting over more daunting than participating in games that will likely result in the loss of your life. The loss of pride and life being held to the same pressure and weight.
It seems this resonated with many people within S Korea as well, and that many people felt connected to those willing to risk their lives to participate in the games. Margie Kim, a housewife in Seoul who is watching “Squid Game” with her family, said “I do feel the pain of what our society is going through,” she said. The show deals with so many pressing issues, she said—income inequality, youth unemployment, a rapidly aging society—that it’s something her entire family can relate to and talk about.“So many middle-class, ordinary people live with so much debt,” she said. “I could totally empathize with people who joined the game.” This is something that many American audiences connected with as well, which is seen in the rating and watch numbers from American audiences. Our hope is that the amusement and support of squid games results in the same energy and support being given to organizations on the ground fighting the injustices at play.