Entertainment

'Squid Game' reveals the secret ingredient of South Korean entertainment

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We were told 2021 was the Year of the Ox. In reality, it’s the Year of the Squid.

You’re no doubt aware of Squid Game, the most-watched TV series of the year — and maybe ever. Fast, frenetic, and extremely furious, the South Korean drama was met with rave reviews, and rightly so. It’s raw, provocative, darkly humorous, and extremely relevant. However, to fully appreciate the profundity of Squid Game, one must first understand the concept of han.

In the words of Korean-Canadian writer Eunice Kim, “han is a potent form of Korean rage — a type of anger so severe and all-consuming that some believe you can die from it.”

More formally referred to as Hwa-Byung, han is a cultural syndrome particular to South Korea, with roots tracing back to the Japanese colonial period. Some Korean authors somewhat sarcastically refer to it as kimchi rage. Cultural transmission, which facilitates the spread of behaviors and beliefs, helps explain why feelings of han persist to this day. The phenomenon appears to stem from a sense of injustice, emanating from deep feelings of sorrow, antipathy, anguish, shame, and anger.

Considering the Japanese occupation is a shadow that hangs over the country even to this day, these feelings, so often internalized, result in deep-rooted resentments, Camus-like misanthropy, and aggressive outbursts. They also result in cinematic masterpieces.

Why is this the case? What makes South Korea such an entertainment powerhouse?

From music to movies, the country never fails to capture the zeitgeist of our times. Korean entertainment carries both emotional and visual appeal and produces narratives that transcend cultural and geographical boundaries. When the artist Psy released “Gangnam Style'' back in 2012, the song resonated not just because it had a catchy beat but because it spoke to the people, both at home and abroad. Psy was ridiculing materialism and all the excesses that came (and still come) with it. A society that places vanity on a pedestal is doomed to fail, he warned.

Almost a decade later, Squid Game has captured the attention of the masses, even spawning a short-lived cryptocurrency. To understand why the series resonates, one must ask, what are the key ingredients of a Korean masterpiece?

A cinematic history of han

Oldboy, Train to Busan, and Parasite are just a few of the South Korean movies that earned global attention.Show East / Next Entertainment World / CJ Entertainment

One simply cannot discuss Korean masterpieces without mentioning Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, arguably one of the best movies of all time. At its release in 2003, the hyper-violent movie was met with some relatively shallow reviews. The Observer’s Rex Reed argued the film was as “pointless as it is shocking. What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots?”

Reed’s comments were both wrong and racist. Oldboy was shocking, but it was far from pointless. In fact, the movie served to depict the gross inequalities that existed in South Korea in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As a scholar of psychology, I contend that Oldboy’s explosive violence was a manifestation of han, a deep resentment for the injustices faced by law-abiding Koreans, many of whom felt abandoned by those in charge.

Gross inequalities breed resentment, but they also breed great art.

Then, there’s Train to Busan (2016), directed by Yeong Sang-ho. Ostensibly, it’s a zombie flick. In reality, it’s a stinging critique of Korean society. The South Korean government has a history of covering up tragedies, lying to the masses, and forsaking its people. Train to Busan paints a thorough picture of the callousness of the elites. The message is clear: “The government could save you from such a gruesome ending; it just chooses not to.” The message resonated around the world, with Train to Busan becoming an instant classic.

Burning is a South Korean psychological thriller, starring Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, and Steven Yeun.Pinehouse Film

In the masterful Burning, released in 2018, the concept of han is also evident. Inspired by Barn Burning, a short story by the enigmatic author Haruki Murakami, Burning offers a compelling narrative. It is best viewed as a metaphor for ruthless exploitation, with the upper class subjugating the lower class to lives of abject misery. Just like Murakami’s story, the movie focuses on class warfare and the inescapable shadow of poverty. The feelings of disgust and rage are palpable; in other words, han is palpable.

Of course, discussing inequality without mentioning Parasite (2019) is like discussing great guitarists without mentioning Jimi Hendrix. Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus and winner of four Oscars is a sumptuous offering, overflowing with caustic wit, simmering rage, and unhealthy doses of self-loathing; the han is palpable. With Parasite, Joon-ho did a masterful job depicting the ever-widening gap between Korea’s rich and poor. Gross inequalities certainly breed resentment, but they also breed great art.

Squid Game’s capitalism satire

Seong Gi-hun, a recently divorced man in severe debt, is at the center of Squid Game.Netflix

This brings us back to Squid Game, a dystopian take on a real-world issue. That issue is debt. More specifically, crippling debt. The nine-episode series centers around a South Korean man named Seong Gi-hun, a recently divorced and heavily indebted chauffeur. Along with 455 other players, Gi-hun is invited to partake in a contest a large cash prize. Like Gi-hun, every other competitor is deeply in debt. Things turn nasty when the players are told that the loss of a game results in death. The competition is very much a last human standing, winner-takes-all “game.”

The idea for Squid Game came from the reality of life in South Korea, a country where millions of people find themselves swimming in a sea of debt. In a rather sobering interview with IndieWire, the show’s director Hwang Dong-hyuk said his passion project, a decade in the making, should be viewed as a satirization of capitalism. Desperate people, as he so aptly demonstrates in this enthralling series, are capable of desperate things. Financial insecurity is the stuff of horror. Hence, each episode depicts its own horror show.

Dong-hyuk conceived of the show back in 2008, the same year Lehman Brothers collapsed, and economies around the world were brought to their knees — including the Korean economy. A sense of despair gripped the world, with millions of people left without work, homes, and in some cases, without any hope whatsoever.

Squid Game’s real-life resonance

Squid Game recalls the cult-classic Battle Royale in more ways than one.Netflix

As Dr. Yoo Jung Kim, a native of South Korea, accurately notes, the aesthetic appeal of Squid Game is as striking as it is unnerving. “The childish innocence of the games and the candy-colored background” clashes starkly “against the cruel choices and brutal deaths of each round.”

In many ways, this contrast serves as a metaphor for Korean society. Behind all the melodic K-Pop anthems and smiley faces lies a world of pain, and Squid Game does an excellent job of conveying this pain. The series is reminiscent of the cult-classic Battle Royale, which perfectly illustrated the fragility of Japanese society. At the time of the movie’s release, the country was in the midst of an economic crisis. Disaffected and disillusioned, violence among the Japanese school population skyrocketed. Battle Royale took this fact and exaggerated it to full artistic effect.

The problems transcend all linguistic and cultural boundaries.

This is precisely what Dong-hyuk has done with Squid Game. The average Korean, heavily indebted, might not be willing to compete in a dystopian, Hunger Games-like competition (maybe because none exist, not yet, anyway). However, this doesn’t mean Squid Game is wholly detached from reality. Quite the contrary, actually. Its themes – despair, anger, hate, contempt, incredulity – have resonated with the masses.

Workers, costumed as Squid Game contestants, march to City hall during a rally against the government's labor policy on October 20, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea.NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

A month after Squid Game premiered, angry South Korean workers took to the streets of Seoul, the nation’s capital, to demand better employment conditions. As thousands of protestors, dressed as characters from the series, marched to Seoul City Hall, one wonders what thoughts were running through the mind of Hwang Dong-hyuk. His mission, to document the grave injustices occurring in Korean society, is now complete.

There is a reason why Squid Game — just like Oldboy, Train to Busan, Burning, and Parasite — appeals to viewers not just in Korea but all around the world. The problems faced by the on-screen characters, usually existential in nature, transcend all linguistic and cultural boundaries. Life and death, financial ruin, love and hate, contempt and compassion, hunger and homelessness – South Koreans don't have a monopoly on these experiences and emotions, but they are quite possibly the best at converting them into art.

Squid Game is now streaming on Netflix.

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