“The first game is Red Light, Green Light. You can move forward while the tagger shouts ‘green light, red light.’ If your movement is detected afterward, you will be eliminated,” the game announcer said in the first episode of “Squid Game.” “Let the game begin. Green light…”
On Sept. 17, Netflix released the first season of “Squid Game,” a South Korean survival drama series. Denounced by some online as sadistic, this thought-provoking, punch in the gut series illustrates the reckless boredom that the wealthy dispense on the masses. Written as an allegorical commentary on a capitalist society, the series’ creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, is very open about his intentions for the show.
The series sat atop Netflix’s list of most-watched shows in 94 countries and is expected to rake in $900 million from mimicking the strife of cash strapped commoners, according to Bloomberg News.
For the program’s creator, the storyline is all too familiar. In 2008, Hwang had trouble finding an investor for a movie script he wrote, leaving him broke, according to an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Killing time in comic book cafes, Hwang read a lot of plots that centered around survival games.
“I read some stories about these indebted people entering into these life-and-death games,” Hwang said in his interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “I was even thinking that I would love to join a game like that, if it existed, to make a bunch of cash and get out of this terrible situation.”
Acknowledging his power as a director, Hwang added that he wanted to write a story that was an allegory about modern capitalist society. He wanted to depict an extreme competition like the extreme competition of life.
Revolving the plot around children’s games, which Hwang chose for their simple concepts, many viewers picked up on both the overt and subtle comparisons to capitalism.
From a distance, the show seems like a bunch of people battling for money. While that’s true, the point of the competition is to give people in debt a fair chance to earn enough money to save themselves from debt and loan sharks, according to Nyah Stewart, a junior government and politics major.
“The idea is that this game is based on equal chances,” Stewart said. “[This is] when people weren't getting equal chances in life.”
Although the games remain “fair” in nature, as each player is supposed to enter the games without help, the series illustrates the players’ blind participation in a bigger game.
Spoiler alert: the games are a bet. People who are rich enough to gamble on the lives of the players watch the games for entertainment, like horse racing.
Cash is dropped into a piggy bank after each player dies, according to William Dorotinsky, a senior anthropology major. Hanging over the players’ heads, the piggy bank is a constant reminder of why the main characters are playing the deadly games.
For Hwang, the show was a way to address the competitive flow and nature of society, according to his interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“People are being pushed to the edge of their livelihoods,” he said. “You should start thinking about who has created the whole system.”
Aside from interlacing allegorical commentary on capitalism into the series, the show also revved up conversations about Asian influence on cinema.
Karen K. Ho, a senior reporter at Insider, previously wrote for TIME Magazine about how the film “Crazy Rich Asians” signaled a step forward in Asian representation in Hollywood. While “Squid Game” was filmed in South Korea and does not represent the western cinema industry, the series’ increased the streaming of Asian entertainment.
“Increasing Asian influence on TV and cinema has been driven by the rise in streaming of K-dramas, films like Minari, and directors like Jon M. Chu and Bong Joon-Ho,” she said. “What has changed is the larger understanding and acceptance of subtitled entertainment featuring non-white and multilingual/non-English folks on platforms like TikTok and Netflix.”
“Squid Game” features an almost entirely Korean cast, according to NPR. The show is filmed in Korean, offering English subtitles and dubbed English voiceovers.
The English subtitles allow for wider appreciation of the show, according to Jason Huynh, a senior criminal justice major and the public relations officer for the UMD Korean Student Association.
“No matter the language of the series, or where it is from, with a good storyline and a plot where it can capture the audience's attention, people are willing to watch and see what is the hype,” Huynh said. “Asian entertainment has not only increased in popularity, but we are starting to see cultural differences and how each area of the world does their own entertainment. It's a great way to connect others around the world to share something similar that they have interest in.”
Stewart is among some UMD students who watched the series in its original Korean version with English subtitles.
“I like to see that American culture is kind of picking up on other cultures and making them more mainstream,” she said. “[It] is really something cool to see.”
Other students, like Isabella Kushner, a sophomore civil engineering major, started watching the show with the English voiceover before switching to the Korean version.
“[The Korean version] seemed more authentic,” Kushner said. “The English voices didn’t match the character’s personalities.”
Whether students binged the show all at once or took their time to digest the series’ gut-wrenching violence, many UMD students enjoyed the fresh take on the rehashed dystopian theme.
In early November, “Squid Game” was officially renewed for its second season, according to AP Entertainment. Plans for the plot are still developing, but many UMD students are hopeful for one thing: another competition.