Over the past week, Squid Game, a South Korean show streaming on Netflix, has become a sensation across the United States.
The show depicts a fictional series of games in which players either win or lose; in the latter case, they meet a brutal and immediate death. The incentive for the players is strictly financial. Squid Game is an obvious critique of capitalism and the desperation it elicits from those suffering under the hand of poverty.
Dystopian realities highlighting the dangers of capitalism are nothing new in American culture. The Hunger Games, Sorry to Bother You, and even the infamous Joker movie all provide similar commentaries concerning mental exhaustion and illness provoked by wealth inequality. What is it about Squid Game, then, that has so captured America's attention?
Squid Game presents its viewers with a societal problem, enhanced through mass violence and emotional blows. Hundreds of characters are portrayed as screaming and running for help before they are repeatedly shot, fall to their deaths, or are stabbed until too much blood has been lost to keep fighting. While Joker portrayed enough violence to capture seemingly endless media attention, the action spanning the entire movie pales in comparison to just one episode of Squid Game.
While the violence may differ, the solutions proposed to inescapable poverty within popular fantastical stories concerning capitalism are similar: there isn’t one. The common ending among these productions is one of individualism and escapism, rather than systemic reform. The stories just fizzle.
For those who do not speak Korean, Squid Game can be watched with captions and/or dubbed audio. The setting, as well as auditory barriers, allow American viewers to pretend the issues driving the plot of the show are unique to Korea. We might relate to the show, but we can push the issues off further and instead discuss how bad living must be over there.
Things would never get that bad here, right?
Some may remember Parasite director Bong Joon Ho’s Golden Globes statement regarding Americans and international film: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Though Parasite rushed in as the first foreign film to win the Best Picture award at the Golden Globes, Squid Game may not fully jump the hurdle of captions-- viewers may simply embrace them as a safety net.
The distance drawn between the differences in American and South Korean cultures means that for many U.S. viewers, instead of being players in the game, they can instead relax as spectators. Nobody will have to volunteer as tribute.
Squid Game is not just a flash in the pan. Overnight, the series has become Netflix’s biggest television launch of all time. Maybe its global popularity lies in our ability to relate while also claiming we can’t. Maybe we just relate. Maybe it’s the fact that we aren’t suffering alone. Who’s to say?