‘Squid Game’ is a horrifying yet enthralling depiction of human nature

Director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s latest K-drama provides a remarkable twist on classic survival game shows


Photo courtesy of Netflix, Inc.

“Squid Game” characters Cho Sang-woo, Seong Gi-hun and Kang Sae-byeok (pictured left to right)

By Shivani Madhan and Lillian Wang

“Squid Game” promotion poster featuring the show’s cast | Photo courtesy of Netflix, Inc.

Candy-colored playgrounds. Bubbly, cheerful music. Games like Red Light, Green Light. These deceptively innocent commodities seem out of place in a gruesome, last-man-standing battle to the death, but Netflix’s new series “Squid Game” annihilates expectations at every turn, intensely disturbing and fascinating all at once.

Released on Netflix on Sept. 17, the hit South Korean survival drama TV series follows the story of Seong Gi-Hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), a divorced dad in massive debt due to his gambling addiction. In a turn of events, Gi-hun finds himself on a remote island, surrounded by others in debt like him, and is promised 45.6 billion Korean won (38.5 million USD) if he wins six South Korean children’s games.

But, there’s a catch. If a player fails to win a game, they’ll be “eliminated” — or, simply put, killed.

“Squid Game’s” characteristic masked workers walk through the play room | Photo courtesy of Netflix, Inc.

Through clashing cinematic elements, “Squid Game” creates an eerie and jarring narrative. Vivid, colorful sets and upbeat soundtracks such as “The Blue Danube Waltz” offer a stark contrast to the constant violence the series is notorious for, and these opposing aesthetics are hauntingly memorable and unique.

On top of its striking cinematic choices, the TV series’ dark portrayal of human nature is compellingly realistic. The players are simple yet multidimensional, and the game highlights the complexity of their greed and selfishness. Even though protagonist Gi-Hun remains caring towards others throughout the game, he’s still a gambling addict and an abysmal father — a reminder that even the good guy’s morals are nowhere close to black and white.

Another character that exemplifies the flaws in human nature is Cho Sang-woo, a former gifted student and businessman facing charges of fraud and embezzlement. Sang-woo epitomizes the “every man for himself” human instinct when it comes to self-preservation.

Cho Sang-woo (left) and Ali Abdul (right) are paired up during the marbles game | Photo courtesy of Netflix, Inc.

During the marble game, Sang-woo manipulates his partner, a kindhearted Pakistani immigrant named Ali Abdul, into handing over his marbles under the guise that they could win the game together, reflecting humans’ complete lack of empathy for others — even their friends — when their own lives are in danger. Many players are equally conniving, conveying the reality that when the stakes are so high, humans often turn to sabotage and brutality.

“Squid Game” also offers an intriguing critique on the inherently selfish nature of capitalist societies, emphasizing the desperation of indebted civilians trapped by the system. When given the chance to escape, an overwhelming majority of players return with the unshakeable belief that gambling with their lives might be more profitable than struggling to make ends meet in the outside world.

Kang Sae-byeok stares at her dalgona candy, or honeycomb toffee, as she waits for the second game to start | Photo courtesy of Netflix, Inc.

The show also criticizes the inequities present in capitalism through a game where players must choose between four shapes — circle, triangle, star or umbrella. They are then given dalgona candy and asked to carve out their selected pattern without breaking the toffee. Some patterns, such as the star and umbrella, are far more difficult to carve out — a reference to how individuals in capitalistic societies are given freedom of choice, but are ultimately limited by luck and circumstance.

Although the show ingeniously draws attention to the darker side of human nature and the faults of capitalism, the series is not without shortcomings. Netflix has been criticized for poorly translated subtitles, often failing to convey the authentic meaning in dialogue. This linguistic barrier inevitably prevents non-Korean viewers from understanding the brilliant writing behind the series.

Despite its flaws, “Squid Game” delivers through its eccentric cinematic choices, riveting plot and brutal but compelling depiction of human nature. It’s a gritty, creative spin on the classic death game trope, and definitely deserves the recent enthusiastic reception.

Rating: 5/5

This story was originally published on El Estoque on October 6, 2021.