Over 400 people in 1980s-style tracksuits line up to participate in what they think is a gameshow. Their task is to get to one side of the court; freezing when a giant plastic doll stops singing. It’s like a high-stakes version of “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?” – fail to stop, and you’ll be shot in the head. Quickly, corpses begin to pile up on the pitch. A mysterious figure, looking on at the blood-soaked arena, turns on some background music. The 1950s classic “Fly Me to the Moon” begins to play while a small Elton John figurine dances along.
This is Squid Game, Netflix’s surprising new smash hit. The show, released on 17 September, was met with zero fanfare; very different from the extensive marketing campaigns awarded to its more recent successes Bridgerton and The Crown. Since then, it has become the first South Korean series to reach the top of the Netflix chart. It is also set to be the site’s most-streamed series to date: even its director Hwang Dong-hyuk was surprised.
The participants have all been recruited thanks to their enormous debts. Lee Jung-jae plays the central character Seong Gi-hun (or number 456); a gambling addict who struggles to financially support his daughter, his only reason for living. HoYeon Jung is Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean escapee who hopes to hire a smuggler to retrieve her family from the communist state using the 45 billion won (£28m) prize.
Both character’s lives are blighted with shame and violence resulting from the poverty they find themselves in. When Seong is slapped repeatedly by the Game’s recruiter in the first episode in exchange for 100,000 won (about £67), the burst blood vessels linger on his skin for the next few scenes; the red marks a reminder of his humiliating submission.
It’s hard not to draw parallels to another South Korean smash hit: the Oscar-winning film Parasite also dealt with the rising poverty levels in the country; exploring the lengths its characters will go to catch a break in a world only enjoyed by the super-rich. Like Squid Game, the 2019 film mixes dark humour with unexpected gore.
Fortunately, Squid Game goes beyond gore. The simplicity of the lethal games, each one the focus of an episode, offers a route into the internal worlds of its main characters. As each game plays out, we watch hawkishly for a glimmer of mercy or cruelty; for an understanding of what a person on the brink of death is capable of.
This unflinching look at how desperation changes us makes Squid Game as moving as it is exciting. It searches for an answer to one terrifying question: When pushed, what are your limits? What would you do? Its chilling brutality has us hooked.