‘Squid Game’ isn’t just bloody, it’s bloody brilliant

Photo courtesy of Netflix

This article contains spoilers.

Growing up as a competitive child, I’ve always played games as if my life depended on them. 20 years later, I came across a TV drama that does exactly that.

Set in modern South Korea, Squid Game follows 456 cash-strapped individuals who voluntarily compete in various children’s games in hopes of walking away with ₩ 4.56 billion (roughly ₱193 million). What initially seemed like a friendly playground for adults turned out to be a visceral carnage. Not wanting to be left for dead, the debtors exhaust all means to keep their money, allies, morals, and, most especially, their lives intact.

Seeing how it tackles controversial themes, this series could have easily drawn flak from the South Korean audience. But thanks to Netflix, it got to see the light of day with a bigger audience. Squid Game has since soared to the top one spot on Netflix and garnered a massive cult following on social media following its mysterious concept, its infamous doll statue going viral, and, of course, Goblin Gong Yoo’s cameo.

From The Hunger Games to Alice in Borderland, mainstream media has had its fair share of box office hits and flops that explored the survival game genre. But what makes Squid Game stand out from this pool of action-adventure films and series?

The art of juxtaposition

From the innocence of children’s games to the gore of humans competing against each other, Squid Game maximized juxtaposing elements to create a compelling narrative.

Both as a literary and film device, juxtaposition places two concepts, characters, or ideas side by side to compare or contrast or to create an interesting effect. Squid Game exploits this contrast effect through its set designs, visuals, and cinematography.

In the first and second games, the series portrays a bloodbath against the backdrop of a bright color palette and saturated imagery. The pastel labyrinth stairs and the requirement to smile for a picture prior to playing the games contrasted the somber atmosphere amongst the players. So, despite the pop-art and vivid visuals, this contradistinction effectively built up tension and suspense while also allowing the audience to empathize with the anxiety and fear the players were feeling.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

What made it more unsettling to watch was how the series juxtaposed Player 001’s elation and the overall barbaric tone of the games. While everyone was shuddering in fear, Player 001 was shown smiling and clearly exhilarated to play the games. The final minutes also grew eerier as Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon played amidst the tension and massacre of “Red Light, Green Light.” Not only did this foreshadow the series’ conclusion, but also intensified its ominous theme by creating a rather psychopathic persona for Player 001 and the Front Man who were basking in their grandiose display of privilege over the vulnerable.

Apart from visuals and tones, the series also experiments with contrasting sizes. The game props, such as the doll statue and playground equipment, were shown to be 10 times bigger, towering over the players. Whether deliberate or not, juxtaposing them with these massive objects reinforced the power and control the game VIPs had over them.

Above all, the detail I personally found most disturbing yet impressive was the coffins. Normally, we get excited at the sight of a box with a bow since we immediately associate it with a present.

Rather than Santa Claus, Squid Game plays Grim Reaper with their black coffins and bright pink bows. This frankly reminded me of William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, as it shares a similar technique of using everyday objects that normally evoke a positive emotion to subtly create a macabre narrative. And like these two classics, Squid Game was clearly not for the faint of heart.

Seeing between the pixels

If Parasite had us perplexed with their obscure rock, then Squid Game sent us into cold sweat with a giant golden piggy bank.

Symbolism is a staple in many high-concept films and series which pattern their narratives as depictions of the human psyche or criticisms of modern society. The psychological thriller Black Swan, for instance, uses a plethora of symbols to augment the main character’s struggle and obsession with perfection. Squid Game similarly does that, but with numbers and colors.

Numbers were abundant in the series from the players’ identities to their character arcs, especially that of Gi-hun. After betting on a horse racing event, Gi-hun won ₩ 4.65 million but gave ₩ 10,000 to the teller. He then went on to compete as Player 456 in a survival game that promised ₩ 4.56 billion as prize money and even befriended Player 001. Following his victory, Gi-hun checked his prize money and only withdrew ₩ 10,000 — the same amount he gave in the first episode.

Instead of laying out all their cards, Squid Game used numbers to build a predetermined existence for their hero — that is, Gi-hun was destined to win the games no matter what. The reiteration and parallelism between the numbers also emphasized his unchanging, selfless personality. For some, this may come as a mind-blowing realization; but for those with a keen eye for detail, it’s just a classic example of situational irony.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Other than the set design that was reminiscent of Ssangmundong in Reply 1988, the sunset backdrop of episode six (“Gganbu”) caught my attention. During the marble game, Il-nam was beginning to show signs of dementia. But why was this particularly interesting?

In patients with dementia, there’s a phenomenon called sundowning that they experience. This term comes from the observation that signs of confusion, restlessness, disorientedness, and even hallucinations are exhibited during late in the afternoon or early in the evening.

Although Il-nam’s background said he had a brain tumor (sundowning is commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease), the use of warm colors to depict a sun going down in the background compliments his behavior during that pivotal moment. And on a more complex analysis, the sun’s descent can also denote the retrogression of moral values among a few of the players.

Whether or not these symbols were intentional, Squid Game had a knack for keeping its viewers mentally stimulated.

An allegory of capitalism and human behavior

In Filipino, there’s a popular saying that goes, “Ang taong gipit, sa patalim kumakapit.” In a society that favors the rich, who could blame the common folk for going through hell and back to be financially free?

Squid Game was built on the premise that pits financially stricken individuals against one another, under the illusion of equality and free will in an evidently rigged system. As the players were forced to compete at the expense of their lives and humanity, the elites exploited their vulnerability and desperation for their entertainment.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Albeit fictional, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is a reflection of modern-day society. As the average layman struggles to make a living, the upper-class prey upon their credulity that the system they strap themselves onto treats them as equals. This cutthroat nature of free-market capitalism perpetuates the aphorism of the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. So, while the one percent sit on their high horse and indulge in their filthy bank accounts, the rest become the pawns who are forced to suffer from the consequences of their tenacious desire for profit.

Indeed, Squid Game isn’t the first show or film to expose the woes of society. But what makes the series more riveting is how it projected its narrative to be critical, but not too cynical.

In the finale, Il-nam asks Gi-hun if, even after all the things he went through in the games, he still believes in humanity. Rather than answering this directly, Squid Game tackles this by depicting the nuances of humanity through the series’ most well-written episode.

“Gganbu” focused on how people with different motives dealt with sacrificial moral dilemmas. For Deok-su and Sang-woo, it was every man for himself, even if it meant betraying an ally or a close friend. Deok-su, for the first time in his life, had to resort to strategy rather than violence to outlast his partner. Sang-woo, on the other hand, used deception to take advantage of Ali’s innocence. These cases show how greed can drive humans to put self-preservation instincts above morals and relationships.

After trying to be the bigger person, Gi-hun also followed the same principle during the game by using Il-nam’s dementia to his advantage. Yet, what restores Gi-hun’s questionable decision was Il-nam’s manipulation. Our main character was made to believe that his selfish tactics caused his partner’s demise, placing him in a state of guilt and moral crisis from there on. Seeing how Il-nam subtly used his power to drive a man almost to the point of insanity shows a complex and grim perspective of human behavior.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

But all betrayals aside, this episode’s most impactful arc would have to be that of Sae-byeok and Ji-hyeong. Instead of engaging themselves in grueling competition, the two decide to relish the final moments of their life. In contrast to their cold-hearted persona, they exchange stories about their past struggles, secrets, and hopes for the future. This perfectly represents how humanity is not always doomed even in the face of adversity. While some choose to be selfish like Deok-su and Sang-woo or opportunists like Il-nam, there are a few good people like Ji-hyeong who make decisions not for their personal desires but for the greater good. The word gganbu, after all, emphasizes the value of friendship and togetherness.

In the end, Squid Game neither denounced nor celebrated faith in humanity. Rather, it gave us a realistic picture of how it plays out in the real world through characters that mirror our own struggles.

Is it worth the hype?

Although Squid Game has been criticized by film geeks for reusing popular survival game tropes, the depth of its concept, the thematic intelligence of its writing, and the performance of the actors are things that cannot be replicated from previous shows or movies. It’s refreshing to see survival game genres step out from dystopian settings and give their audience something raw and compelling to the point that it makes us question ourselves: “What if it was me in their position?”

While Gi-hun taking revenge on the organization would be fulfilling, I do think that it’s not worth gambling to replicate the magic of the first season in such a short time. But who knows what writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk has up his sleeve? In the meantime, I’ll be daydreaming about my ideal ending where Sae-byeok reunites with her family and spends a lovely vacation with Ji-hyeok in Jeju.

Squid Game is available to stream on Netflix.

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The Official Digital Media Organization of the University of Santo Tomas

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