Squid Game: Review

It’s 2021—that quirky fix of Menippean horror-thriller is long overdue.

Thankfully, the wait is over. Squid Game, directed and written by Hwang Dong-Hyuk, crafts its characters artfully, slaughters them surgically, dunks you in despair, and makes you marinate in fear.

Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-Jae) is our goofy, Shaftesburian protagonist with a gambling addiction, a broken family, and a concerning amount of faith in humanity. One day, the chance to flip his fortune presents itself in a series of games to win millions—games of death against 455 other players like him.

Along the way, he meets an eccentric old man (Oh Yeong Su), an old childhood friend (Stephen Fu), an immigrant worker (Anupam Tripathi), a North Korean refugee (Jung Hoyeon), and a host of allies and enemies desperately in need of money. The cast, in general, does a mesmerising job of bringing the script to life and portraying their characters’ gritty lives. My favourite performance is from Jung Joyeon; it’s always hard to play the cool, stoic character, but she performed so well, I am only slightly ashamed to admit that I cried my eyes out.

Although the kick of existential dread and thanatophobia is present in Squid Game, the series offers far more. I write this because similar death games can be easily found in other works, such as 2014 horror As the Gods Will or 2009 film Kaiji, which also follows a kind-hearted gambler forced to play death games whilst observed by rich capitalists. What distinguishes Squid Game is the heart put into its production, from the design of the sets, to the evocative original soundtrack (OST), to the engaging characters.

The sets are the crème de la crème of this production. I don’t think it would be possible to convey the contrast between innocent childhood games and selfish Hobbesian adults without the artfully crafted sets that the games take place in. My favourite was the brightly-coloured, postmodern stairs that lead to the game arenas. The narrow, meandering stairs can only comfortably fit one person at a time. It makes both the contestants, and the staff policing the contestants, walk in straight, orderly lines—in other words, they are depersonalised, like products on a conveyor belt.

If the moral debates or vibrant sets don’t stick in your mind, the OST will. The combination of techno, Korean drums, and classical music haunts the viewer ceaselessly. Especially The Blue Danube because it is so overplayed— fun fact, it also featured in the famous death game film Battle Royale (2000). Jokes aside, even when you’re listening to the whir of the heater, or that shrill sound your hairdryer emits, your brain will helpfully supply the harrowing harmonisations signifying the entrance of those red-robed staff.

Speaking of staff, another aspect of this series I enjoyed was its focus on the operation of the game-masters among the players. Very often, the game-masters and staff are kept off-screen and mysterious. Here, they are depersonalised humans with their own secret motives. Staff members sell the organs of dead players. The donors of the games are shamelessly shallow and spout the cringiest literature quotes searchable on Google. Little can be said because I am waiting for these characters to be better developed in season 2, but the tiny details are appreciated.

I never expected an evocative satire of society to be in the form of a horror-thriller centred around death games, but Squid Game did exactly that. It suits nearly no one’s and everyone’s taste in its glorious eccentricity. Series like this aren’t created all the time; I highly recommend witnessing it.

Image credit: Pabian via Wikimedia Commons