I’m good at everything except the things I can’t do, 3.5 readers.
BQB here with a review of this super creepy, uber violent yet oddly addictive pop cultural phenomenon.
In my mind, I view most Netflix TV show greenlight sessions as a chimpanzee in a suit tossing bundles of cash to any old drunk hobo who shuffles in off the street with a half-baked idea for a show. Thus, when I saw this in the line-up of my Netflix account about a month ago, my response was a solid hard pass. All I knew at the time was that it had dudes walking around dressed up like pink Playstation controllers and if that doesn’t sound like a show dreamed up by a hobo and greenlit by a chimp then what does?
Flash forward to this past weekend and SNL parodied it. That and some mumblings motivated me to give it a try and down the rabbit hole I went, instantly hooked.
First off, it’s a Korean produced show and the actors’ voices are dubbed over in English, sometimes to comedic effect. I’ve found some foreign language gems on Netflix – Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series or the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made in Sweden. With those, I preferred to read the subtitles and listen to the actors speak in their language but here I think there’s so much going on that you don’t have time to read and you have to go with the English dub, even though sometimes the words don’t quite match up with the lips – not to mention there are cultural differences, differences in phrasing, word choice – sometimes things don’t quite translate but whatever. It’s good and I tip my hat to the voice over artists, especially whoever did the voice of the crazy eyed lady.
Moving on…the plot! As it turns out, life in Korea isn’t all that different than life in America. Everyone is in debt up to their eyeballs yet everyone still wants more, more, more. When a group of 456 people suffering from enough financial woes to choke a horse are transported to a remote island to compete in a series of kids’ games (the titular Squid Game being a Korean kids’ game, kind of like a combo of hopscotch and football is my best attempt at a description) with the chance to win a big cash prize (you can try to figure out the exchange rate between won and US dollars or just be lazy and assume it’s a lot like I did)…they think their prayers have been answered.
Ah, but nothing in life is that simple…or free. When the losers of a game of Red Light Green Light are shot dead, the competitors realize they have signed up for a far more dangerous experience than they bargained for. Deception, betrayal, intrigue and infighting breaks out amongst the players with everyone trying to cheat and connive their way to the top.
Sadly, the BLAM! of the guns packed by the video game themed guards looms large over the series like a sinister presence, as a simple mistake is all it takes for a contestant to be fed a heaping helping of hot lead. In the true show don’t tell style that all good writers must adhere to, the series never quite comes right out and says it, but the point is clear – life is like a game, and while a mistake, in most cases, won’t (thankfully) lead to a video game man in a pink coat blasting you in the face, said mistake could cause you to lose your house, spouse, kids, career, livelihood, money, friends, family and more. All it takes is one moment of bad judgement and boom, your broke, penniless, outcast and shunned and no, it’s nowhere near as bad as being shot by the pink dudes but there might be times when you find you have screwed up so bad that you might pray for the pink dudes to…no, wait, it’s never that bad, right? I mean, even if you’re a fully grown middle aged man living with your mother, it’s still not that bad, right? Right?
Enter Gi-Hun (Greg Chun) as the protagonist who holds it all together. Somehow, despite being the quintessential nice guy who always finishes last (one time he did something noble and his reward was to lose his wife, daughter, job and end up living with his mother who as mothers go is pretty nice but still, no self respecting single dude wants to live with his mother) will have to find a way to survive against contestants adept at cheating to get their way…another life point as unfortunately, rare is the person who goes through life without having to get their hands dirty, who doesn’t have to do something that leaves a bad taste in their mouth and those who don’t sometimes end up as noble yet poor and alone, wishing they’d done X dastardly deed back in the day so they could be rich now.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. Not for the squeamish as it does put the U in ultraviolence, such that Stanley Kubrick’s droogs might even clutch their pearls at the scenes that lie within. Life is definitely cheap in this competition, the underlying argument seeming to be that life is treated rather cheaply in the real world as well. Heartbreaking, as it might dredge up your old memories of times when you had to put yourself over others and neither option felt totally kosher.
Finally, I’ll just say this. It’s been two long years since Game of Thrones ended and since then, I’ve felt like a stranger in a strange land when it comes to TV. There just hasn’t been anything with the same chutzpah or level of storytelling, that trail of breadcrumbs that lures you in and rewards you by tying up all of those pesky loose threads.
So ultimately, that’s what I’m saying. A bunch of plucky Koreans in track suits playing kids’ games to the death somehow adds up to the best TV show since Game of Freaking Thrones…at least in this humble blogger’s opinion.
But do think twice before watching if you are squeamish.
SIDENOTE #1 – I have to give props to this show for not only allowing the hero to be played by a man in his late 40s, but to actually come right out and say that Gi-Hun is 47. His childhood friend/competitor Sang-Woo is also in his late 40s. The ages of the competitors run from early 20s to 40s and one very old man but I assume this is a cultural difference between America and Korea. In an American reboot of the show, Gi-Hun’s character would be like, a worldly 21-year old who somehow has seen it all and done it all and is very wise despite being twenty-freaking one. (Honestly, in my own personal experience, I’ve found that life sends the equivalent of the pink coated video game guards to blast you in the face the second you hit 30, 35 tops. Had I known this when I was 21, I would have pushed myself much, much harder but unfortunately, I was dumber than a box of rocks when I was 21…not like all the super wise all knowing 21 year olds on TV today.
All I’m saying is kudos to Korea for supporting a show where a 47 year old character isn’t treated like a useless piece of trash ready for the dumpster. I mean, his family, friends and potential employers still treat him like that, but competition wise he hangs in on those games with the best of them.
SIDENOTE #2 – Often when a show or movie takes off overseas, it is treated to an American reboot, often with disastrous results. Ironically, Netflix is one of the chief perpetrators of such reboots. Since the show has become popular in its own right, I doubt you’ll see an Americanized reboot. I’m not dumping on American movies/shows but it’s just…sometimes something is good in part because of the world in which it is created and it was interesting to learn about Korean life as I watched the show.
SIDENOTE #3 – If I’m reading the figures in other reports right, it cost $21.4 million to produce but raked in 900 million for Netflix. Mmmm boy that’s a good return on investment!