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Squid Game: To Join the Horde or Not?

If you’ve spent any time on social media lately, there’s no way you would have escaped the trending Netflix show Squid Game, usually identifiable by the ubiquitous blue jumpsuits of competitors or the masked-up pink guards surrounding them.

Be it the various parodies and fan art or endless TikToks and reels – people from all over the world have been acting out or actually playing the array of Korean playground games, casually turning the serious and gory drama into memes like Gen-Z tends to do to everything in our world.

POV: you've just finished watching Squid Game and are 3 hours into a questionable Squid Game YouTube spiral

Squid Game is *the* trending hot topic: akin to the new cowboy who rolled into town, pulled out a smoking gun, and proclaimed himself the sheriff. If you already love everything (South) Korean, or you spend an overwhelming amount of time scrolling through Netflix, you’ve probably already watched the show, bought into the hype, and followed artists making fan-art.

On the other hand, you could be someone like me, who has never used Netflix, or more likely, has never watched any Korean media. Hell, you might barely watch any media, English or Korean. All you have is a general hazy awareness of this alien world’s existence: the zealous Kpop fans or Kinophiles raving about the next big thing, or speculating about sequels and characters.

POV: Social Media is raving over the next big media sensation

Viewing all the fans enjoying their favourite media from a safe distance, seeing all the hype, you're befuddled. You secretly hope the trend will blow over, just like the abandoned fidget spinner obsession or the ‘Among Us’ craze. After all this time, are you really gonna crack and finally give Netflix any amount of money?

After all, you are quite busy. What free time you have left is already a hot commodity fought over by every advertiser from London to Manila, so why sacrifice it now for a seemingly basic show hyped by teenagers? Why stray from the comfort of the English language you know and love to watch a show in a foreign language when there are a million English shows you already ignore?

Your mind is a fortress, and you have closed the gates to this insidious Netflix product. Yet, Squid Game refuses to go away. You wake up and browse Youtube and there are even more parodies. You check your Telegram groups to find countless Squid Game memes. You scroll through Instagram and there is only more fan-art of someone called Sae-Byeok. Like all good advertisements, the show repeatedly intrudes into your consciousness. Your opinion does not matter, you don’t even need to like the show: the longer you remain aware of Squid Game, the deeper it burrows into your psyche.

In the end, like the animal it was named after, Squid Game escapes the dank pool your head space dumps all trivial knowledge in. It instead lodges itself permanently in your brain, displacing the factoids you hope would impress a friend in conversation. Somehow, people still gush over the show, hype up the sequel, and have uncomfortably descriptive fantasies of the characters. Fine, whatever. You give up, and boot up Google.

“What’s so special about this?”, you ask, reading the brief description you googled. A Battle Royale game show where participants compete in playground games and the losers die. Whether it’s in the dominant Battle Royale gaming genre or previous efforts like The Hunger Games series, nothing about Squid Game sounds new or groundbreaking. You even took two minutes from your ever depleting lifespan to have a gander at the trailer.

Yup, it is a Battle Royale. It’s also a game show though, and the games are indeed completely new to you. There's plenty of blood, and the art style looks unique and colourful. Plus, it’s nice seeing people so dedicated to enforcing safe distancing, the guards distributing appropriate kinetic punishment to the anti-masker contestants. In for a penny, in for a pound, you do have an hour to kill off.

Your mouse inches to the right, and here lies the final test for the slightly curious but generally apathetic viewer. Was the show popular enough to have other kind souls provide full episodes? More importantly, was Google nice enough to advertise the hard work of these wonderful Russian /Korean /Mauritanian content streamers?

By hook or by crook, you eventually stumble onto an English-subbed full episode. Of course you won’t opt for a dub, you saw some meme dunking on the English voice actors, or you want the lip syncing to be perfect. (Or the nice Paraguayan uploader is only offering subs, so tough luck.)

A completely unrelated picture... nothing suspicious... haha...

The red Netflix logo pops up, reminding you of your (definitely) legitimate acquisition of the first episode of Squid Game. In the back of your mind, your pessimistic post-pandemic mind immediately tries to halt the brakes: you know how it already plays out, as you replay the memory of the trailer. A bunch of literal poor schmucks need a lot of dosh fast, a few rich elites want to see poor people die, yada yada, you know the drill.

In a way, Squid Game does squeeze itself into every possible preconception. Yes, the protagonist has a family he needs to support and is scrappily optimistic about climbing out of his massive debt. Yes, obviously, he is in debt to the mafia who show up to brutally torture him. Yes, everything is deceptively calm until the characters find out Squid Game is in actuality the Hunger Games.

Two things, however, stand out and prevent you from closing the tab and going back to your readings.

1. The Acting is Good

Most of the tension from Battle Royale media is the massive amounts of deaths, and thus Squid Game was obligated to make the viewer care as much as possible for the future body bags in the show. The first episode immediately rips open your rib cage and starts strumming away at your heartstrings. Indeed, it goes for a full orchestra, having you care about an entire ensemble with different motivations and personalities, all deeply flawed in depressingly realistic ways. In typical fashion, Squid Game makes sure to keep one paragon of virtue, a shining beacon for humanity, to provide contrast against the depths it will ultimately plunge into.

Their experiences and lives transcend Korea, and can easily describe any of us here in Singapore. A single father needing to be the sole caretaker for his elderly mother, falling from his comfortable lower middle-class existence by yet another corporate restructuring. A migrant drawn by the light of Seoul, devoured by the angler fish lurking beneath. The gifted intellectual who bet everything on the stock market with the wealth he stole from others. The shrewd, the enterprising, the dreamers, and the schemers alike who reached for success and fell into hell.

You are going to notice the acting a lot, since, for you, it needs to overcompensate for its language barrier. Many similar films were thrown into the whirling chaos of international films, and like Darwin proclaimed, only the strongest can obtain the necessary views to thrive.

One key example is in our very first episode, where the single father barely scraping by almost immediately goes to gamble what little money he has on horse racing. Somehow, this is our main protagonist, and worse, the actor manages to make you root for him not to die. His love and devotion to his mother and daughter regardless of how low he has fallen. His single-minded devotion to continue on despite losing his job, his home, his middle-class and his family. And most of all, the worryingly realistic portrayal of gambling addiction, culminating in splurging what little pocket change the protagonist has on a claw machine even after being tortured, robbed and left in the cold.

2. It Looks Great

Your heart and brain can weep at the characters all they want, but Squid Game is not a novel. Your eyeballs demand stimulation, and Squid Game delivers in spades. Every twisted, sadistic game is utterly unique and visually stunning, every hallway and room wowing you before everything gets stained red.

Dying from getting shot is sickening. It sounds obvious, but with the over-the-top nature of video games and movies sticking to PG13, shooting people until they die has been stripped of much of its severity. Sure, you could be emotional if one or two of your favourite characters die from a bullet, but surely hundreds of people getting shot in the same way would get old. Somehow, Squid Game’s character development, story, and acting pulls this off, while the visuals put in the elbow grease to make each death as horrifying as possible. The camera does not pan away, the characters don’t try to hide their wounds. When a person dies, Squid Game wants to ensure you know and feel that they are gone forever.

3. Behind the Scenes

In the Battle Royale or game show genre, we almost always see things from the contestant point of view. Yes, a bunch of people are playing a game for the entertainment of wealthy elites who enjoy bloodsport. Yes, it is very tragic when people die. Yet, Squid Game asks the question: how would such a show possibly exist in our modern world? Who would be the guards doing the killing? How can hundreds of people suddenly disappear and no one notices? How has no one ever leaked anything to the outside world?

Squid Game makes the nuts and bolts of running such bloodsports a central story arc, and without spoiling it for you, is certainly enough to keep you intrigued.

And so we come to conclude, a task permanently drilled into my brain by a decade of the Singapore Education system.

Admit it, you and me, we aren’t art buffs, or movie connoisseurs. If you’ve held out this long refusing to see or read about Squid Game, chances are you’re somewhat isolated from popular media. Maybe what you do is you sometimes walk away from your desk to look out the window, and see the diverse ecosystem of Netflix and Hollywood, where the colourful media frolic and play (and end up getting brutally cancelled in accordance with the law of evolution).

We are comrades: we recognise and understand how a new movie is doing and why everyone is pelting an actor with rotten fruit, but ultimately play the distant observers, firmly on the other side of society.

So, if even I liked it enough to contemplate contributing to the happiness of Netflix stockholders, I can bet you would at least find Squid Game interesting enough to binge it to the end. I won’t bet any cash of course; with climate change and the general sewer this world is getting flushed into, I am not risking becoming a contestant for Jeff Bezos’ live-streamed dodgeball royale.


What did you think of Squid Game? Or are you part of the 0.001% of people who have not succumbed to watching the show (also known as the *strongest* people alive)? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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