'Squid Game': Holding a dystopian mirror to life under capitalism

October 15, 2021
Ssangyong workers strike, inset Lee Jung-jae
Background image: 2009 Ssangyong workers strike. Inset: Lee Jung-jae

Squid Game
Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk
Starring Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon and Anupam Tripathi
2021, on Netflix

If you were offered a chance to take part in a series of contests based upon children’s playground games and win up to ₩45 billion (A$45 million), would you take it?

There is a catch, however. You will be drugged, taken to a secret location, where you and other contestants will be dressed in numbered tracksuits and be watched over by armed, magenta-suited, masked guards — and if you lose a game, you will die.

Following the success of the 2019 Oscar-winning Parasite and 2020 Netflix “K-drama” Extracurricular, the breakout Netflix hit Squid Game continues the focus on South Korea’s economic and social inequalities.

In this dystopian series, 456 debt-ridden contestants compete against each other for prize money.

The protagonist, Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), a chauffeur and gambling addict struggling to look after his elderly mother, agrees to take part in the games to pay off his debts.

Other contestants have their own reasons for taking part: Kang Sae-byeok (Ho-yeon) has fled North Korea and is struggling to survive and Abdul Ali (Tripathi) is an exploited migrant worker.

The myth of meritocracy — where if you work hard and play by the rules you will get ahead in society — has a particular resonance in South Korea. Since 1961, when the United States-backed military dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee came to power, the country has undergone a huge economic transformation, known as the “Miracle on the River Han”. It has become one of the world's leading economies.

Despite democratising in the late 1980s, inequality remains rampant. The economy is dominated by huge conglomerates, known as Chaebols, which control major corporations, such as Samsung, Hyundai and the LG Group — run by a handful of super rich and powerful families.

Some contestants run up against this reality when they try to game the system to their advantage.

Cho Sang-woo (Hae-soo), Gi-Hun’s classmate, on the run from the police, graduated from Seoul National University, but his struggles in business have led him to steal from his clients.

When one of the contestants, a former surgeon, is caught participating in an organ harvesting scheme with a number of corrupt guards in exchange for inside information, they are executed without mercy.

In contrast, the game’s master known only as the “front man” and a group of masked billionaires, known as the “VIPs”, bet on the contestant’s lives with impunity.

A real world example of the light treatment afforded to Korea’s super rich is Samsung CEO Lee-Jae-yong’s release from prison in August, after only serving half of a two-year sentence for bribery and embezzlement. The government cited his importance to the economy in justifying his release.

In contrast, the government has a long record of anti-union policies. It is revealed during Squid Game that Gi-Hun’s financial trouble began after he was laid off from his job. In response, he was involved in an occupation of his factory, where strike-breakers broke in and batoned his co-workers to death — a story based on the 2009 Ssangyong car plant strike, which was brutally crushed.

Caitlyn Clark, writing in Jacobin, said: “South Korea’s suicide rate is one of the highest in the world, a problem particularly among the elderly, nearly half of whom live below the poverty line.

“Young people have their own struggles, including military conscription, intensifying academic pressure, and staggering unemployment (as of 2020, the youth unemployment rate was 22%). Young Koreans have coined a term for this society of heavy stress and limited opportunity: “Hell Joseon”, in satirical reference to the rigidly hierarchical Joseon dynasty that modern Korea was meant to leave behind."

After the first game of “Red Light, Green Light”, where only 201 people survive, contestants vote to leave. However, faced with the “choice” of risking their lives for the prize money, or continuing to be crushed by the harsh realities of living under capitalism, 187 are lured back in. One of them says, “I don’t have a home to go back to. In here, I stand a chance at least. But out there?”

As the games continue, we see the potential for solidarity, as contestants create alliances to survive. In episode 6, however, contestants are paired up in a game, reflecting how the system will do everything to break down solidarity. There are a number of heartbreaking betrayals, but also many acts of humanity and solidarity.

Ironically, for a series that critiques the capitalist system, the success of Squid Game has spawned a merchandise line of tracksuits for purchase online. Despite this contradiction, I strongly recommend Squid Game for the cracks it exposes in the capitalist mythos and hope Netflix renews the series for a second season.

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