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Squid Game

"Would you like to play a game with me?"

I'm about two months late to the party, but I finally watched Squid Game and I'm kicking myself for not doing so sooner. Now I understand the hype.

[This review is spoiler free for the entire season.]

This show was almost custom made for me. I've always been fascinated by death games in media and how they can be used to push characters to their breaking points and then past them, in addition to any social commentary that comes along with depicting a society that not only allows but usually champions such games. Give me a pair of central characters with a complicated, slowly worsening relationship, more characters to act as mirrors and foils, and excellent performances to make me cry when some characters inevitably die, and I'm very, very happy.

Usually, this subgenera takes place in a time and place that is decidedly not now. Whether it's Panem in The Hunger Games or Co-Op City in The Running Man, the setting is always some kind of dystopian future. Not the case here. All of the events of the series take place now, in present day South Korea, as it stands today. The fact that it not only works but excels in this setting is perhaps the most emotionally disturbing aspect. I know that I joke with my friends about living in a capitalist hellscape, but it's still not fun to be confronted with it like that.

We do waver back and forth between whether or not the show is fun and enjoyable and whether it's something that you simply can't look away from. The first game is a perfect encapsulation of this. I'm sure that a lot of people were shocked when the death aspect of the death game kicked in, but I started grinning. It only widened once people got over their initial panic and started playing the game. Immediately, you got a sense of who all of our major characters are within five minutes.

Oh Il-nam tackled the game with unfiltered joy. Cho Sang-woo looked at things clinically, willing to use others to protect himself, while still showing a soft spot for his childhood friend in extending him a helping hand. Abdul Ali extended a literal, physical helping hand when it came to protecting Seong Gi-hun and keeping the others around him safe and alive. Jang Deok-su, for all of his bluster, ended up trembling and at the mercy of a woman that he wronged. A woman, Kang Sae-byeok, did end up showing mercy, even when maybe she really shouldn't have.

And then, of course, we do have Gi-hun, our protagonist, who spent most of the first game wide-eyed and unable to take decisive action until spurred on by Sang-woo.

Almost everything calls back to something or foreshadows what will come next. The narrative always cycles back, and that makes this a very satisfying watch. It's in the small and quiet details too, like the graphics on the wall of the sleeping area depicting each game slowly being revealed as more and more beds are taken away. Something that was there from the very beginning, but only becomes clear once we see it all in retrospect.

All of this is anchored in wonderful performances by all of our actors. I specifically need to call out our main trio of Gi-hun, Sang-woo, and Sae-byeok. They all had a lot of heavy lifting to do in order to not only make us believe in the world that we were being invited into, but making us care about these characters when we know going in that their deaths are all but guaranteed. All three characters have far more depth to them than appears at first glance, and some of my favorite scenes consist of these characters simply sitting next to each other and talking quietly.

The visuals are also stunning, especially whenever the color red is involved. Whether it's blood spraying on the sand, the red of the guards' jumpsuits, the red envelopes that started it all, or the sudden shock of red hair at the very end, it carries with it a very striking visual language. I also loved the Front Man's mask. It was off-putting yet beautiful, like a lot of this show.

It wasn't all perfect, of course. There were a few characters and plots that felt unnecessary, mainly anything that had to do with Hwang Jun-ho, a police officer trying to find his brother who went missing after participating in a previous year's game. I wanted to like all of his scenes, but I couldn't. Not when they didn't really have any kind of believable resolution. He just didn't add anything that couldn't have been handled elsewhere. This also includes the VIPs who arrive towards the end. While I like the world building they created in theory, the execution left me a little cold. It was weird to have people suddenly commenting on what was happening after so many episodes without it.

By the time the credits rolled on the last episode, I immediately wanted a second season. Yes, because it was excellent and I wanted more, but also because a lot of it felt unfinished. Unresolved. It didn't quite end on a cliffhanger, but it was very clearly poised to tell a second story. The good thing is that we got official confirmation earlier today that a second season is in pre-production, and that Gi-hun will be returning. Dangling, unresolved plots, ideas, and characters are a lot easier to forgive when you know that there's more coming.

Random Thoughts

I watched this in Korean with English subtitles. I also highly recommend doing so if you can.

A lot has been said about the level of violence in the show. It is a death game. People do die and the camera doesn't shy away from this fact. I personally didn't find the violence or gore to be anything particularly intense or over the top, but I also admittedly have a very high tolerance for it.

Favorite Episode: Episode Six: "Gganbu." This was the episode that made me cry the hardest. It was simply emotional gut punch after emotional gut punch, with too many stellar performances to count.

Least Favorite Episode: Episode Two: "Hell." There's nothing inherently wrong with this episode, and in hindsight it does a lot of very important foreshadowing while also briefly taking the story in a direction that I didn't expect. But I was mostly impatient sitting through it.

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An Honest Fangirl loves video games, horror movies, and superheroes, and occasionally manages to put words together in a coherent and pleasing manner.

10 comments:

magritte said...

Thanks for this review. I've been wondering about this show because it's had so much hype. There have been quite a few death-game scenarios in recent years. Asia seems to be particularly big on them lately. There's a Japanese show called Alice in Borderland which takes place in contemporary Tokyo, but I wasn't a big fan (couldn't really invest in the characters) though I guess I liked it well enough to watch the whole season.

If you stretch the idea a bit, you could even include another Korean show "Memories of the Alhambra" which involves a potentially lethal videogame. That has it's moments but is extremely uneven.

Samantha M. Quinn said...

I somehow ended up finding this show the first day it dropped because the logo drew me in. I watched all in less than 24 hours, and I couldn't stop thinking about it for a week. Great review, I feel basically the same although I think the cop plot was mostly designed for social commentary and to get some behind the scenes stuff involving the management of the games.

Small note, there are two different versions of the subtitles, one of them is more accurately translated.

An Honest Fangirl said...

magritte - I've been looking at Alice in Borderland! Just never quite managed to hit play yet. I always like the watch something in the original language, if possible, which means that I need to be able to focus and pay attention to be able to read what's going on. But yes, the death game does seem to be popular in multiple Asian countries. I mean, Battle Royale (2000) might be one of the most well known parts of the subgenre, even if it isn't the earliest example. My favorite example is actually a Japanese video game series, Danganronpa. That's one of my favorite game series of all time.

Samantha - Do you know which version is the more accurate one? I just used whatever Netflix set up as the default when I started the show. And good point about the cop plot. It did a lot of the world building heavy lifting. I suppose I would have preferred just seeing the same or similar scenes solely from the Front Man's POV. (Who, by the way, I sincerely hope returns as well.)

Samantha M. Quinn said...

I believe it is the standard English subtitles not the English CC. One was subtitled from the English dub of the series.

magritte said...

Having now watched the first couple of episodes of Squid Game, it's much stronger in building characters than Alice in Borderland, which focuses a lot more on the games aspect. Another show you should check out if you haven't is 3% (I think Lamounier reviewed on this website). While The Test is not a death game exactly, it's certainly high stakes.

Onigirli said...

SQUID GANGGG!!!

Actually I haven't seen it yet so I don't know whether to throw my lot in just yet, but in literally all of my diverse circles it's praised so it feels like a safe bet to assume it's right up my alley. But then so was Stranger Things, and I couldn't get into it at all (yet I liked The Goonies which I checked out after it).

What is it with orientals and their love of death games lol? What's the connection there? I haven't seen most of the similar stuff mentioned in the comment thread, only Battle Royale (which I did love completely) and The Hunger Games which I also found gripping enough to read/watch both the book trilogy and the movies.

Anyway I'm excited to check it out soon.

Billie Doux said...

I finished it tonight, and I was genuinely impressed. The characters, the writing, the acting, the amazing visuals, this is an exceptional, quality show that I won't forget soon. Even though I knew it was coming, that first game shocked me anyway. And I particularly liked the use of pink and red, as you mentioned, Fangirl. The M.C. Escher stairway-paloosa was just stunning. Wow.

A second season could be good and I can even imagine what they would do with it, given how the season ended. But part of me thinks they should leave this one as it is.

I would also like to second, or third, watching this show in Korean with English subtitles. There's just something missing when it's dubbed, no matter how well it's done. I was deeply obsessed with a French-speaking actor for several years and even though he did his own dubbing in English, there's something lacking in the dubbed versions.

Terrific review, Fangirl. Thank you.

Onigirli said...

Watched it finally, loved the stuff involving the games directly. The infiltration subplot, not so much and definitely kept reminding me I was watching a Netflix show. In any case there's no way they're not gonna do a season 2 now, and I'll be watching it.

I loved the recruiter guy, the one that plays the slapping game. I could watch that inscrutable face for hours.

An Honest Fangirl said...

The recruiter guy is Gong Yoo, who played the lead in the excellent zombie movie Train to Busan. I was so sad when he was essentially only a cameo. I had secretly hoped that he would be the Front Man. He's great.

Billie Doux said...

Much agreement that recruiter guy Gong Yoo was memorable. I also kept hoping he'd show up elsewhere.