‘Squid Game’ just might be the most stressful K-drama of the year

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The series topped the Philippines Top 10 Netflix chart over the weekend, just days after its release. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

The concept of game theory originated around the concept of zero-sum, where one participant’s gains or losses will be balanced exactly by the other. In short, in life, there are only winners and losers.

The new Netflix original series from South Korea portrays the game of life as the product of the over-competitive society we live in, through the lens of simplistic games made for children. It’s a curious proposition that somehow led a new show atop the Philippines Top 10 chart over the weekend, days after its release. Unlike before, where they had to utilize historical dramas (as was the case for “Kingdom”) to provide social commentary, “Squid Game“ is a living, breathing allegory for the present-day.

“There’s not a lot of time or energy spent on understanding the rules of these kinds of games,” says series writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk. “It focuses on how people act and respond. We mostly look at how winners struggle, but in ‘Squid Game,’ we focus on the losers. Because without losers, will there ever really be winners?”

The concept that he is able to profoundly explain is perhaps due to the amount of time he’s devoted to turning this story into this series. This is his first foray in making a series, as his previous credits were all for movies, such as his 2007 debut film “My Father” (starring Daniel Henney), and his critically-acclaimed and award-winning pieces “The Silenced” (2011, starring Gong Yoo) and “The Fortress” (2014, starring Lee Byung-hun).

“After my debut, I frequented comic book stores, read a lot, and thought of creating a comic story. I finished the script in 2009, but it was very unfamiliar at that time — very violent, complex, not very commercial,” he shares. “There wasn’t much investment, casting was difficult, I tried to dabble with it for a year, but then put it to sleep.”

Netflix K-Drama "Squid Game" portrays the game of life as the product of the over-competitive society we live in, through the lens of simplistic games made for children. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

It wasn’t until a decade after when he realized how the world he envisioned was getting all too familiar. “This very deadly game compares quite a bit to what we see today, like people investing in coins, so I started expanding the story,” the director adds.

“Thanks to Netflix, there’s no limit on how graphic or explicit scenes would be. I was given creative freedom to do as I wanted. Because it was a game, we could not leave out the very violent fact that you were killed when you left. I just treated it as an inevitable, natural consequence.”

But what exactly is “Squid Game?” Hwang shares that it’s a game played in the schoolyard or small streets of a neighborhood, a hypercompetitive game of tag that’s played on a board shaped like a squid. “It was very physical. I felt it was symbolic of various aspects of adult life and the competitive society we have.”

The Players

The main characters are childhood friends Gi-hun and Sang-woo, played by veteran actors Lee Jung-jae (“Chief of Staff,” “The Housemaid” [the original from which the 2021 Filipino remake was based from]) and Park Hae-soo (“Prison Playbook,” “The House of Paper [Korean Remake]”).

Part of their casting was to make the two leads look like fraternal twins. “They come from the same mother but look different, share the roots of their childhood, memories and experiences together, but as time goes, they are on divergent tracks,” he shares.

“Sang-woo used to share childhood memories with Ki-hoon as they grew up in the same neighborhood,” Park says as he introduces his character. “He went to a prestigious school and then led an investment team at a company. He had a streak of success but then runs into conflict.”

“Ki-hoon is very positive, optimistic, but has a lot of thoughts in his head,” Lee explains. “His mother is ill, but since he doesn’t have a stable job and is not making a lot of money, he took part in the game.”

For Heo Sung-tae, it was a reunion with his director from “The Fortress.” He shares, “I had to act in a different language then, so I was excited to see what his direction would be for me now that I was acting in Korean.”

In "Squid Game," veteran actors Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo play childhood friends Gi-hun and Sang-woo respectively, while supermodel Jung Ho-yeon plays pickpocket Sae-byeok. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

Heo plays gang member Deok-soo, who lost his gang’s money due to an accident. “When we first met, the director apologized for giving me another role as a gang member, but this role was completely new. Deok-soo was on the run, so he put everything in, including his life, to recover the lost money and resolve all the issues in his life.”

The only woman cast member present during the online press conference was rookie actress (and Korean top model) Jung Ho-yeon. She shares about hearing about the opportunity while preparing for New York Fashion Week, “I first read the script late at night, and I finished it in one sitting until the morning. I put my energy into submitting an audition video, and I was told that the director wanted to see me in person,” she adds.

“I auditioned a lot of actresses for this role but wasn’t able to find a perfect fit,” says Hwang. “But when I received this self-tape, I felt right away the tone of the voice, the glare, the aura, everything was perfect, so I told her to fly back and meet with me, and I confirmed that my impression was right.”

Jung plays the role of Sae-byeok. “She picks pockets to make a living, trying to get enough money to bring her family together, and that’s why she takes part in the game.”

Last but not the least, Wi Ha-joon (“Romance is a Bonus Book,” “18 Again”) plays the role of Kwak Joon-ho, an undercover cop. “He is a decent and righteous cop searching for his missing brother, so he goes undercover into the Squid Game to find the organization behind it,” he shares. “Because of the storyline, he is able to find what he and even the audiences are really curious about.”

The Game

The Squid Game is run by masked men wearing the same outfits, differentiated by shapes drawn on their masks. “I was inspired by the world of ants, like there are working level ants who serve one purpose and one role only. The circle masked ones were those workers. The triangle masks are soldiers who are armed, and the square masks are the managers,” shares the director.

Director Hwang Dong-hyuk says he was inspired by ants when building the world of "Squid Game." Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

“The first game set was the most memorable and made the biggest impression for me,” shares Lee. “It wasn’t something that I had expected, I didn’t think it would be as big and I thought it would be all computer graphics, but it was built in real life. The scale was amazing and overwhelming.”

“The dormitory was something that I was amazed at,” says Jung. “It was like a colosseum, it’s so grand but had a bit of eeriness to it too.”

“There are nice walls, it’s a playground setting, but participants are being killed in it,” says Wi Ha-jun. “It heightens the scariness, it’s very impressive.”

“It sets the grounds for the game, so I wanted a physical setup and to use a minimal amount of computer graphics so participants can bring realistic elements to the large scale set,” says the director. “The space itself is very threatening, it’s very dark, I wanted to combine that with the nostalgic feeling of having space to play in for kids.”

Music also played a role in creating this mood, so the director took music from the ‘80s, from popular TV shows, classical music, and recorded it for the mood and feel of the series.

The Experience

Hwang Dong-hyuk’s execution allows the story to portray Korean culture, but have universally similar elements when it comes to understanding the mechanics of such games. He thinks of it as a reprieve. “We are in severe competition in our day to day lives, so when you watch this show, it’s a virtual one you can enjoy without much burden, a sense of entertainment. I want viewers to think about why they are competing so much and living this way,” he says.

A lot of it felt too real, that the actors themselves became caught in deep thoughts. “The actors who play the other characters, they actually pour their hearts and themselves in the process,” says Park. “As they were going home, it left me with a sense of emptiness.”

Park Hae-soo admits feeling anxious while getting into his character, but talking to the director helped him read Sang-woo’s inner feelings better. “There’s some reasonable choices that only he can make. As things develop, he experiences internal changes and those are things you will be excited to see.”

As for what they would do with the prize money, Lee Jung-jae says he’ll donate all of it. Park Hae-soo was more specific with his, with 20% going into the ALS Fund, 20% to be invested in stocks, ₩100 million going to his cast members, and the rest, to protect the environment. Heo Sung-tae says he would buy a house in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi-do, where he’ll put a basketball court in the basement and fill the first floor with a lot of entertainment rooms for his friends to come over. Wi Ha-jun would share it with his family, make donations, and similarly, set up very luxurious gyms. Jung Ho-yeon will be forced to eat tteokbokki, buy a nice house for her family, save for retirement, and donate the rest.

After being startled by the amount of tax he will have to pay (which is around ₩80 billion or around ₱3.5 billion), Hwang says he would just give it all to his mother. That, or make the second season independently.

“Squid Game” is now streaming, only on Netflix.