Have you seen Squid Game yet? Of course you have. You haven’t? In that case, quit reading this blog and go watch it now. It’s great! Besides, there are spoilers aplenty in this blog.
One of the things I noticed is that the logo used by the squid game looks a lot like the logo of my former employer.
It turns out the the games were literally filmed right here in city of residence, Daejeon.
Also, I have a pink hoodie.
Coincidence?! I think not!
There’s been a lot online about the translations being misinterpreted, and there’s a lot of cultural context that makes the allegorical elements a bit more pointed. Also, I just finished the series last night and could not fall asleep UNTIL 5:30 A.M BECAUSE THESE THOUGHTS WERE ROLLING THROUGH MY HEAD ALL NIGHT LONG. So I thought it best to write them down. Shall we?
I think non-Korean audiences can easily recognize some of the most blatant symbolism and capitalism allegory. Players are dehumanized and reduced to numbers. Later, they are compared to racehorses, an industry that the main character, Gi-hoon, was complacent in supporting through his gambling addiction. There are various symbols of hierarchy throughout the series, and a lot of the sociological commentary could have been inspired by the writings of Marx.
Downward movement means death.
There’s a lot of color symbolism as well, with pink/red symbolizing the positions of authority within the game, and green representing the players/working class.
And Gi-hoon’s transition to red hair in the end could symbolize a new power dynamic for a second season. Or maybe he’s just a fan of Run Lola Run.
But there’s a level of depth and nuance that I think a lot of non-Koreans could miss. For one, the game was designed by Oh Il-nam, whose given name literally translates as “One man”. He is player #1, and many of the games resemble the ones he played as a child. Ironically, many of them appear in rooms painted with murals of peaceful fields.
These are a sharp contrast to the scenes showing the highly industrialized outside world of the city of Seoul.
Il-nam grew up in a time of rapid post-war industrialization and big economic gains for South Korea. The time he waxes nostalgia about was seemingly innocent, but South Korea was led by a series of dictators throughout the early years of his lifetime. If you go to Gwangju, you can still see the places where bullets chipped away at buildings when soldiers fired at student protestors. It may seem distant in some ways, but the most recent president before the one currently serving was Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a US-backed dictator. She is currently serving prison time for corruption. So despite the hardship of that time, many Koreans appeared to show tacit support for that kind of authority when they voted her in, and Il-nam, too, seems blind to the injustice of that time.
Despite the infused nostalgia, these games are imbued with violence, a metaphor for the fallout of policies that seem blind to others’ suffering. For example, “red light green light” is actually a game in which the main player (the creepy doll) sings “The hibiscus is blooming” in Korean. When she turns, you must freeze, or you’ll be out. The hibiscus is actually the national flower of Korea, symbolizing fortitude because of its hardiness. So making it the very first game sets the stage for it to become about issues integral to Korean society and question the values that thrusted it into becoming one of the richest countries in the world.
And the other games like honeycombs and tug-of-war also have special significance in Korean culture, which non-Koreans may not recognize.
To understand a lot of the context and problems in translation, it helps to understand that Korea is very Confucian. Confucianism was developed in China as a means of creating social harmony and cohesion. Juniors owe respect and piety to their seniors, while seniors must offer benevolence and concern in return. For example, children must respect parents, and parents must care for their children. Also, one should venerate their elders, such as Oh Il-nam, who is actually treated almost as a pariah due to his inability to perform in the games. Also, women were traditionally confined to the home under this system.
But much of the critique also gets lost in translation because of the lack of honorifics in English. For example, the character of Minyeo (whose name translates to “beauty” in Korean), asks Deoksu, the gangster, to be her oppa, a term that literally means “older brother”, but which many Korean girls use to address an older male friend or boyfriend. If you’ve ever seen the video Gangnam Style, you may be familiar with this concept.
In it, Psy basically says that he, the oppa, is Gangnam style, so heeeeeeey, sexy lady, why not kick it with him? But of course the joke is that he is such a baffoon that no girlie is going to want him for her oppa.
The subtitles translate oppa as “babe”, but this doesn’t quite convey the relationship that Mi-nyeo is proposing. She is suggesting in return for treating Deoksu as her “elder”–a deal which in this case includes sexual favors–Deoksu should look out for her. (My friend suggested “daddy” as a on-point translation, which seemed more accurate to me.) Of course, Deoksu abandons her the first chance he gets. She vows revenge, and, in an ironic twist, they die in each other’s arms.
Also, in the original translation, the character Ali is polite to a fault. At first, he addresses Sang-woo as sanjugnim, a title that literally translates as “lord” in Google translate. His overly polite conduct makes Sang-woo uncomfortable, and he says to just call him hyeong, another term for “older brother”. The translations say instead “Just call me “Sang-woo”, which doesn’t quite convey Song-Woo’s shirking of social responsibility or betrayal quite as well when Ali’s last words are him calling out for his hyeong.
So there’s a societal critique made about how the competitive behavior breaks down harmony, social norms, and relationships. One might even ask the question of whether Confucianism is incongruous with this kind of winner-take-all capitalism. It’s got a slightly feminist edge to the critique, as women are overlooked because they are seen as weak for a potential tug-of-war contest, but the underdog team manages to succeed nonetheless against a team entirely of men, and a woman manages to become one of the three finalists, dressed spectacularly in a tux at the finalists’ banquet.
So yes, it’s in some ways culturally specific to Korea. But the heart of it is universal to many rich, capitalist countries that are experiencing high levels of inequality right now.
I have to say, though, I found the ending a bit disappointing. In the beginning, it seemed to be a collective story, with stories told from various points of view. I felt the allegory broke up a bit for a more traditional thriller and focused more on the drama between the characters. The collective story fell more or less to the wayside, and it became solely Gi-hoon’s story. I was hoping for the characters’ collective agency to cause some sort of an upset and that Gi-hoon would accept Sang-wook’s mother as a surrogate for his own and Saebyeok’s (whose name means “dawn”) brother as his own after his own daughter was taken away. But he more or less just throws money at them and runs away. He doesn’t really seem to have changed noticeably.
But who knows? Maybe it’s setting up the show so that we can dig a bit deeper next season. It’s still a great series, and I’ll be watching season 2. Just not on weeknights, so I can get some sleep. Also, I’ll need a mouthguard. My teeth literally chattered in fear during a few of episodes, and I read the director lost 6 teeth during production.
So good luck to Gi-hoon! May he get a lot of mileage from his Ronald McDonald hair.
And who knew The Blue Danube could be so fucking scary? Now, I practically shit my pants every time I hear that fucking waltz.