Behind the Global Appeal of ‘Squid Game,’ a Country’s Economic Unease

In “Squid Game,” the hit dystopian tv present on Netflix, 456 folks going through extreme debt and monetary despair play a sequence of lethal youngsters’s video games to win a $38 million money prize in South Korea.

Koo Yong-hyun, a 35-year-old workplace employee in Seoul, has by no means needed to face down masked homicidal guards or rivals out to slit his throat, like the characters in the present do. But Mr. Koo, who binge-watched “Squid Game” in a single night time, stated he empathized with the characters and their battle to outlive in the nation’s deeply unequal society.

Mr. Koo, who bought by on freelance gigs and authorities unemployment checks after he misplaced his regular job, stated it’s “almost impossible to live comfortably with a regular employee’s salary” in a city with runaway housing prices. Like many younger folks in South Korea and elsewhere, Mr. Koo sees a rising competitors to seize a slice of a shrinking pie, identical to the contestants in “Squid Game.”

Those similarities have helped flip the nine-episode drama into an unlikely worldwide sensation. “Squid Game” is now the top-ranked present in the United States on Netflix and is on its strategy to turning into one of the most-watched reveals in the streaming service’s historical past. “There’s a very good chance it will be our biggest show ever,” Ted Sarandos, a co-chief govt at Netflix, stated throughout a current enterprise convention.

Culturally, the present has sparked a web-based embrace of its distinct visuals, particularly the black masks embellished with easy squares and triangles worn by the nameless guards, and a world curiosity for the Korean youngsters’s video games that underpin the lethal competitions. Recipes for dalgona, the sugary Korean deal with at the heart of one particularly tense showdown, have gone viral.

Like “The Hunger Games” books and films, “Squid Game” holds its viewers with its violent tone, cynical plot and — spoiler alert! — a willingness to kill off fan-favorite characters. But it has additionally tapped a sense acquainted to folks in the United States, Western Europe and different locations, that prosperity in nominally wealthy nations has turn into more and more tough to attain, as wealth disparities widen and residential costs rise previous inexpensive ranges.

“The stories and the problems of the characters are extremely personalized but also reflect the problems and realities of Korean society,” Hwang Dong-hyuk, the present’s creator, stated in an e-mail. He wrote the script in 2008 as a movie, when many of these tendencies had turn into evident, however overhauled it to replicate new worries, together with the influence of the coronavirus. (Minyoung Kim, the head of content material for the Asia-Pacific area at Netflix, stated the firm was in talks with Mr. Hwang about producing a second season.)

“Squid Game” is simply the newest South Korean cultural export to win a world viewers by tapping into the nation’s deep emotions of inequality and ebbing alternatives. “Parasite,” the 2019 movie that received finest image at the Oscars, paired a determined household of grifters with the oblivious members of a wealthy Seoul family. “Burning,” a 2018 art-house hit, constructed pressure by pitting a younger deliveryman towards a well-to-do rival for a girl’s consideration.

South Korea boomed in the postwar period, making it one of the richest nations in Asia and main some economists to name its rise the “miracle on the Han River.” But wealth disparity has worsened as the economic system has matured.

“South Koreans used to have a collective community spirit,” says Yun Suk-jin, a drama critic and professor of trendy literature at Chungnam National University. But the Asian monetary disaster in the late 1990s undermined the nation’s constructive development story and “made everyone fight for themselves.”

The nation now ranks No. 11 utilizing the Gini coefficient, one measure of revenue inequality, amongst the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the analysis group for the world’s richest nations. (The United States is ranked No. 6.)

As South Korean households have tried to maintain up, family debt has mounted, prompting some economists to warn that the debt may maintain again the economic system. Home costs have surged to the level the place housing affordability has turn into a hot-button political matter. Prices in Seoul have soared by over 50 percent throughout the tenure of the nation’s president, Moon Jae-in, and led to a political scandal.

“Squid Game” lays naked the irony between the social pressure to succeed in South Korea and the issue of doing simply that, stated Shin Yeeun, who graduated from faculty in January 2020, simply earlier than the pandemic hit. Now 27, she stated she had spent over a yr searching for regular work.

“It’s really difficult for people in their 20s to find a full-time job these days,” she stated.

South Korea has additionally suffered a sharp drop in births, generated partly by a sense amongst younger those that elevating youngsters is just too costly.

“In South Korea, all parents want to send their kids to the best schools,” Ms. Shin stated. “To do that you have to live in the best neighborhoods.” That would require saving sufficient cash to purchase a home, a objective so unrealistic “that I’ve never even bothered calculating how long it will take me,” Ms. Shin stated.

“Squid Game” revolves round Seong Gi-hun, a playing addict in his 40s who doesn’t have the means to purchase his daughter a correct birthday current or pay for his ageing mom’s medical bills. One day he’s supplied a probability to take part in the Squid Game, a non-public occasion run for the leisure of rich people. To declare the $38 million prize, contestants should go by six rounds of conventional Korean youngsters’s video games. Failure means dying.

The 456 contestants converse on to many of the nation’s anxieties. One is a graduate from Seoul National University, the nation’s prime college, who is needed for mishandling his purchasers’ funds. Another is a North Korean defector who must take care of her brother and assist her mom escape from the North. Another character is an immigrant laborer whose boss refuses to pay his wages.

The characters have resonated with South Korean youth who don’t see a probability to advance in society. Known domestically as the “dirt spoon” technology, many are obsessive about methods to get wealthy rapidly, like with cryptocurrencies and the lottery. South Korea has one of the largest markets for digital forex in the world.

Like the prize cash in the present, cryptocurrencies give “people the chance to change their lives in a second,” stated Mr. Koo, the workplace employee. Mr. Koo, whose earlier employer went out of enterprise throughout the pandemic, stated the issue of incomes cash is one purpose South Koreans are so obsessive about making a fast buck.

“I wonder how many people would participate if ‘Squid Game’ was held in real life,” he stated.

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