Squid Game (or “The Squid Game”) is anything but the typical light or cloying Korean television drama.
In a scathing reference to current life in South Korea, viewers are presented with a story of violence, betrayal, and despair.
All of this unfolds around a series of ghoulish games in which its players literally fight to the death.
Despite its brutal content, the show has captivated audiences around the world, becoming Netflix’s most-watched series in at least 90 countries.
The drama takes viewers on a high-suspense journey through nine episodes in which a group of people mired in debt and personal misfortune enter a series of six survival games, inspired by typical Korean children’s games. South.
The losers will die through a ruthless process of elimination, with the sole winner taking home 46.5 trillion South Korean won (about US $ 40 million).
The first episodes show the circumstances that have led the central characters to put everything at stake.
They have had very different lives, but each of the characters is mired in debt and misery.
An unemployed person who goes into debt for failed businesses and gambling joins a failed fund manager. An elderly man with cancer plays alongside a North Korean defector.
A Pakistani immigrant worker and a member of an organized criminal gang, along with hundreds of others who have fallen out of favor with South Korean capitalism, are risking it all.
Squid Game joins other recent South Korean film productions, notably the 2020 Oscar-winning film Parasite, by offering a sharp critique of the socioeconomic inequality that plagues the lives of many citizens of the country.
More specifically, it talks about the deepening of the household debt crisis affecting the middle and lower classes.
Debt and inequality
Household debt in South Korea has risen sharply in recent years to exceed 100% of its GDP, the highest in Asia.
The top 20% of the nation’s earners have a net worth 166 times greater than the bottom 20%, a disparity that has increased by 50% since 2017.
South Koreans also face rising debt relative to income, and a recent rise in interest rates. This has left those who lack the resources to cope with unforeseen events, such as a sudden layoff or a family illness, in an even more precarious situation.
The Gini index that measures the distribution of national wealth places South Korea close to the United Kingdom and in a better position than the United States.
However, rising youth unemployment, rising house prices and the global pandemic have reversed the modest reduction in inequality experienced in recent years under the progressive government of Moon Jae-in.
Families are going into debt to pay for housing and education costs, an essential expense for the middle classes who hope to ensure their children get to the college they want.
But it’s not just families. In August, the South Korean government announced new credit restrictions aimed at reducing debt among the youngest. Millennials and those in their 30s owe the most relative to their income.
But attempts to curb borrowing have led some to turn to higher-cost, higher-risk lenders.
Such a choice leaves many at the mercy of debt collectors if the slightest change in their circumstances causes them to default.
While few can be found in the hands of criminal groups threatening to remove their organs for sale, as shown in Squid Game, the burden of overwhelming debt is a deepening social problem, not to mention the leading cause of suicide in South Korea.
Players, winners and losers
The inclusion in Squid Game of other characters representing disadvantaged minorities in South Korea highlights the consequences that socioeconomic inequality has for these groups as well.
The cruel exploitation by a factory employer of a migrant worker who is forced into the game is representative of barriers to upward mobility for those in South and Southeast Asia.
North Korean defectors are also listed as individuals who must fight on many fronts to achieve both financial stability and social inclusion.
The series pokes fun at Christianity and repeatedly expresses the increasing shift in public opinion of the rapid development of South Korea during the 1970s and 1980s and its connection to the growth of the church at that time.
The so-called Protestant work ethic was the cornerstone of South Korea’s authoritarian-era economic “miracle”.
During three decades of ambitious economic plans, the country was transformed into a high-income economy. Throughout this time, worldwide success was seen as a sign of blessing and megachurches were on the rise.
Yet corruption was rife among politicians and chaebol families (huge family-dominated business groups) who served as church elders as they embezzled funds and built their private empires.
Unsurprisingly, disillusionment with some members of the political elite and the church has led many in an increasingly secular country to dispute the truth of Christianity’s claim to serve the poor and oppressed in South Korea.
Of course, this is not an exclusive South Korean story. People from all over the world can relate to the characters in “The Squid Game”, their problems and their humanity.
Economies similar to South Korea are experiencing many of the same challenges, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.
Squid Game brutally reminds the winners of each stage, and the show’s global audience, that those who succeed often do so at the expense of those who failed through weakness, discrimination, poor judgment, or just plain bad luck.
The final episode hints at the possibility of a second series, but even if it doesn’t continue, Squid Game makes it clear that the story it represents is far from over.
(Taken from BBC)