At its roots, Squid Game is still going in the direction of many Korean movies: drama.
Squid Game is a rather polarizing movie about how viewers feel after they have experienced all 9 episodes. However, comparing Squid Game with films like The Hunger Games, Alice In Borderland, Escape Room leads to genre ambiguities.
1. Perspective on film genre
First, let’s talk about the world-building factor. The Hunger Games and Alice In Borderland both have two very large worlds with their own rules, societies, and ways of operating. This is called dystopia (anti-paradise). Panem or Borderland are two worlds that are not real, it’s messy, brutal, and the characters are pushed into situations that are specific to its institution (for example, the tradition of The Hunger Games in Panem, or places where Borderland‘s people play aming score). After many ups and downs, what the characters struggle within this genre is ultimately how to overthrow the regime and rearrange the social order. The common feature of dystopia is that it requires the film to have a rather overwhelming world-building in order to pull the viewer into a vivid and realistic world of work.
Squid Game completely lost the dystopia element. The reason that we don’t see it as epic as other popular movies with a “game” element is that it is built on a real-world, a real society. The character is locked in a place built by rich people and everything the character goes through is close to reality. There is no future technology. There is no social institution. To be frank, the scene in Squid Game is very bad and very fake on purpose, to make it clear that the people who make this game are not gods or have terrible power, but only have money to spend. Just build such a complex warehouse.
In the main genres such as thriller, action, horror, drama, or dystopia, we can encounter patterns often seen in plots. The game is one of those patterns. Interestingly, the nature of the concept of “game” has a multitude of other genres to shape the color and style of the film and even assign it a subgenre.
Survival is a game genre that requires survival. The last thing the character has to achieve is to live. The opponent can be harsh nature, monsters are too strong and I can’t do anything but hide and live until reinforcements arrive, cold-blooded killers, supernatural entities… For example sensational – birth Survival has Jungle (2017), horror – survival has Crawl (2019), or A Quiet Place (2018) is also a film of this type. More recently, Ready Or Not (2020) is also an excellent movie.
And of course, if the rules of survival require a number of characters to fight and destroy each other to determine the last survivor, now survival has pushed into a new subgenre called battle royale.
The first two parts of The Hunger Games, The Belko Experiment (2016) or the Battle Royale monument (2000, the subgenre’s name comes from this movie) are typical. In the Squid Game, the battle royale element was introduced starting after the 2nd game, when players realized they could kill each other outside the game to eliminate the strong or the weak, bringing victory closer.
The puzzle is a puzzle or jigsaw puzzle. Players and viewers are often placed in difficult situations that can involve life and death. If survival is about trying to live, battle royale is about killing each other to live, then the puzzle is finding the key to staying alive. It can be seen that the definition is getting a little narrower day by day. Some good puzzle movies are Alice In Borderland with a game system that corresponds to the cards in the Western deck, and also has a “game system” and a level for players to choose from. Both Escape Room movies also carry this element. Infinity Room (2016) or Cube (1997) also fall into this category.
Squid Game has no puzzle or puzzle elements, so it is true that the movie is not brain-hacking, and we have expected this movie to be based on the standards of many previous blockbusters. This is understandable because the way the movie is marketed and the logo organized with three squares, circles, and triangles misleads that this is a puzzle movie.
Squid Game doesn’t have the grandeur of Alice In Borderland or The Hunger Games, nor does it have the killing element throughout, or there is no puzzle to solve at all. Because at its roots, Squid Game is still going in the direction of the strongest Korean movie ever: drama.
2. “Wipe off your tears with money”
Using a series of survival games to depict the plight of the socially disadvantaged, Squid Game explores human nature and questions how deep they fall into the trap of money. Money is the final goal of these characters when participating in the game. Not to survive, but to earn money. When it comes to money, the series heavily focuses on the drama element, sometimes a bit too lengthy due to the common characteristic of many Korean series.
This is shown most clearly in episode 2 and episode 6 of the series – probably the two best episodes that highlight the series’s distinct theme.
The 2nd episode goes against the predictions. When the vote takes place, the old man Oh Il Nam votes to stop playing, allowing all players to return to the real world: their own hell. In episode 2, we get to pause the game so the players can suffer the misery they are experiencing one more time. From this episode, the characters’ profiles and the socio-psychological element of Korean drama are profoundly established, and it contributes to the motivation for the players to have a different mindset when returning to the game. The right to choose and decision of the characters have given them the free will to decide their own fate, thereby revealing the complexities of human beings’ personalities unlike many other productions where they are stuck in a situation and have no choice.
In the final episode, we see the accomplished goal of character Gi Hun, who represents (almost) all of the 456 people participating in Squid Game. Being awarded a huge amount of money, Gi Hun still cannot touch it because he himself recognizes it as “money made of blood”. That amount is equivalent to 456 human lives, which could also be used to pay for their funeral. Although Gi Hun is a debt-ridden man full of mistakes, a failure by Korean standards, the series still builds him as the representative of conscience, in contrast to Sang Woo, who represents the survival instinct. Gi Hun’s value system is always questioned: “Do you still believe in people?” as an experiment to see if large amounts of money can change a person’s life or will change that person’s outlook on life forever.
Squid Game also has a “dark humor” but unfortunately, if only the series could showcase this comedy element more clearly. The games in Squid Game are children’s games in Korea. What makes the characters baffled is that they don’t know what the next game will be and find many ways to guess. The funny thing is that each game has been painted on the wall of their resting area, obscured by their own beds (episode 8) without them realizing it. The series uses symmetry when placing the innocence of childhood games alongside human cruelty and violence, creating a legit “bloody survival”.
In episode 1, when meeting a stranger (Gong Yoo), Gi Hun accepted to play the flipping game. With only a short scene, the writer described the concept of the entire series. “I’m a stranger, you play a child’s game with me, if you win, you’ll get money, if you lose, I will fine you but physically, not your money”. The mockery conveyed through the dark humor also starts from this scene. Children’s flipping game is the format of 5 games in Squid Game. Gong Yoo’s character represents the ones who control the game. The money reward is the plight and despair that people are willing to get at any cost, and the slap is how they exchange their bodies to be a part of the game.
The dark humor is also reflected in the soundtrack. Every time a game starts, there’s a soundtrack playing in the background, which sounds like a joke, because it is a melody made from the flute, with a silly, interrupted rhythm. The melody feels playful, cute and “childish”, but the nature of each game leaves unpredictable mental trauma. Moreover, the candy licking scene in episode 3 also has a dark comedic meaning: in front of the barrel of a gun and death, the series still brings laughter from how weirdly people will act to step forward.
4. 00:00 am
At the end of the movie, Gi Hun and the head of the organization have a bet with each other on human compassion. And while “betting” is a strong theme throughout the film in the most negative ways, this final bet turns the film into an outdated and somewhat stereotypical moral lesson. However, it is enough to touch the audience and convey what the film wants to achieve.
The film uses “midnight,” 00:00 am as a premise for life change and salvation. They bet on whether or not the people on the side of the road will get help before midnight. And because the tycoon himself, with an extremely skeptical view of people, believed that no one would save them at that moment, he intervened with his own hands to give them a life-changing choice. The players will be picked up by the bus at 00:00 am, the turning point of the old and new days in an endless cycle, as a message to them that their lives will officially change at that moment.
And as mentioned above, if only the movie would stick to the “black comedy” genre, because from episode 4 onwards, the characteristics of this genre quietly step back while having a lot of potentials. In short, the good or bad Squid Game probably lies in each person’s taste in the genre of “game” people like to play. However, if you’re looking for puzzles or elaborate worlds, or bloody carnage throughout the movie, the Squid Game isn’t for you. In the end, this is just a Korean movie and has done the greatest of what Korean movies can do, mixing with a little bit of the novelty of the survival genre.
Squid Game is out in its entirety on Netflix.