In this week’s newsletter: a combination of Netflix’s marketing nous and an all-too-relatable dystopia has prove impossible to resist
Squid Game. When did you first encounter that strange pairing of words? Perhaps it was while idly flicking around the Netflix home page for something diverting to watch over the weekend. Or perhaps it was someone breathlessly hyping it up on your social media platform of choice. Maybe it was in a thinkpiece, ruminating on what the show says about South Korea, capitalism or cephalopods. Or maybe you received a letter from your child’s school warning that some pupils had been caught watching clips of the (at times incredibly) violent series on TikTok.
Whatever it was, it’s clear that by now you’re far more likely to be familiar with the phrase Squid Game than not. The Korean-language drama, about a group of down-on-their-luck Seoul residents who are lured into playing a deadly contest, has entered that rarefied space reserved for Game of Thrones-sized megahits, and is currently on track to become Netflix’s most popular show (though – caveat! – this is only according to Netflix, who do not release comprehensive, verified viewing figures for their series).
Non-cinephiles probably first started becoming aware that something interesting was going on when Park’s Oldboy was released in the west in 2004. Its bone-crunching violence and dark plot put it in the “extreme Asian” cinema bracket that was already readily exportable. But Oldboy – and the other films in the director’s Vengeance trilogy – had more going on than that. They featured a peculiar blend of tones, absurdist comedy clattering straight into vaulting tragedy, that seemed uniquely Korean. Like protagonist Oh Dae-su, finally freed after 15 years of incarceration, cramming a fistful of live octopus into his gob.