Korean TV series have dominated viewing preferences across large parts of Asia for the last decade. But it has taken a high-concept survival drama “Squid Game” to become the first K-drama to rate as Netflix’s top show in the U.S.
The nine-part Netflix original involves a group of people from all walks of life who sign up for a series of simple, but utterly lethal games, organized by mysterious hosts in masks and red overalls. What spurs on the contestants are their own dire straits and the lure of a more than $40 million cash prize.
Released on Sept. 17, the show entered the Top 10 on Sept. 19 at No. 8, climbed to No. 2 the next day, and was at No. 1 by its fourth day of availability on Sept. 21. In its home market of South Korea, “Squid Game” debuted in second place and reached the top spot a day later.
The show’s writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk is naturally pleased with the show’s success. But making “Squid Game” was a long and stressful process and not something he is planning to repeat – or, at least, not quite yet.
“I’m not great at team-work,” Hwang told Variety, though he says he is trying to change his ways. Hwang’s track record suggests that his solitary methods to date have served him well.
He wrote and directed 2011 sexual abuse film “Silenced,” adapted and directed historical actioner “The Fortress” in 2017. Both were major hits. And, in between, Hwang was called in as the final screenwriter and director of nostalgic musical comedy “Miss Granny.” It is not only one of the most successful Korean films of all times, but has also been localized and remade in seven other countries, including China and Japan.
So, Hwang is quietly peeved to find himself accused of borrowing too much from other survival genre films “Hunger Games,” “Battle Royale” and, in particular, 2014 Japanese film “As the Gods Will” by shock-meister Miike Takashi.
But Hwang brushes off the criticism by referring to his notes for the project, originally conceived as a feature film, in 2008. “I freely admit that I’ve had great inspiration from Japanese comics and animation over the years,” he said. “When I started, I was in financial straits myself and spent much time in cafes reading comics including ‘Battle Royale’ and ‘Liar Game.’ I came to wonder how I’d feel if I took part in the games myself. But I found the games too complex, and for my own work focused instead on using kids’ games.”
Simplicity and easily-relatable characters are two of the elements that Hwang believes have helped “Squid Game” succeed abroad.
“I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life,” Hwang said. “As a survival game it is entertainment and human drama. The games portrayed are extremely simple and easy to understand. That allows viewers to focus on the characters, rather than being distracted by trying to interpret the rules.”
“In my earlier days, I’d drink half a bottle of soju (Korean liquor) to get the creative juices flowing. I can’t do that any more,” Hwang said. “Writing (‘Squid Game’) was harder than normal for me as it was a series, not a film. It took me six months to write and rewrite the first two episodes. Then I consulted verbally with friends, and picked up clues for improvements through my own pitching and from their responses.”
The result is both universal and typically Korean: well-written, well-packaged and purposeful in the time taken to create empathy for the lead character, an unemployed man, Gi-hun, who has been fired, failed with his own business and now gambles with money he steals from his mother. The generous backstory is necessary as, in typically Korean fashion, he gets put through hell.
Appropriately perhaps, Gi-hun is played by dashingly handsome star Lee Jung-jae (“Along With the Gods,” “The Face Reader”), who is made to look like trash.
That could be a metaphor for the country’s entertainment industry, where Netflix has committed a nearly $500 million spend this year, but which is always looking over its shoulder. While Korea is tasting unprecedented success in music, TV and film, next month’s Busan film festival will hold a seminar about the sector’s impending crisis.
“Outwardly, Korean entertainment seems to be doing very well. Think of BTS, ‘Parasite,’ ‘Gangnam Style’ or ‘Crash Landing on You.’ But South Korean society is also very competitive and stressful. We have 50 million people in a small place. And, cut off from the continent of Asia by North Korea, we have developed an island mentality,” Hwang explains. “Some of that stress is carried over in the way that we are always preparing for the next crisis. In some ways it is a motivator. It helps us ask what more should be done. But such competition also has side-effects.”
Hwang says he may return to feature movies before making a “Squid Game” sequel. He is currently at work on a draft of a film, tentatively called “KO Club,” short for “Killing Old Men Club,” which he pitches as a kind of inter-generational war premise.
“I don’t have well developed plans for ‘Squid Game 2.’ It is quite tiring just thinking about it. But if I were to do it, I would certainly not do it alone. I’d consider using a writers’ room and would want multiple experienced directors.”