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‘Squid Game,’ the Netflix Hit, Taps South Korean Fears

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

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

Mr. Koo, who obtained by on freelance gigs and authorities unemployment checks after he misplaced his regular job, mentioned it’s “almost impossible to live comfortably with a regular employee’s salary” in a metropolis with runaway housing costs. Like many younger individuals in South Korea and elsewhere, Mr. Koo sees a rising competitors to seize a slice of a shrinking pie, similar 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 option to turning into one in every of the streaming service’s most watched reveals in its historical past. “There’s a very good chance it will be our biggest show ever,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-chief government, mentioned throughout a current enterprise convention.

Culturally, the present has sparked a web-based embrace of its distinct visuals, particularly the black masks adorned with easy squares and triangles worn by the nameless guards, and a worldwide curiosity for the Korean kids’s video games that underpin the lethal competitions. Recipes for dalgona, the sugary Korean deal with at the middle of 1 particularly tense showdown, have gone viral.

Like “The Hunger Games” books and flicks, the Korean-language present 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 way acquainted to individuals in the United States, Western Europe and different locations that prosperity in nominally wealthy international locations has change into more and more tough to attain, as wealth disparity widens and residential costs rise previous unaffordable 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, mentioned in an e mail. He wrote the script in 2008 as a movie, when many of those developments had change into evident, however overhauled it to replicate new worries, together with the impression of the coronavirus. (Minyoung Kim, the head of content material for the Asia-Pacific area at Netflix, mentioned the firm is in talks with Mr. Hwang about producing a second season.)

“Squid Game” is simply the newest South Korean cultural export to win a worldwide viewers by tapping into the nation’s deep emotions of inequality and ebbing alternatives. “Parasite,” the 2019 movie that gained 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 rigidity by pitting a younger deliveryman in opposition to a well-to-do rival for a girl’s consideration.

South Korea boomed in the postwar period, making it one in every of the richest international locations 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 contemporary literature at Chungnam National University. But the Asian monetary disaster in the late Nineties undermined the nation’s optimistic progress story and “made everyone fight for themselves.”

The nation now ranks No. 11 utilizing the Gini coefficient, one measure of wealth disparity, 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 change into a hot-button political matter. Prices in Seoul have soared by over 50 p.c 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 stress to reach South Korea and the problem of doing simply that, mentioned Shin Yeeun, who graduated from faculty in January 2020, simply earlier than the pandemic hit. Now 27, she mentioned she spent over a 12 months in search of a full-time job.

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

South Korea has additionally suffered a pointy drop in births, generated partially by a way amongst younger people who kids are too costly.

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

“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 getting old mom’s medical bills. One day he’s provided an opportunity to take part in the Squid Game, a personal occasion run for the leisure of rich people. To declare the $38 million prize, contestants should go by means of six rounds of conventional Korean kids’s video games. Failure means loss of life.

The 456 contestants straight communicate to a lot of the nation’s anxieties. One is a graduate from Seoul National University, the nation’s prime college, who is needed for mishandling his shoppers’ funds. Another is a North Korean defector who must deal with 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 an opportunity to advance in society. Known regionally as the “dirt spoon” era, many are obsessive about methods to get wealthy shortly, like cryptocurrencies and the lottery. South Korea has one in every of the largest markets for digital foreign money in the world.

Like the prize cash in the present, cryptocurrencies give “people the chance to change their lives in a second,” mentioned Mr. Koo, the workplace employee. Mr. Koo, whose earlier employer went out of enterprise throughout the pandemic, mentioned the problem of incomes cash is one motive 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 mentioned.