From the clothes to the sets and even the games, Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk reveals how his life infiltrated his wildly popular show.
What do you think is the most popular Netflix show ever? Until a couple of weeks ago, nobody would have put bets on it being an overdubbed Korean survival horror series. And yet – having gone to number one in 90 countries in 10 days – Squid Game is on track to become the most successful show in the platform’s history. It’s so popular that a Korean broadband provider is suing Netflix to compensate for the huge surge in traffic caused by binge-watching. Jeff Bezos even anointed the series with a congratulatory tweet calling the streamer “impressive and inspiring”, before adding: “I can’t wait to watch the show.”
The nine-part series follows the fortunes of a number of characters who, having fallen off the bottom of Korea’s social ladder, are whisked to a deserted island to play in a horrifying real-life gameshow. Corralled by silent, masked men in overalls, the competitors play a series of playground games in brightly-coloured arenas – and the losers are “eliminated” with extreme prejudice. Think: worst PGL weekend ever.
The first episode gives us a game of “Red Light, Green Light”, aka Grandmother’s Footsteps, for instance, in which anyone caught moving doesn’t get sent back to the starting line but machine-gunned to death where they stand. Or a tug-of-war in which the losing team tumbles hundreds of meters to its death.
The story is squarely in the survival game genre, which will be familiar to Western audiences through properties like The Hunger Games and Fortnite. But as much as the world of the games is fantastical and unreal, the show departs from its splatter-horror source material in the care it takes to invest its characters with psychological realism and plausible back-stories.
Its principal protagonist Seong Gi-hun – “hero” is probably the wrong word – is a divorced dad living in a tiny apartment with his ailing mother. He scrapes a part-time living as a chauffeur, but a gambling habit and failed business schemes have left him hopelessly in debt to violent loan-sharks; and his ex-partner’s new husband is about to take his daughter to live in the United States. He’s a deeply relatable, sympathetic character – as are many of the other unfortunates with whom he forms shaky alliances in the world of the game.
The show’s tangled DNA also contains traces of Lord of the Flies, Graham Greene’s Dr Fischer of Geneva, the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, and those violently humiliating Japanese game-shows clips of which used to bewilder the audiences of 1990s magazine programmes. (The late Clive James, you suspect, would entirely have dug it.) Nor does it seem an accident that on their masks, the guards on the show wear triangles, circles and squares – making their heads look like the action buttons on the controllers for a PlayStation. It’s a gleeful mash-up of 21st-century technology and the oldest themes imaginable of man’s inhumanity to man.
The show’s creator Hwang Dong-hyuk first had the idea for the story as long ago as 2008. He was inspired, he says, by manga comics in the survival game genre; among them the genre-defining Battle Royale, in which high-school students are kidnapped and forced to fight to the death, Warrior Games and Kaiji, whose heavily indebted protagonist is forced to play a series of gambling games for sickeningly high stakes and loses a series of body parts in the process.
But its time was yet to come. “In 2009, I had a two-hour script for a feature-film. But at the time people thought this was very, you know, very bizarre and kind of weird. I wanted to get investment to make it into film, but people didn’t find it attractive and they didn’t think this was like a big hit.” After another year’s work, the script went into the bottom drawer.
Ten years later, he returned to it, at first thinking to make it into a webtoon. “Web-based cartoons are very popular in Korea nowadays,” he explains. But then a lightbulb went off. “I thought, well, there’s actually Netflix. Why didn’t I think of that? I proposed my feature script to Netflix, and they really liked it so we decided to make this into a nine-episode series.”
As Hwang sees it, the world had caught up to his script. “I think in 10 years, the world has changed. Now people don’t see it as bizarre: people see it as fun; and realistic. It’s harder for people to survive in this world. People who invest in cryptocurrency, they want a jackpot – that’s why I think people could really resonate with this game. Also, because of the Covid situation, the divide between the haves and the have-nots have just become so much wider. So that’s why I think there’s more realism to it at this time.”
Modern Korea’s savagely unequal society – memorably allegorised in another breakout Korean production, 2020’s Oscar-winning Parasite – is the grounds for the show’s situation. In the second episode of Squid Game, after that terrifying game of “Red light, Green light”, the survivors vote by a narrow majority to end the games and return safely to their lives.
By the following episode all but a handful have elected to return. They realise that their prospects are even grimmer in the outside world. And they’re mesmerised by the prize money – great wads of currency suspended from the high ceiling of their dormitory in an illuminated perspex globe. They gaze wonderingly up at it whenever it appears, glowing with a divine yellow light, just out of reach.
A nine-part series also gave Hwang more space to tell his story – and the retooling of the script that necessitated is turned a potentially derivative and forgettable outing into action horror into something with a global general audience. “At first, I focused mostly on the games,” he says. “But now we had more time – so we could focus on the stories of the characters and the changes in their emotions; and I could also talk more about the masked men, the people who control the game. And one other thing: 10 years ago when I wrote the script for the movie, the characters were mostly men. At the time it was just normal to have all male characters, but now I think that was very old fashioned. So, for example, the North Korean defector girl used to be a boy. I changed the character’s gender from male to female.”
The balance of fantastical genre elements with social realism – the show’s secret sauce – is the thing about which he obsessed most.”That’s the exact point that I really pondered on for a long time,” he says. “It was really important to strike that balance between the realism and the fantastical aspects of the show. I wanted it to be almost like a fable, but I also wanted the characters to be very realistic. So people would think: I could be participating in that game.
“When I was writing and filming, I made sure to kind of harmonise the real world and the world of the gaming world. In that sense, the second episode is very important. In other death games and survival games, people are just dragged into the game. It’s not out of their own volition that they participate: they’re just in this confined space and they have to play the game to win. I wanted to tweak that stereotype so that in episode two, they could cast ballots and [stop the game]. They voluntarily come back to play the game. I wanted to show that the real world and the game world actually run in harmony.”
The premise of the show is one that seems to have struck a chord worldwide. But the show is also, says its creator, distinctively Korean in the portrait it paints of society. “I wanted to have kind of representatives of minority groups that are Korean: the old man represents the Asian population; Ali represents the migrant worker minority population; Sae-Byeok represents the North Korean defector population. So I think this is very Korean – but also this could apply to the rest of the world as well, because we all have these migrant people’s issues, the aging society. They are all issues we share.”
The specificity of the source material, too, can sometimes give a special chill. What Hwang calls “one fun fact” is that the bright jumpsuits sported by the guards were inspired by a photograph the art director discovered of a factory in North Korea: “the workers in that factory [had] all their jumpsuits in orange, a very vibrant orange color, and there were hundreds of them…”
When I ask whether – as often happens with successful foreign-language film and television properties – he anticipates (or would welcome) a Western remake, he’s politic enough not to quite rule it out, but he says that in some ways it would be redundant. “If you look at the later episodes you can see that there’s the host – and we can kind of infer that this kind of thing is played in other countries as well, not just in Korea. So remaking is an option, but my worldview kind of says that all these games are played in different countries around the world.”
For something so lurid and fantastical, it’s also a very personal programme. “A lot of my personal history and memories are blended inside the show,” says Hwang. He grew up in a village very like the hometown depicted in the series; his grandmother – like the mother of one of the main characters – worked at a small market stall; and he grew up, like Seong Gi-Hun, “with my mum only in a small room”.
Most of the characters, including the main protagonist, are named after his friends. “And all the games are the games that I used to play as a child in the alleys and in the playground: in the honeycomb episode that strategy [where the competitors have to remove shapes from honeycomb biscuits without cracking them, and Seong Gi-Hun licks the biscuit to dissolve the honeycomb] is something that I thought of when I was little when I was playing the same game.”
Even some of the design features are in-jokes. “The green gym clothes that the participants are wearing? They’re the exact same gym clothes that I used to wear when I was in elementary school.” Other features of the design came from Hwang’s head or the world around him: the dizzying candy-coloured staircases up and down which the show’s sinister guards march two abreast, he says, were inspired by his love of MC Escher’s famous impossible staircases: “I talked to the art director about it, and she said maybe we should add kids’ playground colours.”
Somehow, this blend of ultraviolence and playground innocence, of social realism and science-fictional fantasy, of genre conformity and lavish originality, of the specifically Korean and the relatably universal, has captured a worldwide audience and the film that couldn’t get even local funding in 2009 has conquered the global entertainment market.
The popularity of The Queen’s Gambit prompted swathes of girls and young women to take up chess. We must hope that Squid Game’s success inspires a rise in the sales of Korean-style honeycomb biscuits and a wholesome interest in that nation’s culture; rather than, say, a craze for sanguinary playground games and whimsical mass murder.
So, what happens next? Hwang says: “A lot of people want season two, and I did have some ideas in my in my head when I was writing season one, so I’m thinking about it – but nothing’s decided yet.” There’s “a lot of talk about making it into a video game”. And Hollywood is calling –”there’s a lot of people from the US that are contacting me – but right now I’m so tired and exhausted I’m not really replying.” He has said that he thinks a second season might focus more on the mysterious Front Man, who turns out in the penultimate episode to be a former member of the Korean police.
And at this point Hwang Dong-hyuk breaks into English to interrupt his translator: “I need a break,” he says. “I need a break.”
Squid Game is streaming on Netflix now.
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