*This is a mostly spoiler-free review however, some elements discussed may take away from the viewing experience so feel free to return after you’ve seen the series.*
The Squid Game (Season 1, 2021)
Creator: Dong-hyuk Hwang
Cast: Jung-jae Lee, Hae-soo Park, Ha-jun Wi, Young-soo Oh, Ho-yeon Jung, Sung-tae Heo, Joo-ryoung Kim, Tripathi Anupam, Seong-joo You, You-mi Lee
Hundreds of cash-strapped players accept a strange invitation to compete in children’s games. Inside, a tempting prize awaits with deadly high stakes. A survival game that has a whopping 40-million-dollar prize at stake. – IMDB
Survival games in TV series, movies or books aren’t really unseen or uncommon at this point. The Squid Game is a South Korean Netflix thriller series which sets up a survival game where an initial 456 players are invited from their hopelessness in life and desperation for money with no clue of what to expect until the first game starts and it becomes a do or die situation where it claims to provide a fair and equal world where as long as they follow the rule, they will be able to get out with the prize money.
This is the case for most of the characters here as they meet up during the first game: Gi-hun (Jung-jae Lee), Sang-woo (Hae-soo Park), Ali (Tripathi Anupam), Player 1 (Young-soo Oh), Sae-byeok (Ho-Yeong Jung) who end up teaming up while the players also have those who are much more ruthless lead by Deok-su (Sung-tae Heo) and the more uncertain factor with a woman called Mi-Nyeo (Joo-ryoung Kim). These players are core as each of them represent something different in the society and each have their own personality which sees them making it to certain phases as the teams start forming after the lesson of the first game with a very obvious turning point where they need to change. Its not hard to see who will be the changing factors however, these characters do truly grow on the audience throughout that some scenes that struggle between a selfish desire to survive creates these moral dilemmas between the characters that show the wear that it has on them.
The main character Gi-Hun being constantly in that spotlight as his character has some of the biggest changes from the beginning to the ending that feel subtle but can be seen in his decisions and struggles. Much like the cold Sae-Byeok who is judged by her North Korean background but also changes throughout as she starts to find trust in her alliances. Much like a very naive Ali who wants to win this for his family but ends up being constantly used to forward others plans unknowingly. Each game dives into a different moral element and strategy which takes an profound and poignant turn in the 4th game especially with the old neighborhood setup that isn’t as big as the other game settings but manages to create a significant contrast especially after the previous game’s focus on strategy and teamwork.
While it focuses on the players for the most part, the show also has the flip side with a cop Jun-ho (Ha-Jun Wi) that is investigating the disappearance of his brother which leads him to sneaking around the game headquarters undercover blending into different people from the game. Having recently been impressed by Ha-Jun Wi’s performance in Midnight (review), it was such a pleasant surprise to see him in this very different role and doing a fantastic job. Even if the dialogue isn’t quite a lot, his character is very well-executed. With that said, his side of the story shares the operational elements of The Squid Game of what the whole deal is. This element brings in a lot of twists and turns with a lot of unknown elements seeing as the guards and Front Man are all masked for the majority of the film. Having both the players and operations both being shown gives the audience more knowledge than the players to a certain extent and keeps the story balanced with not just death and survival but also mystery and suspense.
There is no doubt that the survival elements of the game is the most thrilling to watch especially with the use of Korean childhood games. Some of which are more familiar to the outside world and some which give it that Korean twist especially with the title game, The Squid Game which adds a cultural element. The sets are fantastically designed and every single one levels up from the previous both in how they creatively add in the danger element and incorporate the strategy while also revealing the characters for their true personality. The set-up is rather brutal to watch for the most part and is done incredibly well. As the games get worse and more unpredictable, the true purpose of The Squid Game is gradually revealed as the operations gets tracked down by the cop character which adds another layer to the story that leads right up to the ending that keeps it wide open for a second season with a lot of unanswered questions and many more possibilities. That ending though does leave a lot to think about whether about the whole plot, the clues that lead to the big reveal and ponder on trust and faith in humanity in general.