‘Squid Game’ is social commentary steeped in Korean history and culture

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Part I
From the time I was a middle schooler, I was an avid music fan. I would ask my mom to drop me off at the Metrocenter Mall, and I would browse the shelves of CDs in every genre at the Bebop and Sam Goody stores.

I was in 8th grade at Blackburn Middle School when I shared with my friends Eboni and Demetrius track #8 on Sisqo’s Enter The Dragon album. At the tender age of 13, I’m not sure we even knew what a thong was, but the repetitive, staccato words of “Thong Song” drew us in. As a result, we began singing the lyrics and echoing the words – “truck, truck”, “what, what”, and all the rest of the lines – throughout the halls of the 8th grade Aspiring Scholars team section of the school. All of our cohorts looked at us weird for months.

Until…Sisqo, or his record label Island Records, released the song on the radio in February of 2000. By this time, my friends and I had moved on to another hit song of the moment, but everyone else at school was just now repeating those same words: “truck, truck”, “what, what”, et al. We were perplexed!

That trend seems to have followed me throughout life. Fast forward to 2012, shortly after the release of Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, I moved to Boston. Later on that year, I was sad that I couldn’t travel home for the holidays. I had only Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and Netflix to keep me company through the holidays. At the time, Netflix was heavy on the suggestion algorithm, and my interest in anime led to recommendations for other Asian TV shows and movies. I watched one Korean movie, and then one Korean TV show, and then another, and another, and another.

Every person that I rave to about Korean-based dramas, or K-dramas, thinks it a cute hobby of mine. My husband usually walks in on me watching TV with a “What K-drama are you watching now?” look on his face. However, he has watched a few with me with Vagabond (Netflix) becoming his favorite. My best friend Evie grew up on Asian dramas as a native of Malaysia but even she occasionally rolls her eyes at me. And everyone else gives me the “okaaaaaayyy, interesting” look.

I can honestly say that I watch 2-3x more Korean TV than American TV. I’ve never seen This Is Us or Power or many of the other popular TV shows of the last decade. I prefer the writing, acting, and directorial styles of K-dramas nine times out of ten. I enjoy that, in Korean culture, they don’t glamorize, sugarcoat, or skirt over the bitterness, hopelessness, and griminess of human nature and life. They acknowledge it while still offering glimmers of what makes life worth living – family, friends, life callings, love, fun, and self-worth. But in some ways, I am an observer of someone else’s culture. I can connect because of the shared human experience, but I can also disconnect because the Korean experience is very different from my own.

I believe that draws a parallel to the fascination that Americans, and the world, have with what has become Netflix’s #1 global release: Squid Game. While I now have almost 10 years of experience down the K-drama rabbit hole, the U.S. is finally catching on because of the brilliance of the story-telling, acting, and directing of Korean media, and Parasite becoming the first international film to win an Oscar for Picture of the Year last year didn’t hurt either.

I’ve seen many reviews of Squid Game, but I haven’t found one that really speaks to the experience that I had watching the miniseries; not any that I can read in English anyway. Over time, I have learned various phrases and their meanings. I have a marginal understanding of the Korean honor structure and Korean culture. And I’ve watched a few of the actors from the series in other shows. I also believe that my unique experience as a Black woman from the American Bible Belt helps add to my understanding of the underlying meanings of the show. There is much more Christian imagery than people give the show credit for and, though many have caught on to the capitalistic undertones, there is a distinct arc that leans towards looking at capitalism through the lens of the influence of imperialism and colonization, which includes Christianity.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will expound on the themes that can be seen in the first episode and continue throughout the series:

A conspicuous theme is that of children’s games. Obviously, the title of the show is a Korean children’s game – Squid Game. In the beginning of the first episode, the main character, Seong Gi-hun (played by actor Lee Jung-jae), explains the game:

“In our town, we had a game called the ‘Squid Game’. We called it that because it’s played in a court shaped like a squid. The rules are simple. Children are divided into two groups, the offense and the defense. Once the game starts, the defense can run around on two feet within bounds while the offense outside the lines are only allowed to hop on one foot. But if an attacker (offense) cuts through the waist of the squid passing defense, then they are given freedom to use both feet…we called that the inspector royal. When we were ready for the final battle, all the attackers (offense) gathered at the entrance to the squid. The attackers must tap the small closed-off space on the squid’s head with their foot. But if someone on the defense manages to push you outside the squid’s boundaries, you die.”

By the end of the series, the viewer may think back and surmise that there were multiple layers of the Squid Game that “played” out.

The title of the first episode is “Red Light, Green Light”, which is a children’s game played in various forms around the world. It harkens back to my previous thought of watching K-dramas and being able to connect to the human experience while also disconnecting from cultural specifications. We’ve all played the game, but we might not know how it’s played under different circumstances. Regarding the series, this may also be a direct correlation to playing the game in Korean society and playing the game within the confines of the “Squid Game”.

(Beware, there are spoilers in the following sections.)

Another beauty of this story, crafted and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is that it is symmetric. It’s a unique symmetry that I believe speaks to the Biblical connotations of the series: “So the last shall be first and the first last: for many be called but few chosen.” (Matthew 20:16)

During the course of this series, we will expound on this theme, but to give an example, Gi-hun has no money at the beginning. His mother is alive to give him money and provide for him. At the end, Gi-hun has a lot of money. He has enough money to give his mother money and provide her with enough to open up the shop she’s always wanted, but she is no longer alive.

The main example of the previous theme is the relationship between Gi-hun and Oh Il-nam (played by O Yeong-su). In the “Squid Game”, Gi-hun is #456 (the last number) and Il-nam is #001 (the first number).

Also important to note is the usage of the #4. In Korean Culture, the number 4 is unlucky. Many Asian languages stem from Chinese characters, and the number 4 sounds eerily similar to the word for “death”. Just how hotel buildings in the United States don’t have a floor 13, Korean hotels don’t have a floor 4, 14, or any number containing four. “Giving four of something is strongly discouraged,” notes a Wikipedia article on tetraphobia.

In the first episode, Gi-hun’s mother originally gives him ₩20,000 won to get a gift for his daughter. When he asks for more, the camera zooms in on four ₩10,000 won bills (which would translate to around $40 in U.S. dollars). We also find out that Gi-hun’s birthday is April 26th (04/26) when he steals his mother’s bank card to get even more money.

I have learned through my extensive “study” of K-dramas that Koreans take honor and respect very seriously. Even in close friendships or relationships, it is customary to add “ssi” (Mr. or Miss) to someone’s name. The easiest way to compare this to American culture is if Jane Doe had a good friend named Mary Major, who’s been around for years, but she still calls her Miss Mary Major. Alternatively, if Miss Mary Major is slightly older than Miss Jane Doe then Miss Mary Major would gain a title, becoming “unni” or older sister. This becomes important when looking at the series’ usage of “oppa” or older brother.

Another example is that suffixes like -yo or -nim are added to words and titles to denote respect. The formal way to say thank you in Korean is gamsahamnida. A casual way of saying thank you is gamawo, but to add respect, -yo is added to the end (gamawoyo).

In Squid Game, titles are used in a peculiar manner. For example, in episode 1, Gi-hun calls the loan shark “seonsaengnim”. I have come to know the title seonsaengnim to denote someone who is in a teaching position, whether at the secondary school level or at a university. So it stood out that he would call a loan shark, who is threatening him, by this title. In the next part, Gi-hun’s usage of Yeonggamnim when addressing Il-nam will be addressed.

Colors are very distinct in this series, especially the color red, which may represent blood. In South Korea, a binding contract is made when a person signs his or her name with a red circular signature stamp. When Gi-hun is confronted by the loan shark, he has to stamp his “signature” with his own blood and fingerprint. This represents the high stakes (another theme) at which Gi-hun’s life is always lived, and it foreshadows the contract of the “Squid Game” where the players pay in blood. Also, the loan shark threatens to take Gi-hun’s tooth but, after he signs the contract, he threatens to make Gi-hun pay back the money with his kidneys or eyes. This juxtaposes the game – when Gi-hun plays the first game with the salesman, the stakes are slaps to the face; when he enters the “Squid Game”, the players pay back their “debt” with their lives.

There are more themes that will be discussed, but one thing is for sure, Squid Game will be a phenomenon for years to come, with or without a sequel. Stay tuned!

DeAnna Tisdale Johnson has stepped into the role of publisher of her family legacy, the Jackson Advocate. Since March 2020, she has led the publication to once again become an award-winning newspaper with a new logo and website to boot. She is a Jackson native, graduating from Murrah High School and Tougaloo College. She is also classically trained in vocal performance, and, though she’s never broken a glass, she’s known to still hit a high note or two.

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‘Squid Game’ is social commentary steeped in Korean history and culture

By DeAnna Tisdale Johnson
December 1, 2021