K-drama review: Squid Game - Netflix survival drama is gory and wickedly entertaining

Lee Jung-jae (centre) plays the leading role in Squid Game.
PHOTO: Netflix

4.5/5 stars

Netflix Korea may very well find its widest global audience to date with its latest original series.

Through nine episodes chock full of vivid thrills and dramatic bloodletting, the sensational and surprising survival action-drama Squid Game shows just how far a group of people will go to dig themselves out of a hole.

Hit filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk (Silenced, Miss Granny) crafts a show that aggressively breaks away from K-drama conventions, even more so than previous Netflix hits Kingdom and Sweet Home.

The premise is wickedly simple: 456 down-on-their-luck people saddled with large debts are given an opportunity to take part in a game. They do so of their own free will, with no idea that what they have signed up for is a series of playground games with deadly twists.

We first follow Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a divorced man living with his mother. Any money he gets his hands on is gambled away and, between his debts to the bank and loan sharks, he can’t even treat his daughter to a proper meal on her birthday.

At the close of a trying day, Gi-hun meets a man with a briefcase who asks him if he wants to play a game. He opens the briefcase to reveal wads of cash and two folded paper tiles. The game is called “ddakji” and the aim is to try to flip over your opponent’s paper tile (the “ddakji”).

The stake is 100,000 won (S$114) and Gi-hun accepts, but when he loses and can’t pay, the man takes his payment by slapping him. Gi-hun loses again and again, receiving a fresh smack on the cheek each time. Eventually, he succeeds and receives two 50,000 won bills.

The man gives him a card with a circle, triangle and square on it and suggests he call the number on the back if he wants to play a game for some real money. After Gi-hun calls, he’s picked up on a street corner by a van driven by a masked man in pink overalls, and he loses consciousness.

A still from Squid Game. PHOTO: Netflix

Gi-hun wakes up in a green tracksuit in a gigantic white room, with hundreds of other disoriented people. Soon, these strangers will find out that they are participants in the “squid game”.

There are six events to compete in and anyone who makes it through all of them will be handsomely rewarded. What they don’t realise, until the first game is already in progress, is that elimination means death.

Among Gi-hun’s fellow participants are his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), now an investment banker being investigated for fraud; an old man with a brain tumour (Oh Young-soo); a North Korean pickpocket (Jung Ho-yeon); a gangster out for himself (Heo Sung-tae); a loud-mouthed fraudster (Kim Joo-ryung); and a Pakistani migrant worker (Tripathi Anupam).

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A still from Squid Game. PHOTO: Netflix

There’s also Wi Ha-joon as Hwang Jun-ho, a police officer whose search for his missing brother leads him to the games.

Revealing any more at this point would spoil the fun, because one of Squid Game’s greatest strengths is its clever plotting.

You are pretty sure you know where it’s going, but the route it takes to get there is full of surprises, and these are well spread out, weaving a satisfying thread of intrigue and climaxes throughout.

One of the reasons viewers might feel they know what will happen is because death games are hardy a screen novelty.

Global viewers will be familiar with The Hunger Games, while fans of Japanese entertainment will recognise a host of similar properties, including Netflix’s own Alice in Borderland, As the Gods Will and the classic Battle Royale.

A still from Squid Game. PHOTO: Netflix

Some viewers have been quick to point out similarities between the first event in Squid Game and As the Gods Will, although director Hwang has noted that his script predates the manga and was originally conceived in 2008.

The show’s wicked premise is brought vividly to life through spectacular sets by Chae Kyung-sun and striking costumes from frequent Park Chan-wook collaborator Cho Sang-kyung, while the terrific score by Parasite composer Jung Jae-il give the games a mood that is both playful and threatening.

Performances are for the most part quite broad, which work very well within the heightened atmosphere of the games but are a touch less successful in the dramatic interludes that take place in Seoul.

A still from Squid Game. PHOTO: Netflix

Lee Jung-jae, who appeared in a previous survival-game action thriller, Big Match, is brash and elastic in the lead role, but the highlight in the cast is model-turned-actress Jung Ho-yeon in her debut screen role, playing a gutsy North Korean defector who is destined to be a fan favourite.

Also, watch out for a couple of huge surprise cameos.

Part of Squid Game’s stylistic cocktail is graphic violence, which is employed liberally as the game’s contestants are brutally whittled down during the main events.

Some of the games are breathtaking, while others, once we’ve got to know the characters more, are heartbreaking.

The early reaction from local viewers in South Korea, who balked at the show’s perceived cruelty, has been somewhat cool.

The show’s violence and tonal swings may not work for everyone, and there are occasional weaknesses, such as the underwhelming appearance of an elite class behind the games, and a slightly disappointing finale.

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A still from Squid Game. PHOTO: Netflix

But, overall, this is still a savagely entertaining slam dunk from Netflix Korea, which is likely to be embraced around the world as its predecessors were.

Squid Game is streaming on Netflix.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.