Life has always been difficult, a race from birth to death that you can only hope is populated with moments of transcendence and joy – a brief period of time that you strive to shape into something meaning as you go through it. But for far too many people, life feels like a show of extreme competition where the penalty for losing is far greater than being kicked off an island or kicked out of a house. The society we have collectively forged has become so tragically flawed, and yet it is also an inescapable construct.
These are some of the ideas that were going through my head when I first designed squid game as a feature film over ten years ago. Why write about poverty, conflict, despair and capitalism? Well, because I know this story all too well; I remember only having $5 in my bank account in 2008 when I was writing squid game and sell the laptop I wrote the script on for $700 so I could afford to live on for a few months. Although I did not write about it directly in squid game, what I ended up with was much more relatable. I wanted to write a story that was an allegory of modern capitalist society, populated by the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life. At the time, the response from those who might have made the film was that it was too unrealistic. A representation of the global elites who, for their own sick amusement, entice hundreds of desperate citizens to participate in a series of deadly games for the opportunity to live their lives without financial burden or hardship? In 2008, I guess that seemed like overkill. In 2022, well, it might not shock some people if they find out that squid game was inspired by real events.
Shaped like an original series for Netflix, this story of haves and have-nots that I had the chance to produce with the help of my indispensable colleagues and collaborators takes on a whole new hue. The pandemic has accelerated a number of things, from business paradigms to our collective understanding of our own fragility. But it made at least one thing clear: for those without extravagant means, life might as well be a lottery. The fact that squid game was no longer unrealistic in this new era, it was no longer absurd, it saddened me, in a way, as a person.
I live in South Korea, where the society is also very competitive and stressful. We have 50 million people in a small country cut off from the Asian mainland by North Korea, so we have developed an island mentality. It often feels like our collective consciousness is about preparing for the next crisis. In some ways, it’s a motivating factor. It helps us to ask ourselves what more should be done. As a storyteller, all of this breeds a reserve of creative anger, but also an innervating resolve, a willingness to convey in entertaining ways what has happened to us and what continues to happen to us.
I designed the squid game universe to reflect our nightmarish reality. I wanted the faces on screen to be representative, to convey the message that 90% of people living in this cutthroat society could fall behind and hit rock bottom any day. Imperfect as it is, society is not something we can escape. We are all here, together. We are all together in the same rough ocean, if not always in the same boat. My only hope is that audiences will walk away from what we’ve created and ask, “Do we have to live in a world like this?” Can we do anything to change this? »
I remain overwhelmed by how much squid game struck a chord. It’s a global phenomenon, attracting over 1.65 billion viewing hours within 28 days of its September premiere and becoming Netflix’s most popular TV show. It further continued to show that the caption barrier may not be a thing for long, becoming the first non-English series to earn Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild nominations, and to continue on the path charted before it by acclaimed international players. movies like Alfonso Cuarón Rome and Bong Joon Ho Parasite.
All of this tells me that the story we tell here knows no boundaries. It’s a universal, relatable story of working-class individuals, underdogs you want to root for as they face impossible circumstances. Not only that, but it warms my heart to see how America and the whole world have fallen in love with our cast, including Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon, Anupam Tripathi, and Oh Young-so . It was also so heartwarming to see the acting community embrace and reward Jung-jae and Ho-yeon at the SAG Awards in February. As proud as I am that these themes resonate around the world, I’m very happy to see these talents taking center stage and gaining the attention they deserve.
That’s what I took away from that experience more than anything else. The support we’ve received for this previously ‘unrealistic’ project gives me hope that stories from around the world will continue to find their place and connect with audiences through our shared experience as people. squid game helped break down the walls for the rest of the world in television programming, and as legacies go, I couldn’t have asked for anything deeper.
This story first appeared in a standalone June issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.