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 a survival horror series from Korea. 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, overtaking The Queen’s Gambit, Tiger King, Lupin, Stranger Things and even Bridgerton. It’s so popular that a Korean broadband provider is suing Netflix to compensate for the huge surge in traffic caused by binge-watching.
The nine-part series follows a number of characters who, having fallen off the bottom of Korea’s social ladder, are whisked to a deserted island to compete in a horrifying real-life game show. The first episode gives us ‘Red Light, Green Light’, aka Grandmother’s Footsteps, in which anyone caught moving doesn’t get sent back to the starting line but machine-gunned to death where they stand. There’s also a tug-of-war in which the losing team tumbles hundreds of metres to its death. Think: worst PGL weekend ever.
Although the story sits squarely in the survival game genre – familiar to Western audiences through The Hunger Games and Fortnite – the show departs from the conventions of splatter-horror in the care it takes to give its characters psychological realism and plausible backstories.
Its principal protagonist – ‘hero’ is probably the wrong word – is Seong Gi-hun, 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, which used to bewilder the audiences of 1990s magazine programmes. (The late Clive James, you suspect, would have dug it.) Nor does it seem an accident that on their masks, the guards wear triangles, circles and squares – making their heads look like PlayStation action buttons (or, to British drivers, like motorway diversion symbols). It’s a gleeful mash-up of 21st-century technology and the oldest theme imaginable: man’s inhumanity to man.
The show’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, first had the idea in 2008, 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. "In 2009, I had a two-hour script for a feature film," he tells me, speaking through a translator. "But at the time people thought this was very bizarre and kind of weird. I wanted to get investment to make it into a film, but people didn’t find it attractive and they didn’t think this was like a big hit." The script went into the bottom drawer.
A decade later, he returned to it, with the idea of making 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?" They commissioned a nine-episode series.
As Hwang sees it, modern life 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. Also, because of the Covid situation, the divide between the haves and the have-nots has 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, 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.
But a handful choose to stay. They realise that their prospects in the outside world are even grimmer. 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.
The combination of genre elements and social realism – the show’s secret sauce – is the thing about which Hwang obsessed most. "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," he tells me.
"In other death games and survival games, people are just dragged in. It’s not out of their own volition that they participate: they have to play the game to win. I wanted to tweak that stereotype so that, in episode two, they voluntarily come back to play the game. I wanted to show that the real world and the game world actually run in harmony."
Although it seems to have struck a chord worldwide, the show is, says Hwang, distinctively Korean in its portrait 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 ageing 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 colour, and there were hundreds of them..."
For something so lurid and fantastical, it’s also deeply personal. Hwang 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 on 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 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 one game, where competitors have to remove shapes from honeycomb biscuits without cracking them, Seong Gi-hun’s strategy of licking 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." The dizzying candy-coloured staircases up and down, which the show’s sinister guards march two abreast, were inspired by his love of M C Escher’s impossible staircases.
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 helped a concept that couldn’t get even local funding in 2009 to conquer the global entertainment market.
The popularity of The Queen’s Gambit prompted swathes of girls to take up chess. We must hope that Squid Game’s success inspires a rise in the sales of Korean-style honeycomb biscuits, 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 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 – "but right now I’m so tired and exhausted, I’m not really replying". At this point Hwang Dong-hyuk breaks into English to interrupt his translator: "I need a break," he says. "I need a break."