The Korean series “Squid Game”, which caused a sensation on Netflix, is it an allegory of current capitalism? The reaction that it produces evokes an ancient form of theater, medieval moralities, which hammered home the threat of eternal damnation by the seven deadly sins.
As a professor of literature specializing in film and video media, I am generally on the lookout for “constitutive contradictions” – that is, the hypocrisies peculiar to ultra-capitalist, democratic and supposedly just and defiant societies. the rule of law and common sense.
I am therefore undecided on how to interpret the allegory in the parody of elections in the second episode of the series. It would be an allegory to the extent that the narrative conveys a deep or hidden meaning that the audience must decode – in which case, it is their reaction that produces the allegory. But maybe also that there is no allegory and that “Squid Game” only lays bare the evil and the hypocrisy, in a particularly graphic and crude way.
A capitalism without alternative
In nine episodes, this punchy series exposes “capitalist realism”. This expression of the philosopher Mark Fisher describes the impossibility of imagining that there is anything outside the political-economic system in place, or even an alternative to this system.
However, when one asks the creator of the series Hwang Dong-hyuk if he has deliberately set out to expose current capitalism through its inhuman and deadly side, he scoffs at the very idea that his series could include a message or a “deep” meaning. He declared to Guardian : “The series is motivated by a simple idea: we fight for our lives even if the dice are loaded. “
The series draws on his personal experiences during the global recession of 2009. Public funding for his film projects then dried up, forcing him, his mother and grandmother into debt.
Seduced by the extreme survivalist games portrayed in Japanese and South Korean manga, Hwang wondered how far he could go to keep himself and his family alive. He didn’t have to look far to find edifying tales. “Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk was influenced by the Japanese manga Battle Royale, which also inspired the cult film of the same name.
The story of the hero of the series, Seong Gi-hun, is a transposition of a violent – and real – conflict at the automobile manufacturer SsangYong in 2009. Following the dismissal of 40% of the 2,600 employees, the 1,000 strikers held their own. during 77 days in the private security service of the company allied with the Korean police and about 30 of them lost their lives there – often by suicide.
Under the effect of underemployment and chronic unemployment and material losses (aggravated by the pandemic), South Koreans’ level of personal debt soared to 105% of GDP in 2021. In Canada, average household debt exploded to 112% in the first quarter of 2021, before falling to 109% in the second quarter.
“Squid Game is the world we live in,” Hwang Dong-hyuk told The Guardian, without pretension or exaggeration.
In his role as Seong Gi-hun, actor Lee Jung-jae plays the common man who joins the ranks of millions of displaced and rejected workers. Trapped in service jobs, reduced to working as a driver after the bankruptcy of the restaurant where he worked, this compulsive gambler with an endearing and expressive face is strangled with bank and usurious debts.
His ex-wife remarried a well-appointed man who plans to move to the United States with her and their daughter. New husband can afford to celebrate daughter-in-law’s birthday in a “steakhouse” (pronounced in English for emphasis), while Seong Gi-hun swallows a hot dog and a fish patty in the canteen and finds nothing to offer but a ridiculous gift from the arcade. Despite his financial situation, Seong Gi-hun tries to redeem himself on her daughter’s birthday.
A die-hard player and enduring optimist, Seong Gi-hun always imagines himself on the verge of winning the Jackpot – when he’s betting his mother’s money or playing ddakji at a Seoul subway station.
But like all gambling, it is clear that this part of ddakji is rigged from the start. It is also clear that the 456 competitors of the “squid game” (Gi-hun is no 456) put their lives on the line in an ultimate battle with the hope of winning the big prize money, in a suspense where the challenges and the risks increase from game to game. This plot is reminiscent of the Japanese story Battle royale, from which Hwang was explicitly inspired.
What’s less clear – and a source of constitutive contradictions and ironies galore – is why so many viewers follow this series. “Squid Game” smashes all records at Netflix, even beating the success of the most popular series, Bridgerton. Bloomberg News estimates that “Squid Game” has grossed US $ 900 million so far.
However, its production cost only around $ 21 million, and its creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, who lost six teeth there due to stress, does not receive any royalties. And he hopes to be recognized for something else one day.
An unidentified Korean delivery man told the Guardian: “You have to pay to watch [l’émission] and I don’t know anyone who will let me use their Netflix account… Anyway, what’s the point in following a bunch of guys crushed in debt? I just have to look at myself in the mirror. ”
Why, indeed, would a viewer with the same financial difficulties as the characters want to watch “Squid Game”? I searched the internet to determine how much of the 142 million households who viewed the series signed up for the free trial period. I haven’t found the answer.
Hwang Dong-hyuk is negotiating with the streaming bonzes for a possible sequel as well as other film projects. Given the industry’s anticipated growth, what are viewers willing to pay or sacrifice to keep watching “Squid Game”?
Specifically, why would they do it? I think the answer to the question of the allegory of current capitalism depends on what viewers see reflected on the screen. A spectator will recognize himself in a character, while another will perceive a suffering that he did not even imagine.
These divergent identification vectors can determine whether or not there is a deep or hidden meaning to “Squid Game”. They could influence the creation of new and ever more awful games of chance, manipulation and survival. But to find out, we’ll have to stay tuned.
Associate Professor, English and Theater Studies, University of Guelph
Featured Photo: Netflix
Original title in French: “Squid Game”: when survivalist manga meets the scourge of debt
Originally published in La Conversation
Le Montarvillois, the hyperlocal newspaper of Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville