From Bigbang to BTS, Train to Busan to Parasite, and Winter Sonata to Crash Landing on You, South Korean movies, tv series, and music have dominated the watching and listening preference of Nepalis for the past two decades. Adding to the growing Hallyu wave in Nepal, and globally, is Netflix’s runaway hit Squid Game.
The dystopian series, which debuted on Netflix in September, has amassed a huge following with the streaming platform reporting views from 111 million accounts in less than a month since its premiere, making it its ‘biggest-ever series at launch’.
The show follows a group of people from different walks of life, who pushed to the brink of desperation play dangerous versions of children’s games to win money. All of this is orchestrated by wealthy people looking for some entertainment.
The setting is brutal, and the show does not shy away from blood and gore – of which there is plenty throughout the nine episodes.
But what seems to have struck a chord with people globally and in Nepal is the series’ portrayal of the wealth gap prevalent in the real world today, and the values and morals humans are willing to stake for money.
The show’s success can be gauged by the numerous articles in the media, memes and clips circulating online, a spin-off reality show in China, the number of followers the cast has gained following the premiere, and even the viral videos and social posts about Dalgona candy used in the series for a game of ppopgi, where contestants need to carve out the image on the candy with a needle without breaking it. There are also viral challenges inspired by Squid Game doing rounds on TikTok, and media reports of record-breaking searches of Halloween costumes inspired by the show.
Much of the incredible reception can also be attributed to the hype generated by the initial reviews, and word of mouth. Many Nepali viewers watched the show when clips and reviews started flooding the social media because they did not want to be left behind. For others, it was an introduction to the world of K-dramas that are otherwise popular for rom-coms.
For a certain section, the Dalgona candy seems to have struck a sense of nostalgia as they reminisce about the craze of Dalgona coffee during the lockdown.
In Nepal, the character of Ali, a Pakistani migrant worker played by Anupam Tripathi seems to have hit home for many. The desperation to provide his family a good life, the loyalty he exhibits even till the end and the gruesome death he faces seems all too familiar to the tales of many Nepalis who leave the country every day in search of a better future in Korea and overseas.
But the success is not without criticism. The show’s writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk has been accused of borrowing extensively from other survivor genre movies like the Hunger Games, Battle Royale and particularly the Japanese film As the Gods Will. And many have been put off by the bloodshed. There are also those who have watched it for the fear of missing out, but ended up calling it overrated.
As Squid Game has gripped the Nepali viewers we asked our readers: “What do you think about the underlying metaphor of the hit series?”
Here is what they had to say (some comments contain spoilers):
While the world seems to be obsessed with class disparity, I believe Squid Game is a screaming reminder of absurdity – the existential philosophy of people like Camus or Sartre. Combine it with a Kafkaesque sense of an impending sense of eternally being guilty of something – like in ‘The Trial’. Replace overpowering sense of doom with ‘debt anxiety’ and suddenly the massive global debt (which includes South Korea) that the world seems to be drowning in starts making sense. On top of that, throw in the “illusion” of choice and you have a perfect mimicry of absurdity. Whether you play, or you don’t, you’re deemed to have a life full of inescapable suffering. Avinash Mishra
There’s a lot about Squid Game that stands out but most particular is how class solidarity is made impossible by the realities of capitalism. The show does such a brilliant job of making “villains” out of Sang-Woo and Deok-su that as the audience, you almost forget that the real villains are the people orchestrating the whole thing. The Front Man and the VIPs (the capitalists who can afford to throw around 45.6billion won for “entertainment” and bet $1million on single players) are the ones we (the audience) should be rooting against and yet we forget that halfway through the series. Another example of how class solidarity is made impossible is illustrated by the marbles game. When the managers ask the remaining players to pick a partner, the instinctual thing for the players to do is to pick someone they trust, someone they know will not betray them at the last moment, and someone who is reliable. And what does the marble game make the players do? It pits teammates against each other in the most brutal and jarring way. When Sang-woo betrays Ali, someone he’s not only helped earlier in the show but also allowed to refer to him as “hyung” (older brother), it’s horrifying, yes. But it’s also a reminder of how the core of capitalism was, is, and always will be individualism. This is only further highlighted at the end of the series when Gi-hu finally meets player 001 and finds out who the “mastermind” behind the games was. There was a relatively recent study that concluded that the more wealth you accumulate, the less empathy you have. The way player 001 talks about how he and his rich friends were bored, and they basically developed their own version of the horse tracks and the callousness with which he wants to wait and watch the drunk man on the street die, show exactly this apathy that the wealthy have towards others. I, for one, kept waiting for Gi-hu to run down and help because the bet never said he couldn’t do it. The fact that the old man was proven wrong adds to the central thesis of the show which in my opinion was: capitalism strips you of everything that makes you human and makes you believe that the cruelty and individualism and selfishness you see in the players are inherently human. But they’re not. They cannot be. Because we see Gi-hu go out of his way to help and assist player 001 from the beginning. We see Sang-woo give his food to Ali. We see Ji-yeong sacrifice her life for someone she only just met because Sae-byeok had something and someone to live for. We see flashes of these players care for each other despite the circumstances. We see them resist the dehumanisation.
The cruelty, individualism, and selfishness are bred into humans by capitalism to foster itself. We are closer to Rousseau’s idea of humanity rather than Hobbes’s. There are so, so many more layers to this show, from gender to race to immigration to religious fanaticism to social Darwinism. The exploitation of the working class is at the core though. The fact is that no matter how hard some people work, their circumstances won’t change because the odds have been stacked against them from the beginning. Maybe even before they were born.
UNDP’s Human Development Report 2019 said that inequality was on the rise and “Far too often a person’s place in society is still determined by ethnicity, gender or his or her parents’ wealth.”
I think this show does a wonderful job of illustrating this. ]Andrea Upadhyay
The Squid game was a breath of fresh air especially because Asian tv shows apart from rom com cliché catching up to Hollywood is good. It also perfectly portrayed how the wealthy exploit the weaker member of the society, demonstrating the gap between the rich and the poor. And of course, the private debt trap, its impact on Korean society, Korean point of view of North Koreans. It might feel overrated for we are used to watching survival dramas on a big budget. But keeping that specific part aside, we can see many nuances of the society in the drama. Manisha Gadtaula
I just finished watching Squid Game. It depicts an underlying disparity between the ultra-rich and those struggling for survival daily. The rich treat the poor as “horses” and enjoy watching their death-surviving races akin to horses running on the track. Shailesh Sharma
The underlying metaphor of the K-drama ‘Squid Game’ is economic inequality. The ones affected by its impact in real life were participants who came to play games to win the prize but were later eliminated and killed for the sake of providing entertainment to the creator of the games, the old man himself, as well as to other VIP guest spectators. Just like that, people, especially from poor countries, are exploited and killed daily by rich nations for the sake of enjoyment from their hard work. There are several examples of how this drama is representative of many real life events, but one that instantly came to my mind was the death of hundreds of young and healthy Nepali migrant workers constructing stadiums for the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar for spectators. The entire survival game of the drama is organised by player 001 (wealthy old man) who thinks the one thing that is common between rich, and poor is that everything gets boring in the end and hence is ready to do anything to relive the joyful moments. Likewise, the FIFA World Cup is something that is watched by half of the world, as proven by the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia; so in essence, many migrant workers sacrificed their lives for the sake of providing enjoyment to half the world the next year. In the end, only one player was alive, who was also the winner of the game. Many migrants survived the construction of the stadiums, but it doesn’t justify the injustice. Subidha Parajuli
Once you have everything that you desire, you get bored and then your longing to feel such excitement again in life grows so much that it forces you to look for extreme ways of achieving that, most of which are ethically wrong because doing good things hardly give you the same rush as the bad stuff. Avi Stha
The show seems to have been inspired by some of the Hollywood flicks, such as Saw and Hostel. Nevertheless, its metaphor is subtle and to the point and to some extent it is successful in showcasing the divide between the rich and the poor. What I liked about the series is that despite the impoverished and the poor being in the majority and sharing the same affliction, they still want to get to the top at the cost of others. This is a subtle jab at how our society works today. Sushil Rana