Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Behind the Global Appeal of ‘Squid Game,’ a Country’s Economic Unease

SEOUL – On Netflix’s popular dystopian TV show Squid Game, 456 people faced with heavy debt and financial desperation play a series of deadly children’s games to win a $ 38 million cash prize in South Korea.

Ku Yong Hyun, a 35-year-old office worker from Seoul, has never faced masked guards or competitors to slit his throat like the characters on the show. But Mr. Ku, who watched Squid Games overnight, said he empathized with the characters and their struggle to survive in the country’s deeply unequal society.

Mr. Ku, who made do with freelance workers and government unemployment checks after losing his full-time job, said it was “almost impossible to live comfortably with a steady worker’s salary” in a city with high housing prices. Like many young people in South Korea and elsewhere, Mr. Ku sees growing competition for a piece of the shrinking pie, as do the Squid Game.

This similarity has helped turn the nine-part drama into an incredible international sensation. Squid Game is now the No. 1 show in the US on Netflix and is slowly becoming one of the most watched shows in streaming service history. “The odds are very good that this will be our biggest show ever,” Ted Sarandos– said one of the Netflix executives at a recent business conference.

Culturally, the show has sparked online acclaim for its distinctive visuals, especially the black masks adorned with simple squares and triangles worn by anonymous guards, and the general interest in Korean children’s games that lie at the heart of the deadly competition. The recipes for dalgon, a sweet Korean treat at the center of one particularly intense standoff, went viral.

Like the Hunger Games books and films, The Squid Game draws attention with its cruelty, cynical plot and – a spoiler! – willingness to kill fan favorite characters. But it also exposed a feeling, familiar to people in the United States, Western Europe, and elsewhere, that prosperity in nominally rich countries is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve as wealth inequality increases and house prices exceed affordable levels.

“The stories and concerns of the characters are extremely individual, but they also reflect the concerns and realities of Korean society,” said Hwang Dong Hyuk, creator of the show. He wrote the script like a movie in 2008 when many of these trends became apparent, but rewrote it to reflect new concerns, including the impact of the coronavirus. (Minyeon Kim, head of content for Asia Pacific at Netflix, said the company is in talks with Mr. Hwang to create a second season.)

The Squid Game is just the latest product of South Korean culture to reach a global audience through a deep sense of inequality and the country’s dwindling opportunity. Parasite, the 2019 Academy Award-winning film for Best Picture, has united a desperate family of con men with the forgetful members of a wealthy Seoul family. “Burning,” the 2018 art house hit, created tension by pitting a young delivery man against a wealthy rival for a woman’s attention.

South Korea thrived in the post-war era, making it one of the richest countries in Asia and leading some economists to call its rise a “miracle on the Han River.” But inequality in wealth has worsened as the economy matured.

“South Koreans used to have a collective spirit,” said Yoon Seok Jin, a drama critic and professor of modern literature at Chungnam National University. But the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s undermined the country’s positive growth momentum and “forced everyone to fight for themselves.”

The country is currently ranked 11th in the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a research group of the world’s richest countries. (United States – # 6.)

As South Korean families struggled to keep up, household debt increased, prompting some economists to warn that debt could hold back the economy. Housing prices have risen to the point that housing affordability has become a hot political topic. Prices in Seoul skyrocketed by more than 50 percent during the presidency of the country, Moon Jae-in, leading to a political scandal.

The “squid game” exposes the irony between the social pressures to succeed in South Korea and how difficult it is to achieve it, ”said Shin Yeun, who graduated from college in January 2020, shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic. Now 27, she said she spent over a year looking for a full-time job.

“It’s really hard for people in their 20s to find a full-time job these days,” she said.

South Korea also saw a sharp drop in fertility, in part because young people felt it was too costly to raise children.

“In South Korea, all parents want to send their children to the best schools,” said Ms. Shin. “To do this, you need to live in the best areas.” This would require saving enough money to buy a house, a goal so unrealistic “I didn’t even bother to calculate how long it would take me,” said Ms. Shin.

The Squid Game revolves around Song Ki Hoon, a gambling addict in his 40s who doesn’t have the funds to buy his daughter a real birthday present or pay for his aging mother’s medical expenses. One day he is invited to take part in the “squid game,” a private event held for the entertainment of wealthy people. To qualify for the $ 38 million prize, entrants must complete six rounds of traditional Korean children’s games. Failure means death.

456 applicants speak directly about the country’s many concerns. One of them is a graduate of Seoul National University, the country’s leading university, who is wanted for misuse of clients’ funds. The other is a North Korean defector who needs to take care of his brother and help his mother escape from the North. Another character is an immigrant worker whose boss refuses to pay him a salary.

The characters resonated with South Korean youth who see no chance of advancement in society. Known locally as the Dirty Spoon generation, many are obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes such as cryptocurrencies and lotteries. South Korea has one of the largest virtual currency markets in the world.

Like the cash prizes in the show, cryptocurrencies give “people the chance to change their lives in a second,” said Mr. Ku, an office worker. Mr Ku, whose previous employer shut down during the pandemic, said the difficulty of making money is one of the reasons South Koreans are so obsessed with making quick money.

“I wonder how many people would take part if the Squid Game were in real life,” he said.

World Nation News Desk
World Nation News Desk
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