STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
The Korean Netflix drama "Squid Game" is a worldwide sensation. It's a violent and artful horror miniseries, a survival drama and a commentary on debt and capitalism all rolled into about nine very tense hours of uncertainty and death. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today, we are talking about the "Squid Game" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining us is culture writer and panelist on the CBC's "Pop Chat" Amil Niazi. Welcome, Amil.
AMIL NIAZI: Hi, thanks for having me.
THOMPSON: Oh, it's great to have you here. Also with us is Jae-Ha Kim. She's a syndicated columnist whose work runs in the Chicago Tribune. Welcome, Jae-Ha.
JAE-HA KIM: Hi, Stephen. Thank you for having me.
THOMPSON: It's a thrill to have you both. I'm really excited to have this conversation. So Netflix's metrics for success are opaque, but it's safe to say that "Squid Game" is hugely successful. It dropped a few weeks ago. It's already No. 1 in Netflix's rankings in 90 different countries. The show itself is written and directed by the filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, and it's got a plot that's both simple and ambitious. A shadowy cabal lures hundreds of people, all of them desperate and in debt, into a mysterious location where they compete in a series of children's games for prize money. What they learn when they get there is that when you lose those children's games, you die in spectacularly bloody fashion.
The villains in this arrangement are mysterious and shielded behind masks, but we get to know many of the unfortunate souls fighting for their lives. There's Seong Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-jae, he's a divorced dad with a sick mom and a mountain of gambling debts. Jung Hoyeon plays Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector who needs money to reunite with her family. We get to know many others, too - an investment banker who's wanted for corruption, an elderly man with a brain tumor, a brutal gangster and a Pakistani migrant worker. There's also an X factor. Hwang Jun-ho is a police officer who infiltrates the game as he searches for his missing brother. He's played by Wi Ha-joon.
If I were to sum up this show, it's kind of like half a dozen horror movies, half a dozen elimination-based reality shows and half a dozen bleak dramas about capitalism all mashed together. It's fast paced but character driven and unbelievably tense. We're going to split our discussion into two pieces - one general and spoiler free, one that gets into a bit more detail. If you want to stay completely unspoiled, I do recommend watching the show and coming back when you're done, but we'll give you a heads up before we start spoiling anything too serious. Amil, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "Squid Game?"
NIAZI: Oh, boy.
NIAZI: And I think it's really wise and generous to suggest that people go into this show sort of with no spoilers and really not too much background because I think part of the appeal is being transported by the twists and turns because it really does have so much in each episode. Each episode is jampacked with surprises and, you know, horrors that I think that you want to go in fresh. And I went in very fresh and was, on the one hand, really taken aback by how stunning it looked. The costumes, the sets, everything to the lighting was really, really incredible and so high production. And it really felt like you were in for a spectacle.
And then, of course, I was just absolutely gutted by the story and the violence. And given the last 18 months that we've all been through and are continuing to go through, I think it hit a particular nerve in terms of what's propelling the game and what's propelling the people that are participating in the game. It just kind of left me thinking about the show long into the night. I found I was dreaming about it because the actual storyline is pretty cutting. If you can put aside the violence and the gore, what is the core of the show is unnerving, to say the least.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I actually found I tried to keep this show out of my dreams by watching several episodes of "The Great British Baking Show" before I went to bed each night, and it did not work, still dreamt about this show all week long. So here we are. Jae-Ha, what did you think of "Squid Game?"
KIM: You know, I initially didn't want to watch it because I'm not a gore fan. I mean, it took me a long time to watch "Kingdom," even "Train To Busan." But so many of my friends were saying, you have to watch this, you have to watch this. So I forced my husband to watch it with me initially, and then I left him behind and binged it by myself. I think one of the reasons that the show resonated with so many people internationally is, as Amil was saying about how - I mean, we have had a horrible year and a half. And it just felt like we were in some sort of survival game. I mean, people were lacking money, lacking housing, wondering how they were going to eat. And then you see this show where it's, you know, fictionalized, but it is sort of like what people worldwide were living through.
And then a lot of people didn't want to watch K-dramas because they, you know, connotated (ph) it with being sort of like a soap opera. In fact, you know, I've heard people say, I don't want to watch it because I don't like soap operas. And when they realize that - yes, it's a Korean drama in that it's a drama that hails from Korea, just like "Game Of Thrones" is a Western drama, but it's not a drama like a soap opera, like, you know, "General Hospital." And I think it took a while for people to realize that and then to realize, wow, this is something that's really unique but also familiar because of what we were living through.
NIAZI: But I think that's why it did immediately bridge language barriers, immediately bridged any sort of, like, hesitation towards embracing, you know, foreign-language programming. And it's been so popular, in fact, that it's lifted viewing numbers for similar Korean dramas, which I think is, like - just speaks to what you're saying about the familiarity. And I think that, of course, has to do with the economic - I mean, it's - they're very harsh economic realities...
NIAZI: ...In the show, but they certainly mirror what a lot of people have been going through.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, I do think that's part of the appeal of this show - is it's very easy to understand the plot. As kind of Byzantine as this show can get, it has a ton of characters and a ton of kind of interwoven subplots.
KIM: Except the squid game that starts the series. It's like, I don't know how to play that, and I'm...
THOMPSON: Right (laughter).
KIM: ...Korean. You know, it's like, I don't know (laughter).
NIAZI: So confusing. Yeah.
THOMPSON: Yeah. In the...
THOMPSON: ...Very first, like, minute of this show, they explain how this game called squid game is played, and I still do not understand...
KIM: Same here.
THOMPSON: ...What it's supposed to actually entail. But the fact that it is a combination of, like, fairly dense in how character-driven it is - it is also extremely plot rich, and you can very easily understand how it's progressing, how it's going to progress. And at the same time, it has all these surprises to it. It really has this way of - at the end of each episode, it really knows how to get you to mash that next-episode button because it leaves on these very, very tense and exciting cliffhangers. But it is a show that I, like, talked back to a lot...
THOMPSON: ...With a lot of, like - (gasping) - and no.
KIM: (Laughter) How dare you.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) How could you? I love that person.
THOMPSON: I completely understand why it's been such a phenomenon. It's - with one set of extremely notable exceptions, it's very, very well-acted. (Laughter).
KIM: Episode 7 I think we're talking about.
THOMPSON: I mean, there have certainly been other stories told with this basic idea. I mean, it's a survival drama. A lot of people feel reverberations of "Hunger Games" or "Battle Royale" - other pieces of entertainment that kind of are about this whittling down of humans who are killed off as they go. Did this feel derivative to you, or did they find ways to keep that story fresh?
KIM: You know, I know that a lot of people were asking, you know, what kind of Korean series can you watch that's very similar to this? And when I think of the K-dramas that I've watched, I'm not necessarily thinking of the horrible, gory dramas that might, you know, have a similar sort of look. I think part of this is because so many Korean series have the same themes going on, but it's not presented quite as graphically. Like, I don't know if either of you have watched Lee Je Hoon in "Taxi Driver," the series, not the movie, or "Move To Heaven," but the subjects of poverty and desperation are explored there. It's just that "Squid Game" has done it in such a explosive way, I guess. You know?
NIAZI: Obviously, yes, it's natural to make comparisons to "Battle Royale" and "Hunger Games" and even to a lesser extent, I would say something like "Hostel," or, you know, there's a movie called "Escape Room," where - I think we've been familiar with, on...
NIAZI: ...The gore side, a lot of these shocking, ultraviolent themes. But I would say "Parasite," if anything, primed the pump for this. And that's where I go immediately in terms of explaining why international audiences were so ready for something like this from Korea. And I think a lot of that has to do with the incredible reception to "Parasite" and how those themes were so blatantly discussed but also so eerily approached, you know? It was - although I was weeping at the end of "Parasite," it was also quite a thriller. It was a - you know, felt like a horror film at times. So I think that combination of horror and gore and sort of, like, terrifying surprise mixed in with this allegory about, you know, economic survival is something that's been culturally in the mix from Korea for a while. But I do think, in terms of, like, getting to that bigger audience, "Parasite" really paved the way, I would say, for something like this. And in that way, it - nothing like this ever feels derivative because it is so timely.
KIM: And I think "Parasite" made it more normal and not, you know, standard yet for people to go and watch something with subtitles, you know?
THOMPSON: I mean, when we're talking about the appeal of this show, I don't want to miss out on talking about some of these performances. The central performances on this show are extremely strong, and I wanted to see if you guys had any specific favorites you wanted to talk about.
KIM: I loved the performances by the leads, of course, but I think Wi Ha-joon playing Jun-ho, the police officer, he did not have the main role, but every time he was on, I was riveted because there was tenderness. There was fear. There was suspense. And I just thought he did a very - took an almost understated role and just totally rocked it. And I actually - I don't know if his last scene is his last scene if there is a Season 2.
NIAZI: Yeah, I would say the actor playing the lead, Lee Jung-jae was just so - I mean, in terms of the sort of buffoon, you know, who slowly, over time, wins us over and starts to gain some confidence. And there's something so relatable about that arc and that journey and the way he played it, I think, from episode to episode. For me, it was really hard not to be won over by him immediately.
THOMPSON: I mean, it's really easy to say the lead performance was fantastic. The lead performance is fantastic. He is so, so good. Lee Jung-jae - you're right, Amil, like, he has to carry an enormous amount of weight in this show. He has to be hangdog and prone to poor decision-making. And also, he has to have a million-dollar smile.
THOMPSON: There's so many things going on with that character who is going through incredibly intense things. This show does not work without that central performance. I think he is fantastic. I also want to throw out a little bit of shine to a very small performance on this show by Gong Yoo, who is recruiting players for this game. And he is not a major player at all, but there is something about that guy's face that you cannot look away from. And he's...
KIM: He's Gong Yoo, yeah (laughter).
THOMPSON: He's Gong Yoo (laughter). And he is fantastic...
KIM: He is.
THOMPSON: ...In this show in a very, very limited role where you cannot look away from his face whenever he's on screen.
KIM: Well, he has a tie to the filmmaker where he was the star of the film adaptation of the book "The Crucible," and the movie was called "Silenced." So when you saw him in there, it was sort of like, yay, thank you for doing this, because that's going to get a lot more attention for this series, you know, initially because there are so many Gong Yoo fans.
But going back to what you guys were talking a little bit about, Lee Jung-jae, who played Gi-Hun - his character was one that in the beginning when I was taking notes for reviews that I do, I thought, I don't like you. I don't like you at all. You're just, like, a crap character. You know, you're stealing from your mother. You were a failure as a father, failure as a husband. And by the end, you're rooting for him because his acting was so phenomenal that he was able to show that one person is not just a villain. He's not just a hero. He's not just a loser. He's not just the - he was phenomenal.
We have to mention Jung HoYeon, who played Sae-byeok, the North Korean defector. This was her debut. She had never acted before. I mean, I knew who she was as a model. I was just blown away. I mean, you could just look into her eyes and see what she was thinking without the language. I mean, she was so expressive, and she was such a strong character in a series that didn't have a lot of, you know, female leads. But she was the female lead, and she had one of the best roles in one of the best series of 2021, you know? And so I'm just really proud of her. For a young Korean woman to have this kind of notoriety on this sort of scale, I mean, it's just - she's just fantastic.
NIAZI: Yeah. And she had to do all of that without very much dialogue at all. So it was completely in plaintive eyes and, you know, the way she carries herself physically and all the little wordless interactions she has with some of the other contestants. And so it is remarkable. And I didn't - I wasn't aware it was her debut. So no, absolutely. She did an incredible job - very compelling.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I thought she was terrific. I wanted to talk to you guys a little bit about the script, particularly the subtitling. And I guess this is a question for Jae-Ha. Like, how much is lost in translation in the subtitles on this show because, among other things, I was struck by, like, the number of uses of weird, watery words like jerk and darn it. And I'm like, I have a feeling that something more compelling than jerk...
THOMPSON: ...Was said in that moment. Or darn it - especially in a show that is so gory and violent, so TV-MA, to all of a sudden be like, darn it.
KIM: So anytime you hear a word like shibal, that basically is the F-word. There was a lot of swearing. And yeah, a lot of that was watered down. You know, OK, here's my theory, and I'm not a linguist. I'm not a Korean living in Korea. I'm a Korean immigrant. On the one hand, I'm, like, so pleased that we're at a stage where Korean pop culture is so recognized that people are, I guess, nitpicking about things, you know, and wanting the exact same translation and, you know, the 100% perfect thing. I watched this with people who speak no Korean whatsoever, and they would ask me - like, every now and then, they would turn to me, and I'd say, no, that's pretty much right.
Was it 100% correct? No. Was it, like, 90% correct? Yes. Are you going to miss out on integral plot devices and the theme if you don't speak Korean and you just read the subtitles? No. In fact, the subtitles are better than the dub. I listened to that too, and the dub - the actors did a great job. Most of them were Korean American or Asian American actors. But it wasn't quite as true as the subtitles.
I mean, one of the instances that I'll give you is oppa, which is a word that a lot of K-pop fans know, because it's what traditionally - like, when I was growing up, it's what younger girls call their biological older brother. So I have a real life oppa. I've never in my life called any guy that I've dated an oppa because to me, that's cringy and gross. Now, words change. So now it's acceptable for girls and women to call their husbands, their dates, oppa.
So, you know, there was the reference of oppa several times in this, and it was translated as babe. And I think another time it was translated as old man. The old man I had an issue with 'cause I was like, that's just weird. But the reason they said babe is in order to translate it in a way that it's true is - they would have had to have said oppa, a woman referring to a man who's not her biological brother as a lover. But she was trying to seduce them, you know, so she's saying stuff like - it would've been the equivalent of us saying, like, hey, sweetie, hey, honey, you know? And instead of saying that, they just said, oppa, which is what she said.
You know, I think another thing was when Ali kept referring to Sang-Woo, the character, as, you know, boss. And people were saying, well, you know, they didn't like the migrant character being so subservient. But unfortunately, that's a reflection of how it is in Korean society. Even a Korean working in some sort of hard labor job would have to call their boss, you know, hey - it would have to be an honorific. So for somebody who's not fluent in Korean, you know, like Ali - even though I think the actor is quite fluent - he, of course, would be referring to him as sir or boss, you know, in a very subservient way. And in the battles that he's doing, every Korean that he's interacted with is somebody that he had to be subservient to because as a migrant labor, as a brown laborer, he was at the bottom of the rung, you know?
So you could talk to 10 Korean Americans and 10 Koreans, and we're all going to have slightly different opinions because we're individuals, you know? But my interpretation of it is that you can watch it, and you are going to go away with - pretty similar to what I did, understanding the Korean.
THOMPSON: All right. This seems like a good place to take a break. When we come back, we're going to go into this show in a little more spoilery (ph) detail, so if you don't want those spoilers, stop listening here. If you do, come right back.
All right, welcome back. I guess my first question, with knowledge of how this show ends - Hwang Dong-hyuk has sort of been cagey about whether there would be another season. It feels to me like this show is so successful, they're going to find a way for there to be a second season. Do you feel it needs a second season? Amil, I'm going to start with you.
NIAZI: For me personally, I don't think it needs a second season.
NIAZI: But I know that it's inevitable that there will be one because something that's so massively popular and has inspired so much discourse and conversation around it is not going to be left in the sort of cultural back pages where it really should just live as this perfect artifact. But our lead's arc is so interesting and so subtle in the beginning and then dramatic at the end that I can see - if that's our throughline, if that's where we go, is to follow Gi-Hun and see where he takes this responsibility, this newfound confidence, this newfound sort of sense of justice and carries that through, I can actually see that being quite interesting. I worry - my fear is that we'll have a rehashing and, as is the requirement for sequels, we'll get more violence, we'll lean into the gore, as opposed to focus on the story and what made it so compelling in the first place, which is the human drama.
KIM: I actually do not like Netflix's system with Korean dramas of drawing it out into more than one season. I mean, they did it with "Love Alarm," "My First First Love." And it's irritating to me, actually, because one of the beauties of Korean dramas is that it's one and done after 16 episodes or however many that they want to do, but it's usually 16 episodes. That said, I think that this was such a phenomenon and such a moneymaker that there's going to be a sequel. And he has said that if there is a sequel, he cannot write it by himself like he did the first one, so he would be working with a team of creatives.
And I wonder how that's going to work because this is from, you know, his mind. And so when you have, like, five or six different other minds, it's different interpretations. So is the plot going to be watered down, or is it going to be more like, you know, six or seven vignettes that's not really tied together? I mean, I would love to see more Gi-Hun as well, because like I said earlier, I hated him in the beginning, and in the end, I was just like, oh, what's going on here? I almost wonder if they would do, like, sort of a prequel to show how some of these characters got this way because, like, the police officer's brother - what was the timeframe there? He won this in - was it 2015?
KIM: Yeah. So what was he doing those six years? Was he, like, living back-and-forth? Did they recruit him for this? Are they going to try to recruit, you know, Gi-Hun to become the next Front Man? There's a lot of ways that they could go, but - and I guess, you know, when they do this, you never know what show is going to take off. So there is probably going to be a Season 2, maybe in another couple of years, but I'm not a fan of multi seasons of Korean series.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I definitely feel in general like shows should be allowed to end. And some of my favorite TV shows have enormously satisfying endings, and I'm like, please never give me another season.
THOMPSON: This one, I'm a little bit torn because on one hand, it seems from interviews like it was very much intended to be one and done. And I tend to prefer to kind of go with the artist's intentions. I agree that it's completely inevitable, but I was actually surprised watching this. To me, I found it enormously open-ended, to the point of being somewhat unsatisfying. There are loose ends that are not only left untied but just left unaddressed. And so it feels to me like - I was surprised that the intention was for it to end where it ends.
KIM: That ending is fairly common in Korean dramas. It's, like, a weird ending where it's sort of like, what? And it's almost become, like, a meme. Like, it ended. You know, it's over. It's like, what did it mean? We don't know. We'll never know. So in that sense, it's very much a Korean drama, a K-drama.
NIAZI: Going back to the very first game would be interesting. I think seeing the genesis of this and understanding how, you know, obviously Contestant 001 came to be where he is, how they recruit the sort of strong men, the workers. I think there's a lot to unpack that could be really interesting, that could be told within just the story of the very first game. But again, I think it's also interesting to stay with our lead and to see how he has changed his life 'cause one of the most interesting things, of course, about money is you're consistently under the impression that once you have it, you will be different. And as we've seen from some of the characters who did get money but continued to stay within this world is how little money changes you if you don't change yourself. And so I think to carry forward some of that more philosophical strand - I would love to see where Gi-Hun goes from here, in terms of suddenly having everything that he thought he wanted and how - what he's lost and what he stands to gain and how he evolves as a person because of that. But maybe I'm talking about a different show where people don't get murdered while they're playing Red Light, Green Light.
KIM: Come on. There was kind of an interesting thing at the end of the series where Gi-Hun has to make a choice. It's basically, is he going to go back to the island for Squid Game or is he going to go see his daughter, who's living, I guess, in America at that point with her mother and stepfather? And the choice that he made kind of made me wonder how much he did change, though, because obviously the game changed him in a lot of ways. But I wasn't clear on how important family was to him still, because it looks like he's going to abandon the daughter for that point. Like, he's going to break another promise. That kind of broke my heart a little bit.
THOMPSON: In terms of where I want to see this story go in a second season, it's interesting. The questions that this first season don't answer largely revolve around the mechanics of this shadowy organization at the center. We now know kind of who started it and why. But we don't have a sense of its mechanics or, like, who the bigger players are or who a lot of the henchmen are and why they're there.
The problem with exploring that is I think that that side of this story is where this show is weakest. And we alluded near the top of this show that in Episode 7, we are introduced to a group of VIPs, and they're clearly the high rollers who are betting on these games. And they kind of represent a little bit of how this system perpetuates itself. And they're clearly there to represent colonialism. They're there to represent capitalism. They are there to represent a very ugly side of American capitalism. And they're somewhat necessary to this story, but they are horribly written. They are very badly acted. They drag this show to a halt in Episode 7, and really, to me, the only, like, truly weak episode of this...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SQUID GAME")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I believe the next game will exceed your expectations.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, that's why we came all this way. Trust me, the screens we have at home are plenty big, but nothing beats seeing it with your own eyes.
THOMPSON: One, I hope that in future seasons of this show, they find a way to make them interesting or compelling or well-written or well-acted. But 2, I don't know if I want them explored further because they just ruin the show whenever they're on screen, not to mention the undercurrent of homophobia that comes up in one completely unnecessary subplot.
KIM: There's a lot of this been going around on social media about saying how it's hard to find good Western actors in Korea who can speak Korean, English, whatever language that they need them to. There aren't a lot of Western actors in Korea because, you know, why should there be because they're not going to have a lot of roles or work? And I've been watching K-dramas and, you know, shows for a long time, and they're all universally bad. Like, whenever you get a white person - no offense - I'm just like, oh my God. It's going to be stilted. I mean, they'll get people who are supposed to be, like, you know, white adoptive fathers, and they can't get an American, so they'll get somebody who's, like, German speaking American. And I'm like - and I realize that this is for the Korean market overall and that maybe Koreans won't realize the accent difference, but surely they can tell by the stilted acting, you know?
And so this is a problem, especially when they're tied to something like Netflix, where they know that they're going to get international audiences, because it is horrible. The way that they were acting - it almost sounded like Snidely Whiplash or some cartoon character, like, that was just, like - some of the dialogue in Episode 7 reminded me of Daffy Duck talking, the way that he would, you know, kind of, like, overexaggerate everything. And it just made me sad because I think it was Episode 8 that was only half an hour long.
KIM: And I was like, why was that half an hour, but an hour was given to these awful, awful VIPs? And the homophobic scene was just completely unnecessary, had nothing to do with anything, you know? I felt bad.
THOMPSON: I even thought the game was bad in Episode 7. Like...
THOMPSON: ...It suffered from very, very poor game design. With all the stakes on these games, it was a game that could have easily ended in everybody dying, at which point, what happens?
KIM: And they're supposed to be kids games, games that you played when you were kids. And that one's like, get up on a cliff.
THOMPSON: Right, right. What is the kids game where you're walking on panes of glass?
NIAZI: I mean, in a way, just to play devil's advocate, I think some of the themes that those characters are stand-ins for - you know, exaggerating them, making them cartoonish speaks to the central conflict as well. You know, like, representing capitalism as a person or colonialism and having that be the shadowy figure over everyone's life - I think it is a bit facile and childish. So, you know, sort of playing them up as these over-the-top, laughable, American caricatures, I think, is also in line with the entire premise of these evil childhood games where one wrong step or breaking the candy can have you shot. As silly as that episode was and those characters were, I thought it also still felt in line with the examination of these themes as something that, you know, you see also from the lens of a child, because there's not a lot of nuance in saying, well, capitalism and colonialism are sort of pulling these strings while you play, you know, Freeze. So I'm not as harsh on that episode as you two (laughter).
KIM: You're much nicer. You are.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) I think it is safe to say that we have all had and continue to have many, many, many thoughts about "Squid Game." I have a feeling that if you were listening to this, especially this far, you probably also have lots and lots of thoughts about "Squid Game." We want to know what you think. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much to both of you for being here.
NIAZI: Thank you for having me.
KIM: Thank you. This was so much fun.
THOMPSON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about "The Last Duel."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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