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Netflix hit a metaphor for South Korea: ‘You have to achieve’

South Korean smash hit Squid Game is on track to becoming the most successful Netflix production ever. The series is number one in over 90 countries. Professor and Korea expert Remco Breuker can see why South Korean pop culture is becoming so popular, also outside Asia.

But first a brief introduction to the series. Squid Game (a South Korean children’s game) tells the story of debt-ridden South Koreans on the margins of society. A mysterious organisation asks if they want to join in a series of children’s games, where they could win a huge cash prize. The winner is given the chance of a new life; the losers die.

Remco Breuker has watched the series and explains what makes Squid Game typically South Korean.

What did you think of Squid Game?

‘As a viewer I thought it was a really good series, but obviously I can’t switch off the “Koreanist” in me. I’ve spent years learning all about Korean films, so it’s great to see this. They’ve invested a lot in Korean films and TV series over the past 20 years, and they really are top notch. The whole world is seeing that now.’

Netflix says this could be its biggest series ever. How would you explain this success?

‘To begin with the series is top quality. South Korea has made huge investments in the creative industry. There are loads of good writers and directors, and grants from the government and business have made lots of productions possible. That’s why South Korean pop culture is doing so well across the board at the moment. And then there’s the social problems that people can identify with that make the series popular.’

What makes this series typically South Korean?

‘It’s hard to say. With South Korean films and series you actually see that it goes in all directions. There’s a lot of creativity behind it; the writers and directors don’t let themselves be led by viewer expectations or the rules of a genre. And they do this very convincingly. What’s typical of South Korean films and series in general are the high production values: they’re well produced and focus on the details. And they often depict a social problem too. That’s what you see in Squid Game.’

How do we see criticism of society in Squid Game?

‘The social problems are shown in the suffering of the main characters, which piles up until there is no escape and you have to do radical things. The game show in the series is almost a metaphor for the current situation in South Korea: you constantly have to achieve; otherwise things go wrong. But not everyone is given the chance to achieve. The series is so well done that you don’t have to know anything about these structural problems to recognise them. Universal concerns are expressed here and that’s something South Korea is really good at.

‘The criticism of society in the series is in the character of the migrant worker. They are often almost invisible and are exploited. For them there are few other options than to go along with the bad conditions. The way this character is depicted shows how bad things are for migrant workers.’

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How will Squid Game influence the teaching in Korean Studies?

‘The vast majority of students became interested in South Korea through South Korean pop culture, so I expect this series will also affect the degree programme’s popularity. We also discuss series like this during the programme. I’d be really pleased for Korean films and series to receive more attention. It helps further students’ historical and cultural understanding, but also with learning the language. And we use South Korean films and series for our subtitling classes. Students watch a film or series and create their own subtitles.’

Text: Lisanne Bos
Photos: Netflix

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