'Squid Game' director talks scripts, society and Season 2
The original Netflix Korea series “Squid Game,” released worldwide on Sept. 17, has been making headlines around the globe with critics and viewers praising the originality of the plot that is based on children’s games that Korean children used to enjoy in the 70s and 80s.
Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix, said Monday during Code 2021, an annual technology conference organized by American media company Vox Media in Beverly Hills, California, that “Squid Game will definitely be our biggest non-English language show in the world, for sure,” surpassing all of Netflix’s previous non-English language hits including the Spanish crime thriller “Money Heist” and French mystery series “Lupin.”
"Squid Game" became the first Korean original series to rank No. 1 in the U.S.’s daily top 10 TV shows, blowing past the previous record set by “Sweet Home,” which reached No. 3 for U.S. viewership when it was released last December.
As of Sunday, the series has topped the daily chart in a total of 76 countries.
"Squid Game" revolves around 456 players selected by mysterious hosts who bet their lives to participate in a series of survival games in which the ultimate winner earns prize money of 45.6 billion won ($38.7 million).
The American website for film and content reviews Decider commented that the series “takes a fresh idea and spins it into a thrilling drama,” while online magazine Slate said, “'Squid Game’ is different from its genre cousins in one major way, and it’s the one that gives the show its emotional punch.” NME, a British music, film and culture website and brand, said the series presents “a potent microcosm of capitalist society.”
Some viewers have come up with their own narratives and interpretations which they believe reveal some of the creator’s hidden intentions. The series has also received criticism that it is too similar to other films about survival games.
During an online press interview Tuesday, director Hwang Dong-hyuk tried to clear up some of the controversies brewing behind his series and offer explanations for some questions that have been raised. The following are edited excerpts.
Q. When and how did you come up with the story of people battling for survival based on children’s games?
A. I first thought of the narrative between 2008 and 2009. I wasn’t working on any films and it was a financially difficult period for me. I didn’t have any money to cover my family’s living expenses and I needed to get loans.
I was having such a hard time that I spent a lot of my free hours in manga shops, reading up on all the comics. And there were a lot of comics like "Battle Royale" (2000-2005) and “Liar Game” (2005-2015) that I felt desperate enough to participate in the games [in the comics] if I was given the chance. I wondered how would Koreans plan out such games and if I was the mastermind, how I would simulate the games.
It was initially a film script but after I completed it I was looking for investors and actors to cast but the response was not good. It was such an unfamiliar and surreal story that investors felt that it was too risky to turn it in to a film. So I put it away for a while until 2018, when by chance, I happened to read through the script again. By then, a streaming platform called Netflix was out in the world. And they showed avid interest in turning the story into a series consisting of nine episodes.
What do you think is the global appeal the series holds?
It’s visually attractive to look at. There is an irony coming from the unnaturally colorful settings of the games in stark contrast to the horrors they hold. It feels like a place of entertainment where children can freely run about and play.
More irony comes from the fact that the contestants bet their lives on a couple of children’s games. The games are so simple that their rules can be explained and universally understood within 30 seconds. So it is easier for audiences to concentrate on the psychology of the characters [compared to other similar genres], which immersed global viewers regardless of their age.
Moreover, I don’t have the ability to draft complex games, and there are already plenty of those out in the world. So I tried to find the answer from the opposite direction. When we used to play games as children, nobody bet their lives on them, nor did winning the games have any power to control our lives. So I wanted to imagine what it would be like when those childish yet simple games we used to play in the past became the most extreme form of competition.
Although you’ve repeatedly mentioned that you have been thinking of the script since 2008, there is some controversy surrounding plagiarism as some viewers comment the game structures or the plot is similar to Japanese films like “As the Gods Will” (2014) and original Netflix Japan series “Alice in Borderland” (2020).
It is true that the story for "Squid Game" was inspired from other manga in the survival genres. But the most crucial difference between "Squid Game" and other manga or series is that the games are so simple that anyone can intuitively understand their rules. In manga, even though the game rules might be perplex, the readers have time to figure them out before moving on to the story. But when it’s implanted into a live-action version, all of the episode may be spent on getting the audience to understand the games, often distracting from the players.
"Squid Game" focuses more on the personal relationships and the psychology of the characters. In other similar genres created in Japan or the U.S., one hero of the story with the greatest strength, courage and wisdom gets through the games. In "Squid Game," there is no one like that. Even Gi-hun, who becomes the ultimate survivor of the games has no special powers, and he only got through them due to other people’s help or purely by luck. So all of the players in this story are extremely realistic, and that’s I think that is why the viewers were able to sympathize easily with the characters and become immersed in the games.
What meaning does the number 456 hold?
I deliberated about how much the prize money should be. I wanted it to be realistic. When I looked up how much the winners of the lottery receive, the biggest amount was a little over 40 billion so I set that as the sum of money. And I thought the number 456 was easy for people to remember as they are the numbers right in the middle of 1 to 10.
Instead of the gloomy and dark colors which are used to create the mood for survival genres, it was unique to see the use of bright and vivid colors. What inspired you to use such colors?
I didn’t want the games to come off as threatening. The creator behind all the games is Il-nam, an old man who based them on nostalgia for his childhood when he used to enjoy them as they were and they created the brightest and happiest memories of his life.
So I incorporated Il-nam’s nostalgia into the colors of the clothes and the game settings. It’s the same with the guards. By dressing them in hot-pink clothes, I didn’t think the players would feel threatened. The color of the contestant’s training set came from the gym clothes I used to wear in my school days.
Why did Gi-hun spontaneously dye his hair red at the end of the series?
After Gi-hun wins the game, he wanders about in the real world like a beggar without being able to spend a penny of his prize money. After Il-nam dies and he tries to resume his life again, he feels going to a barber shop is one way to do that. But if I was Gi-hun, and if I knew Gi-hun as I created the character, when the hairdresser asks how I’d like to do my hair, I think I would have instinctively made a choice that I would have never done before, and that, in a way, represents how Gi-hun has changed. It’s also a color which expresses the rage that Gi-hun feels.
Some viewers also criticized the objectification of female bodies due to the women only wearing body paint in scenes where the VIPs arrive to watch the games.
I don’t think of it as objectification of females, but to show those in the upper class, represented by the VIPs, can despise or downplay people, objectifying them as mere tools [for entertainment]. When you look at the scenes closely, not all of them are women, there are men as well. That is the reality of our society, in which humans are not treated or respected as humans.
There was also criticism of the poor performances by the foreign actors, compared to exceptional performances from Korean actors, who portray the VIPs.
There are hardly any foreign actors in Korea, nor is there any reason for them to be here, so it wasn’t easy to cast them in Korean series. And since the production went on in the times of Covid-19 pandemic, it was extremely difficult to have them come to Korea. So only VIP No. 4 who had the most lines with the police detective Hwang Jun-ho (played by actor Wi Ha-joon) came from Thailand and the rest are extras that we recruited through auditions where we tried to select the best, but of course I accept that there are some scenes that are unsatisfactory.
What are your plans for season 2?
I’ve had so many difficulties in the first season that I don’t plan on creating a second season for a while. I have another film project that I’m currently working on, but since so many fans want another season, I will be more actively pursuing the thought. I believe it can be possible with more writers and creators collaborating together in the next season.
BY LEE JAE-LIM [email@example.com]