How Netflix’s Squid Game struck a nerve in debt-ridden South Korea

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“Squid Game” is a brutal Netflix survival drama about desperate adults competing in a deadly children’s game to escape serious debt, which is too close to home for Lee Chang-kyun.

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The show has garnered a global audience since early September, becoming one of Netflix’s biggest hits. It has hit raw nerves at home, where financial crises over the past two decades have fueled growing discontent over worsening personal loans, deteriorating job markets and huge income inequalities.

In the dystopian horrors of the squid game, Lee sees a reflection of himself in the show’s protagonist, Seong Gi-hyun, an autoworker coping with a broken family and persistent business failures and gambling problems.


Seong is beaten by gangster creditors for signing his organs as collateral, but then receives a mysterious offer to play in a series of six traditional Korean children’s games for a shot at winning $38 million. .

Produced by South Korea, the show pits Seong against hundreds of other financially troubled players for the ultimate prize in an ultra-violent competition, in which the losers are killed each round.

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This is raising troubling questions about the future of one of Asia’s wealthiest economies, where those who once raved about the “miracle of the Han River” now lament about the “Hail Joseon”, Which is a satirical reference to a hierarchical state that ruled Korea before the 20th. century.

“It was very hard to watch some of the scenes,” said Lee, a worker at Ssangyong Motors in South Korea, who was in financial difficulties and depression after the carmaker fired him and 2,600 other employees while filing for bankruptcy protection in 2009. were struggling with.

After years of protests, court battles, and government intervention, Lee and hundreds of other Ssangyong workers have returned to work in recent years. But it was not before this that there was a flood of suicides among colleagues and family members who were financially strapped.

Lee said, “In the Squid game, you see characters scrambling to survive after being hired, struggling to operate a fried chicken dinner or working as ‘dairy’ drivers.” are,” who get paid to drive home drunk people in their cars. “It reminded me of my coworkers who had died.”

Lee said he and his colleagues struggled to find work and were backlisted by other auto companies that considered them militant labor activists.

A 2016 report by medical researchers from Korea University said that at least 28 laid-off Ssangyong workers or their relatives died of suicide or serious health problems, including those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Squid Game is one of several South Korean shows inspired by the economic crisis. Its dark tale of inequality and class has drawn comparisons with Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite,” another pandemic-era highlight of South Korea’s economic success story with stunning visuals and violence.

South Korea’s rapid rebuilding from the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War has been spectacular – from Samsung’s emergence as a global technology giant to the immense popularity of K-Pop and movies moving beyond Asia – millions of South Koreans now The dark side of that rise is struggling with this.

Im Sang-soo, a film director, said, “Class problems are serious everywhere in the world, but it seems that South Korean directors and writers tackle the issue with more courage.”

In the squid game, Seong’s troubles go back to a decade ago in firing from the fictional Dragon Motors, a nod to Seongyong, which means “double dragon.”

Hundreds of workers, including Lee, took over a Ssangyong plant in 2009 to protest layoffs before being dispersed by riot police, who surrounded them, attacked them with batons, shields and water cannons, and by helicopter. Drop tear gas canisters.

That violent standoff left dozens injured and is woven into the narrative of the squid game. Seong has a flashback about a dragon co-worker killed by Strikebreakers, organizing fellow game participants to build barricades with dormitory beds to prevent deadly stealth night attacks by more vicious opponents looking to end the competition. .

Ultimately, it’s everyone among the hundreds in Squid Game’s brutal battle royale who is willing to risk his life for a shot at freeing himself from the nightmare of insurmountable debts.

The show features other oppressed or marginalized characters, such as Ali Abdul, an undocumented factory worker from Pakistan with his fingers amputated and a boss who refuses to pay him, indicating that the country is under dangerous working conditions and How does one exploit some of Asia’s poorest people while ignoring wages. Theft.

and Kang Sa-byok, a pocket-bodied North Korean refugee who knew nothing but rough life on the streets and is desperate for money to rescue his brother from an orphanage and take his mother out of the North.

Many South Koreans despair of moving forward in a society where good jobs are becoming increasingly scarce and housing prices are skyrocketing, forcing many to borrow heavily to make risky financial investments or gamble on cryptocurrencies. have been inspired.

Household debt, of over 1,800 trillion ($1.5 trillion), now exceeds the country’s annual economic output. Tough times have driven record-low birth rates as struggling couples avoid having children.

The global success of the squid game is hardly a cause for pride, Se-jong Kim, a South Korean lawyer based in Poland, wrote in a column for the Seoul Shinmun newspaper.

“The foreigners will come to you, saying that they have also watched the squid game with fascination, and may ask whether Ali’s position in the play could really be that of a rich and clean country like South Korea, and my Will have nothing to say,” she said. said.

Kim Jong-wook, another Ssangyong worker who spent months with Lee, sat by the fireplace in a Ssangyong factory in 2015, asking for his job back, saying he couldn’t watch squid games after episode one.

“It was very painful for me,” he said.


AP Entertainment writer Juwon Park contributed to this story.


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