‘Squid Game’ hits debt-ridden South Korea | TV
SEOUL, South Korea – “Squid Game,” a brutal Netflix survival drama about desperate adults battling it out in deadly kids’ games for a chance to escape serious debt, has hit a bit too close from home for Lee Chang-keun.
The show has captivated audiences worldwide since its debut in September and is on its way to becoming Netflix’s biggest hit. It has struck nerves at home, where there is growing dissatisfaction with skyrocketing personal debt, deteriorating labor markets and glaring income inequalities made worse by the financial crises of the past two. decades.
In the dystopian horrors of “Squid Game,” Lee sees a reflection of himself in the series’ protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, a laid-off auto worker struggling with a broken family and struggling with business failures. constant and gambling problems.
Seong is beaten by gangster creditors to sign his organs as collateral, but then receives a mysterious offer to star in a series of six traditional Korean children’s games in an attempt to win $ 38 million.
The South Korean-produced show pits Seong against hundreds of other financially struggling players in a hyper-violent competition for the ultimate prize, with losers being killed in every round.
This raises troubling questions about the future of one of Asia’s richest economies, where people who once sang the “Miracle of the Han River” are now complaining about “Joseon Hell,” a sarcastic reference. to a hierarchical kingdom that ruled Korea before the 20th century.
“Some of the scenes were very difficult to watch,” said Lee, an employee of Ssangyong Motors in South Korea who struggled with financial hardship and depression after the automaker fired him and 2,600 other employees during the event. ” an application for bankruptcy in 2009.
After years of protests, court battles, and government intervention, Lee and hundreds of other Ssangyong workers have returned to work in recent years. But not before a wave of suicides among colleagues and family members who have been plunged into financial misery.
“In ‘Squid Game’ you see characters scrambling to survive after being made redundant at work, struggling to run fried chicken restaurants or working as ‘daeri’ drivers,” who are paid to bring drunk people home. in their own car, Lee said. . “It reminded me of my colleagues who died.”
Lee said he and his colleagues had struggled to find work and had been listed by other automakers who saw them as union activists.
A 2016 report by medical researchers at Korea University said that at least 28 laid-off Ssangyong workers or their relatives died from suicide or serious health problems, including those related to post-stress disorder. -traumatic.
“Squid Game” is one of many South Korean shows inspired by economic hardship. Her grim history of inequality and class drew comparisons to Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’, another pandemic-era hit with stunning visuals and violence exposing the underside. of South Korea’s economic success.
Netflix tweeted on Wednesday that “Squid Game” became its biggest original series launch after reaching 111 million fans.
South Korea’s rapid reconstruction after the ravages of the 1950-53 Korean War has been spectacular – from the emergence of Samsung as a global tech giant to the immense popularity of K-pop and films that stretch beyond Asia – though millions of South Koreans are now grappling with the dark side of that rise.
“Class issues are serious all over the world, but it seems that South Korean directors and screenwriters are approaching the issue more boldly,” said Im Sang-soo, a filmmaker.
In “Squid Game”, Seong’s troubles date back to his dismissal a decade earlier from the fictional Dragon Motors, a nod to Ssangyong, which means “double dragon.”
Hundreds of workers, including Lee, occupied a factory in Ssangyong for weeks in 2009 to protest the layoffs before being dispersed by riot police who besieged them, assaulted them with batons, shields and water cannons and released liquefied tear gas from a helicopter.
This violent impasse injured dozens of people and is part of the story of the “Squid Game”. Seong has flashbacks to a fellow Dragon killed by strikebreakers while organizing the other game participants to create barricades with dorm beds to block deadly night attacks from more vicious opponents seeking to eliminate the competition.
In the end, it’s every man for himself in a cruel battle royale between hundreds of people willing to risk even their lives in an attempt to break free from the nightmare of insurmountable debt.
The show features other crushed or marginalized characters like Ali Abdul, an undocumented Pakistani factory worker with cut fingers and a boss who refuses to pay him, illustrating how the country exploits some of Asia’s poorest people. while ignoring unsafe working conditions and wages. flight.
And Kang Sae-byeok, a pickpocketed North Korean refugee who had known nothing but hard life on the streets and desperately needed money to save her brother from an orphanage and get her mother out of the North.
Many South Koreans despair of making progress in a society where good jobs are increasingly scarce and house prices have skyrocketed, prompting many to borrow heavily to bet on risky financial investments or cryptocurrencies.
Household debt, at more than $ 1.8 trillion ($ 1.5 trillion), now exceeds the country’s annual economic output. Harsh times have lowered a record birth rate as struggling couples avoid having babies.
Squid Game’s worldwide success is hardly a cause for pride, Se-Jeoung Kim, a South Korean lawyer based in Poland, wrote in a column for the Seoul Shinmun newspaper.
“The strangers will come to you, telling you that they also watched Squid Game with fascination and might ask if Ali’s situation in the drama could really happen in a country as wealthy and well-groomed as South Korea, and I would have nothing to say, “she said. noted.
Kim Jeong-wook, another Ssangyong worker who spent months with Lee perched on top of a chimney in a Ssangyong factory in 2015, demanding that the company rehire the laid-off workers, said he couldn’t watch Squid Game after the first episode.
“It was too traumatic for me,” he said.
AP Entertainment writer Juwon Park contributed to this story.