‘Squid Game’ is entertaining the world. But there is a totally different feeling in South Korea

HONG KONG — Why are South Koreans watching “Squid Game”? Because everybody else is.

The nine-episode horror sequence on Netflix has hit No. 1 in 90 of the streaming service’s markets around the globe, together with South Korea, the place it was made.

“I got to the point where I could not hold a conversation without watching the show,” mentioned Jung Dunn, a safety analyst in Seoul, the South Korean capital.

But the present additionally strikes a nerve as a result of it unflinchingly addresses an issue that’s significantly entrenched in South Korea: debt and the unending wrestle to pay it off.

The forged of “Squid Game” options a few of South Korea’s greatest stars, together with Lee Jung-jae because the protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, a hopelessly indebted father who receives a enterprise card from a stranger providing him a approach out. Along with 455 different contestants — from all walks of life however all deeply in debt too — he agrees to compete for a money prize of 45.6 billion gained (about $38 million) by enjoying a sequence of conventional Korean kids’s video games, solely to find that elimination from every spherical means loss of life.

A card with a cellphone quantity on one facet is given to the sport’s 456 members in Netflix’s “Squid Game.”Youngkyu Park / Netflix

“There’s this dissonance between Korean pride that this Korean show is dominating Netflix all around the world, and the discomfort with what the show appears to expose about Korea,” mentioned CedarBough Saeji, an assistant professor of Korean and East Asian research at Pusan National University in Busan, South Korea. “Koreans love to be No. 1, but No. 1 at the cost of kind of airing your dirty laundry is a somewhat different thing.”

That South Korea additionally produced “Parasite,” the 2020 Oscar winner for greatest image that additionally targeted on themes of inequality, has most likely accentuated this discomfort, Saeji mentioned.

Still, “Squid Game” is wildly standard in its residence nation.

The present was launched on Sept. 17 simply earlier than Chuseok, a Korean vacation much like Thanksgiving when households collect, the proper time for binge-watching. The surge in community site visitors led one web service supplier to sue Netflix to cowl its prices.

The fervor has additionally spilled over into actual life. A road vendor in Seoul who supplied the makers of “Squid Game” with dalgona, a brittle sugar sweet on the heart of one of many video games, advised Reuters that he had seen a increase in enterprise.

One of the video games in “Squid Games” on Netflix contains carving shapes like circles, stars, and triangles into a chunk of honeycomb toffee referred to as Dalgona with out letting it break.Youngkyu Park / Netflix

Thousands of curious South Koreans additionally tried the eight-digit cellphone quantity that seems on the enterprise card, which the present’s makers didn’t understand would attain an precise particular person. The proprietor of the quantity, and even individuals with related numbers, have been inundated with calls and messages in any respect hours.

On Wednesday, Netflix mentioned it was working with the present’s native manufacturing firm to deal with the difficulty, together with modifying scenes to take away the quantity.

Park Sae-ha, a senior learning economics at Yonsei University in Seoul, mentioned “Squid Game” was “spell-binding because it was so explicit and blunt.”

“Although I am young, I could easily relate to the hard reality of a very competitive society,” she mentioned.

That intense competitiveness could also be one motive South Korea has been so profitable, with a interval of speedy industrialization beginning within the Nineteen Sixties that turned it into the world’s Tenth-largest financial system. But as in lots of different nations, a college diploma and a white-collar job don’t assure the monetary safety they used to, Saeji mentioned. With a mean earnings of about $42,000 a yr, many Koreans now discover they should borrow to maintain up.

Fueled by low rates of interest, family debt in South Korea has grown considerably lately, and is now equal to the nation’s annual GDP. (In the U.S., in contrast, family debt is about 80 % of GDP.) People could rack up debt due to bank card spending, unemployment or playing losses, however a big chunk of it’s tied to actual property.

Housing costs have been rising quick, particularly below President Moon Jae-in, and the typical worth of an condominium in Seoul is nearing $1 million. Lending curbs and efforts to chill the housing market have carried out little to rein in family borrowing. In addition to housing, some Koreans, particularly younger individuals, borrow cash to put money into cryptocurrency.

People take a look at Seoul’s skyline from an statement deck of Woomyeon mountain final July.SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg through Getty Images file

Many Koreans begin out by borrowing from authentic monetary establishments like banks, mentioned Koo Se-Woong, a commentator on Korean tradition based mostly in Germany. When that avenue is exhausted, they could transfer on to second-tier lenders that cost increased curiosity.

In the worst-case eventualities, he mentioned, debtors flip to mortgage shark operations that may cost triple-digit rates of interest, “and then you are pushed into situations from which you really cannot get out.”

According to some estimates, there are 400,000 Koreans in debt to mortgage sharks.

“When you look at the characters in the show who are participating in this game, they represent that demographic of the Koreans who are in the worst possible situation because of their personal debt,” Koo mentioned.

In a current extensively shared Facebook submit, Koo mentioned he was shocked when a buddy advised him he was residing paycheck to paycheck, regardless of having a very good job.

The buddy “doesn’t strike anyone as extravagant,” Koo mentioned, however struggles to afford the trimmings of middle-class life: an condominium, a automotive and occasional journey along with his spouse and kids.

“It’s all paid for by loans, I am telling you,” Koo mentioned his buddy advised him. “We just have no money.”

Jung, the safety analyst, mentioned the plot of “Squid Game” was straightforward to just accept as a result of “it dealt with such familiar stories of debt-ridden people you come across in real life.”

A scene from Netflix’s “Squid Game.”Youngkyu Park / Netflix

“The story stems from a deeply rooted perception of how society looks at failure, especially individual financial failure,” he mentioned.

Bankruptcy in South Korea is usually seen not as an opportunity to start out over however as a devastating destiny. That is underlined in “Squid Game,” Saeji mentioned, when contestants are given the choice to depart however select to maintain enjoying even on the threat of their lives.

“In the regular world it’s not just the death of their body, it’s the death of their pride. It’s the shame of having to be such an unsuccessful person in front of your family,” she mentioned.

Viewers in South Korea say the present is all of the extra disturbing as a result of it injects loss of life and violence into playground video games like Red Light, Green Light and tug of conflict.

The present performs on childhood nostalgia “and along with it the innocent times when you had no problems,” mentioned Kim Hern-sik, a popular culture critic in Seoul. “Yet the story tells you that escaping from reality is not the answer.”

“Squid Game” is “fundamentally a Korean story, featuring games people would remember playing as kids,” Don Kang, vp of Korean content material at Netflix, advised NBC News in an e mail. “So we knew it would resonate with our members here.”

The doll acts as the one that is “it” for a lethal model of Red Light, Green Light in “Squid Game.”Netflix

Its reputation within the West got here as extra of a shock. But Korean cultural exports have been sweeping Asia for years, and Netflix was already betting on their rising attraction. The firm is spending $500 million this yr on Korean content material, nearly as a lot because it spent within the final 5 years.

Saeji mentioned that after a long time of Western cultural affect, the success of “Squid Game” reveals that South Korea could make a TV present with a Hollywood really feel “and they can do it better.”

While “Squid Game” just isn’t the primary story a couple of combat to the loss of life, director Hwang Dong-hyuk, who has a movie diploma from the University of Southern California, made it influential in his personal approach, mentioned Oh Dong-jin, a outstanding movie critic in South Korea.

“Every movie borrows this and that from other movies. What matters, therefore, is how creatively you can borrow from different references,” he mentioned. “So, even from this standpoint, the traditional children’s games the show uses make ‘Squid Game’ quite original.”

Margie Kim, a housewife in Seoul who’s watching “Squid Game” along with her household, mentioned that whereas she loved its depth and pop-art-influenced visuals, the underlying messages had been additionally essential.

“I do feel the pain of what our society is going through,” she mentioned. The present offers with so many urgent points, she mentioned—earnings inequality, youth unemployment, a quickly getting old society—that it’s one thing her complete household can relate to and speak about.

“So many middle-class, ordinary people live with so much debt,” she mentioned. “I could totally empathize with people who joined the game.”

Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong, and Stella Kim reported from Los Angeles.

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