Squid Game and K-culture
By Simon Gentry
If you haven’t seen it yet, you almost certainly will soon. And once you start, you won’t be able to stop. The irresistible rise of Squid Game has caught almost everyone, even Netflix who made it, off guard. It’s now the most streamed television series in history, overtaking Bridgerton last week and racking up over 111 million downloads in a month.
Set in present day Korea, the story revolves around a group of people, all of whom are in serious financial trouble, who are enticed to play children’s games by a mysterious organisation. The winners stand to win huge cash prizes, the losers … It’s slightly reminiscent of The Prisoner in that the audience and the protagonists don’t know why any of this is happening, but the human drama is compelling, nonetheless.
The show is making headlines not only because of its huge viewing figures, but because it’s being seen by some – notably North Korea – as an allegory of the ‘evils of life in the beastly’ capitalist South. A theme echoed by others critical of capitalism much closer to home. You can probably expect more of that.
The show is a breakthrough for Korean television, but given that a 2019 Korean movie, ‘Parasite’, won a Palme d’Or in Cannes and four Oscars, including the Best Picture, a first for a foreign language film, it’s not a total surprise.
Korean culture has been making an impact on the music scene too. K-pop is now a global phenomenon, having conquered first Japan and more recently America. Instantly recognisable to people here, BTS, a Korean boy band, is one of the biggest selling groups in the world with a mix of catchy tunes, English lyrics, well-scrubbed young men and tight dancing, they have been racked up billions of streams on Spotify.
Korean culture seems to be enjoying a moment now which may well be down to its hybrid heritage, part Asian, part Anglo-American, recycled and distorted into something that’s comfortably familiar, but enough to be interesting. We should probably expect to see and hear much more from Korea in the next few years. Kimchee anyone?