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Life has always been difficult, a race from birth to death that you can only hope is populated with moments of transcendence and joy — a brief period of time that you endeavor to shape into something of meaning as you move through it. But for far too many, life is like some extreme competition show where the penalty for losing is far graver than being kicked off of an island or voted out of a house. The society we have collectively forged has become so tragically flawed, and yet, it is also an inescapable construct.
These were some of the ideas flying through my head when I first conceived of Squid Game as a feature film more than a decade ago. Why write about poverty, strife, desperation and capitalism? Well, because I know this story all too well; I remember only having $5 in my bank account in 2008 when writing Squid Game and selling the laptop that I wrote the script on for $700 so I could afford to live a few months. Even though I didn’t write about this directly in Squid Game, what I ended up with was far more relatable. I wanted to write a story that was an allegory about modern capitalist society, populated with the kinds of characters we’ve all met in real life. At the time, the response from those who might have made the movie was that it was too unrealistic. A depiction of world elites who, for their own sick amusement, entice hundreds of desperate citizens to compete in a series of deadly games for the opportunity to live their lives free of financial burden and hardship? In 2008, I suppose it seemed like a stretch. In 2022, well, it might not shock some people if they found out that Squid Game was inspired by actual events.
Fashioned as an original series for Netflix, this story of haves and have-nots that I was so fortunate to produce with the help of my indispensable colleagues and collaborators takes on a whole new hue. The pandemic accelerated a number of things, from business paradigms to our collective understanding of our own fragility. But it made at least one thing crystal clear: For those without extravagant means, life might as well be a lottery. The fact that Squid Game was no longer unrealistic in this new age, that it was no longer absurd, that saddened me, in a way, as a person.
I live in South Korea, where society is also very competitive and stressful. We have 50 million people in a small country that is cut off from the continent of Asia by North Korea, so we have developed an island mentality. It often feels like our collective consciousness is one of preparing for the next crisis. In some ways, that is a motivator. It helps us to ask what more should be done. As a storyteller, all of this breeds a reserve of creative anger, but also innervating resolve, a drive to entertainingly translate what has happened to us and what continues to happen to us.
I designed the Squid Game universe to reflect our nightmarish reality. I wanted the faces on the screen to be representative, to deliver the message that 90 percent of people living in this cutthroat society could fall behind and hit rock bottom any day. However flawed, society is not something we can escape. We are all here, together. We’re all in the same billowing ocean together, if not always the same boat. My only hope is that audiences walk away from what we’ve created and ask themselves: “Do we have to live in a world like this? Is there anything we can do to change that?”
I remain bowled over by how much Squid Game has struck a chord. It has been a worldwide phenomenon, attracting more than 1.65 billion hours of viewing in the 28 days following the September premiere and becoming Netflix’s most popular TV show ever. It has further continued to show that the subtitle barrier may not be a thing for much longer, becoming the first non-English-language series to earn Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild nominations, and continuing along a path forged ahead of it by acclaimed international films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.
All of that says to me that the story we told here knows no borders. It is a universal, relatable tale of working-class individuals, underdogs you want to root for as they face impossible circumstances. Not only that, but it warms my heart to see how much America and the world at large have fallen in love with our cast, including Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon, Anupam Tripathi and Oh Young-soo. It was also so heartwarming to see the acting community embrace and reward Jung-jae and Ho-yeon at the SAG Awards in February. As proud as I am that these themes resonate around the globe, I’m most pleased to see these talents taking center stage and earning the attention they deserve.
That’s what I have taken away from this experience more than anything else. The support we’ve received for this formerly “unrealistic” project gives me hope that stories from around the globe will continue to find their place and connect with audiences through our shared experience as people. Squid Game has helped to tear down walls for the rest of the world in television programming, and as legacies go, I couldn’t have asked for anything more profound.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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