‘Squid Game’? ‘Parasite’? Here’s Why They Find a Global Audience
Since pop culture tells us a lot about our national state of mind, I have been intrigued by the internet buzz that has surrounded “Squid Game,” a South Korean survivalist drama about a peculiar form of class warfare in a dystopian setting.
Its success with audiences, hitting No. 1 on Netflix in 90 countries including this one, is no less surprising and impressive than “Parasite,” another South Korean drama about class differences that won four 2019 Oscars, including Best Motion Picture.
What’s going on here? I detect a trend familiar to both countries.
The nine-part “Squid Game” series is the latest entry in a parade of films and shows — including “The Hunt,” “Black Mirror” and the “Hunger Games” movies — centered on a common theme: Desperate people pitted against each other in life-or-death competitions in dystopian settings for unequally distributed resources.
Sound familiar? Having been immersed in clashes over race, class, and economic insecurities in recent American politics, I am fascinated by the ways such issues have popped up on theater and at-home screens, not just here, but across the industrialized world.
South Korea offers a dramatic example. The country’s rapid rebuilding from the 1950-53 Korean War has been one of the world’s economic wonders, offering successes as varied as Samsung’s global growth and the international popularity of teen-oriented K-pop.
But the dark side of boom-and-bust cycles hit the country with financial crises in the past two decades, along with soaring personal debt, ailing job markets, spikes in suicide rates and deepening income and opportunity gaps between rich and poor.
Without giving away too many spoilers, “Parasite” follows a poor family into a wealthy family’s home in which they scheme to become employed and move in by posing as unrelated, highly qualified domestic workers. Differences in economic experiences are visible in such elements as rain, which is depicted as a mild nuisance for the rich family but a disaster for the poor folks.
In the “Squid Game” series, everyone is living in such seemingly hopeless circumstances, and on the brink of financial ruin, that the most desperate are easily coerced into playing adult-sized childhood games that quickly turn deadly. Quite deadly.
In both productions, the metaphors for corruption and predatory capitalism are so obvious that even my tin ear for symbolism could hear them.