After premiering on Netflix in 2021, the Korean TV series Squid Game captivated viewers worldwide and quickly became among the most popular shows across the globe. The show’s dramatically horrifying scenes and constant cliffhangers have shocked and enthralled audiences.
The writer and director of Squid Game, Hwang Dong-hyuk, hopes people will understand the positive themes hidden underneath the terror and depravity inherent in the series. Dong-hyuk shared, “Even when it feels like there’s nothing left for those playing the game but despair, dread, and sorrow, there are always those who don’t give up their humanity. I’d like to spread hope.”
When this gladiator-esque series was first announced by Netflix back in September 2019, it was called Round Six. Now the show is known by both names. The director and writer, Hwang Dong-hyuk, is renowned in South Korea, but this was his first time working with a foreign company.
Dong-hyuk actually started writing the script back in 2008, more than ten years before Netflix picked it up. Back then, he was in a bad state financially, living in a Manhwabang library, and drew inspiration from his personal life for the screenplay.
When Hwang first began the script in 2008, the story was considered “grotesque and unrealistic” and “unfamiliar and harsh.” So, Dong-hyuk was unable to get funding to produce it. Luckily, in 2010 Netflix began expanding their productions outside of America and looking for global projects with potential.
In 2019, Netflix encountered Dong-hyuk’s script and expressed interest. In September of that year, they announced that the script would be adapted into an original series. From the start, Netflix’s head of global operations was optimistic about the show, explaining that “K-Dramas… travel well across Asia.”
Dong-hyuk revealed that the script he wrote in 2008 was originally a film script. This was no surprise considering that he is primarily a movie director and wrote and directed popular South Korean films like “Silenced” and “The Fortress.” When Netflix asked him to adapt the script into a series, Hwang agreed.
Later, he shared that writing all nine episodes himself had been overwhelming. The two first episodes alone took him half a year to write, which prompted him to seek advice. Making the show was also draining, and Hwang confessed that six of his teeth fell out during production.
There are hidden clues on the walls of the room where the players sleep, revealing what the following games will be. At first, the wall drawings were blocked by the many levels of bunk beds, but when more and more players were eliminated, their beds were removed, and the hints were exposed.
At first glance, the wall art looks like illustrations from a kid’s book. However, when focused on, the drawings clearly depict the games played so far and those yet to come. Nevertheless, none of the players noticed or cracked the code.
The giant doll from the first episode of Squid Game is real and wasn’t built for the show. She was borrowed temporarily from the Jincheon Carriage Museum in Jincheon County, about three hours north of Seoul. Since the success of the series, she has been dubbed the new Chucky.
The doll was influenced by the character of Younghee, who was on Korean textbook covers throughout the ’70s and ’80s. The doll’s hairdo was based on the director’s daughter’s hair, and in Korean, her song means: “The Mugunghwa Flower Has Blossomed.”
In Squid Game, players join the games by calling an eight-digit number printed on the business card they are given. Coincidentally, the phone number that was written on the cards belongs to someone. The man, whose number it is, shared that he received around 4,000 calls a day after the show premiered.
He seemed annoyed and explained that many of the calls were in the middle of the night and early morning. The man hadn’t heard of the show and had been using the same phone number for his business for ten years; he thought he was being pranked.
The game in episode three, The Man with the Umbrella, is a dalgona candy challenge. The challenge has since become a viral trend on TikTok, minus being shot if you fail. Bloggers worldwide have been making the candy using two ingredients: baking soda and sugar.
Just like in the episode, influencers across the web have attempted to eat the candy without ruining the shapes of triangles, stars, and more. “The production staff and I would joke about our series initiating a dalgona craze,” shared Hwang. And it has!
Forbes recently revealed that Squid Game has boosted popularity for other similar shows. For instance, Alice in Borderland, a Japanese thriller, and Sweet Home, another K-drama, have started to trend on Netflix since Squid Game’s success.
The series Alice in Borderland is about a group of gamers. In order to stay alive, they must compete in games set in a deserted version of Tokyo. On the other hand, Sweet Home is about a tormented teenager who must fight to survive after people start turning into monsters.
Since its release, the series has swiftly gained tremendous popularity worldwide. Squid Game is the first Korean TV show to reach number 1 on the Netflix top-10 list in the U.S. According to Ted Sarandos, the co-CEO of the streaming service, Squid Game has a chance to become Netflix’s most popular show in history.
After premiering on September 17th, 2021, the show has outshone every one of Netflix’s non-English-language hit shows. Squid Game is so popular that it’s surpassed both Money Heist, the Spanish thriller, and Lupin, the French mystery series.
Most Korean shows have one season, but on Netflix, other K-dramas were renewed, so there is hope for Squid Game too. Though there are no plans in development for another season, Hwang said, “If I were to do it, I wouldn’t do it alone. I’d like to use a writers’ room and have several directors.”
In a recent interview, Hwang shared that if Season Two happens, it will be about the Front Man’s relationship with his brother and the police. He also hinted there would be more about the mysterious salesman.
Though Squid Game is essentially a thriller of the survival game genre, like The Hunger Games and Battle Royal, Hwang incorporated influences from many other genres to create a show with layers and depth. Squid Game had elements of drama, suspense, action, and horror.
Furthermore, the critique of capitalism and sharp social commentary in the series create moments of satire and dark humor, making it far more intriguing to watch than just any action series. Critics have hailed the show as “stylish,” “edgy,” “dynamic,” and “not for the faint of heart.”
Many Western media outlets have compared Squid Game and the 2019 Oscar-winning Korean film, Parasite. But viewers in Korea and other East Asian countries have instead noticed many parallels between Squid Game and the Japanese films Battle Royale and As the Gods Will.
Although Battle Royal is about juvenile delinquents and As the Gods Will is about high school students, the plots and premises are very similar to Squid Game, so much so that Hwang has been accused of plagiarism. The director denied copying anything but admitted being influenced by manga.
Although it’s gory and brutal, Squid Game is comprised of real classic Korean childhood games. The first game, Mugunghwa Has Bloomed, is a Korean version of Red Light, Green Light, or What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf? Likewise, Tug of War and marble games exist in similar versions internationally.
The dalgona game is uniquely Korean, as is the title game, Squid Game. Hwang initially considered using other Korean games such as Gonggi, Dong, Dong, Dongdaemun, (a variation of Long Bridge), and Why Did You Come to My House? (a variation on Red Rover).
“At the time, I used to frequent the bookstore. And when I read a lot of manhwa, I want to write a story that is similar to the one I read,” shared the writer and director. Although he didn’t reveal what comic inspired him to write Squid Game, many have speculated that it was the Battle Royale manga.
Manwha is the Korean word for comics, and the style is similar to anime and manga, which are Japanese comics and graphic novels. Both anime and manga are very popular outside of Japan.
After seeing behind-the-scenes photos posted by Squid Game’s cast members, fans figured out that the series was shot in the central city of Daejeon. Daejeon is the fifth-largest city in all of South Korea and is located just under an hour away from Seoul.
Many famous Korean films have been shot in Daejeon, such as Mr. Sunshine, Train to Busan, and The 8th Night. The island off the coast of Seoul portrayed in the series doesn’t exist; instead, the outdoor island scenes were filmed on Seongapdo, in Ongjin, Incheon.
The costumes in Squid Game have hidden meanings. The decision to use uniforms of the same color for each group emphasized the loss of individuality, liberty, and identity. Close attention was paid to the colors, which were meant to contrast strongly.
While the staff is dressed in hooded red boilersuits with black fencing masks, the competitors all wear teal tracksuits, inspired by 1970’s Korean athletic wear, called trainingbok. The Front Man wears a different costume, of all black, but he too has a mask to hide his identity.
In June 2020, Squid Game’s cast was announced, and filming began. Unfortunately, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in South Korea, production was put on hold in August 2020. Squid Game’s filming paused for a month during a nationwide lockdown, resumed in September 2020, and was completed in October of that year.
Hwang shared that the pandemic greatly impacted the financial disparity between the different classes in South Korea. In his opinion, the recent economic crisis has “made the story very realistic for people compared to a decade ago.”
Park Hae-soo, the actor who played Cho Sang-woo (player 218), shared, “We saw the enormous set and dolls on the television, and they were precisely the same. Everything amazes me.” He wasn’t the only cast member to be taken aback by the set design upon arriving on location.
The gigantic sets seen in the series are real and were built especially for the production. Hwang Dong-hyuk explained that he wanted to use as few computerized special effects as possible to make the show seem all the more genuine.
Those of us who watched Squid Game know that the game consists of a total of 456 competitors. The director, Hwang, revealed that Squid Game itself was actually filmed using exactly 456 actors, which is a little creepy.
As the filming progressed, more and more competitors died in the show, so fewer actors were needed for shooting. Park Hae-soo shared how weird it was, saying, “After they started being eliminated, I could see the room becoming increasingly vacant. That made me feel more empty.”
Each of the different competitors in Squid Game has various reasons and motivations for joining the deadly game. They each come from diverse backgrounds. The protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, is a gambling addict who gets in trouble with the mob.
Gi-hun’s childhood friend, Cho Sang-woo, is a graduate of Seoul National University who is wanted for embezzlement. Ali Abdul is a foreign worker from Pakistan desperate to provide for his family. And Kang Sae-byeok is a refugee from North Korea who needs money to rescue her parents from the North Korean authorities.
Viewers have credited Squid Game’s great success to the show’s well-portrayed characters who represent different kinds of social outcasts. A Sangmyung University professor named Kim Pyeong-gang revealed on BBC that “people, especially the younger generation, who constantly suffer from alienation and animosity in real life, appear to empathize with the characters.”
Even though Gi-hun (456) and Sang-woo (218) are the show’s lead characters, most young online fans have shared that the two men are not their favorites. Fan favs instead include Sae-byeok (067), Jun-ho (the policeman), and Ji-yeong (240).
In the last episodes of the series, the mysterious VIPs are introduced when they arrive to watch the two final games of the competition live from an extravagant viewing area. The VIPs are also made to wear masks to hide their identity. However, their masks are embellished with gold and shaped like animal heads
Viewers complained that the actions of the VIPs in Squid Game were far less convincing than that of the Korean actors. One critic even noted that “the VIPs deliver their lines in a measured, unnatural manner.”
In ant farms, the insects follow a precise outline defining their various tasks. While not all ants have the same responsibilities, they appear almost identical to the naked eye. Hwang was greatly inspired by this for the costumes and masks of the Squid Game troops.
They all wear the same uniform, with only slight variations: workers have circles on their masks, soldiers have triangles, and managers have squares. They even look like ants because of the rounded shape and black color of the masks.
Hwang meticulously selected the actors in Squid Game. The director shared that he picked Lee Jung-jae, a well-known South Korean actor and model, as Gi-hun to “destroy his charismatic image portrayed in his previous roles.”
Jung Ho-yeon, the model who played Sae-byeok, had never acted before Squid Game. Hwang declared, “The moment I saw her audition tape from New York, I immediately thought to myself, ‘this is the girl we want.’ My first impression on her was that she is wild and free like an untamed horse.”
A bird’s-eye view shot of the colorful, maze-like staircases caused the set of Squid Game to look like a fantasy world. According to Hwang, the perplexing hallways and stairs were inspired by a lithograph print by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher called Relativity.
The print illustrates a world in which there are different rules of gravity than on earth. Hwang also revealed that the network of tunnels that exist beneath the staff dorms, the Front Man’s room, and the scuba-diving starting point were inspired by an ant colony.
Many fans have claimed that they just couldn’t stop watching Squid Game after they started. Some even said that the show was so addictive that they binged on it in one sitting. All nine episodes are suspenseful and thrilling, and they all end in cliffhangers, sometimes almost literal cliffhangers.
For instance, in Episode Four, the main characters join together as a group to play Tug of War suspended high above the ground. If they lose, they will also fall to their deaths. The episode ends just as they are about to win or fall.
Squid Game’s composer, Jung Jae-il, recorded relaxing music in order to convey a feeling of peace in a brutal and harsh world. Some familiar songs used in the soundtrack are Fly Me to the Moon and The Blue Danube. The dissonance of the calming music is meant to evoke familiarity in the unfamiliar world of the game.
How well-loved songs are distorted on the soundtrack to cause anxiety is akin to how fun kid’s games have been distorted in the series to cause bloodshed and death.
O Il-Nam is the character of an older man with a brain tumor. His name hints at his involvement in the game and means “number one man” in Korean. It is in direct correlation to his number in the game, #001.
It’s possible the character’s name was revealed at a critical moment as a hint to viewers trying to crack the mystery of the host and mastermind behind the game. Player 001 is played by O Yeong-su, a South Korean theater, film, and television actor, known for playing a monk.
Netflix is getting sued by a South Korean internet service provider called SK Broadband. After the release of Squid Game, a surge in network traffic occurred, causing numerous problems within the network. SK Broadband has demanded that Netflix compensate them for the maintenance work necessary to deal with such a surge.
On the other hand, Netflix claimed that Squid Game has helped create “16,000 jobs in various industries related to entertainment and content creation” in South Korea. They also claimed that “other industries like fashion and food have received a ripple effect.”
There’s a popular fan theory floating around the web about how the staff of the game is hired. In the first episode, the protagonist, Gi-hun, plays a game called ddakji with a mysterious salesman who recruits competitors for Squid Game, played by Gong Yoo.
During the ddakji game, Gi-Hun picks a blue folded origami tile from the salesman, and when he joins the game, he wakes up in a teal tracksuit as a player. According to the theory, he would have been chosen as staff if he had picked the red origami tile.
In the last episode of Squid Game, an actual South Korean news segment was used. Hwang shared with The Sunday Times how much he wanted to emphasize the harsh reality of the South Korean financial crisis. Therefore, he decided to use actual news in the show instead of staging a news segment.
In the segment, a news anchor announces: “Household debt is rising faster than the global average.” The total household debt in South Korea has recently reached 1.75 trillion dollars, making the social critique in the series even more important.
The director shared that Lee Jung-Jae had some suggestions on how to make viewers empathize with his character, Gi-hun. Lee was the one who suggested the scene in which Gi-hun feeds a stray cat on his way home despite barely having enough money to live.
Furthermore, Lee shared that he improvised part of his initial interaction with Jung Ho-jeon’s character, Sae-byeok. The two characters collide, and when Gi-hun knocks Sae-byeok’s coffee out of her hands, Lee improvised the part in which he tries awkwardly to shove back in the straw.
The director, Hwang, and the creative director, Chae Kyung-sun, confessed that the teal tracksuits worn by the contestants were made of very bad material. “It wasn’t designed for sports. It’s like the material of old gym clothes,” explained Hwang.
Apparently, the fabric was so shoddy that “with 300 people, it got really dusty there. It was hard to breathe. Some actors’ faces even turned red due to allergic reactions.” What a nightmare! Perhaps the desperation this caused helped the actors to portray their characters’ distress more convincingly.
Initially, Hwang imagined the workers and guards of Squid Game in Boy Scout outfits. However, he soon learned that the boy scout looks he’d dreamed of displayed “the men’s body too clearly,” and weren’t in line with the theme of anonymity that was so important in the series.
The creative director, Chae, shared that the show’s many masks were inspired by traditional Korean masks, including hahoetal masks. Likewise, he explained that the VIP’s animal masks were meant to portray them as “extremely powerful beasts representing the power elite.”
Hwang revealed that Gi-hun’s technique of licking the dalgona candy was the method he’d used as a boy to win the game. He boasted, “It was by this method that I was able to win the big prizes, which was bad news for the dalgona guy. It is a legendary method.”
The dalgona used in the episode was made by a street vendor from Daehangno who was hired by the production and made the candy on set. Hwang further shared that his favorite childhood game was the squid game, also “the most physically aggressive childhood game.”
Lee Jung-jae, the actor who plays the main character of Squid Game, started his career as a fashion model before making the transition to TV, and later, film. In 1999, Lee won the award for Best Actor at the Blue Dragon Film Awards for his performance in the movie City of the Rising Sun. He has gone on to win many more awards.
Lee is also known for his fancy Italian restaurant chain in Seoul, called Il Mare. The actor studied interior design when he was younger and designed the restaurants himself.
Anupam Tripathi, who plays Ali Abdul (player 199), is originally from India. He moved to Korea in 2010, not as a foreign worker like his character, but rather to study at the Korea National University of Arts. After completing his bachelor’s, the actor pursued a master’s degree in acting at the same university.
Tripathi has appeared in numerous Korean TV shows and films. His breakout role was in Ode to My Father from 2014. He also appears in The 8th Night, a 2021 Netflix series, in which he plays a preacher.
Heo Sung-tae, who plays the tattooed gangster Jang Deok-su in Squid Game, started his acting career when he came in fifth in the SBS talent show Miraculous Audition. Heo confessed that he signed up for the talent show one night while drunk.
Nevertheless, he quickly became a celebrity and in 2016 gained national recognition for starring in the period thriller, The Age of Shadows, in which Sing Kang-Ho slaps him. Since then, Heo has acted in many Korean dramas and action flicks and appeared in numerous television shows.
Jung Ho-yeon, who plays Kang Sae-byeok, is a well-known South Korean fashion model. In 2013, she was the runner-up in the 4th season of Korea’s Next Top Model. Jung is a global ambassador for Louis Vuitton and has appeared in many magazines, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and ELLE.
Ho-yeon also works as a runway model, walking for Jean-Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Miu Miu, and many more. After Squid Game premiered, Jung became the most followed Korean actress on Instagram and, as of now, has 19.3 million followers.
Dong Hyuk shared that the character Ji-yeong (player 240), played by Lee Yoo-mi, was almost a guy. He shared, “When I first wrote this 10 years ago, they were originally male characters. Ji-yeong was originally called Ji-yong.”
Luckily, in 2019, when developing the characters for the series, he decided to make her a girl. We cannot imagine the same funny and heartbreaking dynamic between Lee Yoo-mi and Jung Ho-yeon if Ji-yeong was a guy. Plus, having some badass ladies in the main cast is what made the series so worthwhile.
The grand prize money in Squid Game was set at 45.6 billion won, which is approximately 38 million in American dollars. The exchange rate is one won to 0.00084 USD. Although it sounds far less in dollars, $38 million is still a considerable prize.
Consider that in South Korea, the average yearly salary of someone with full-time employment is approximately 38 million won, about $32,000. Furthermore, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seoul is about 510,000 won, which equals $426. So, 45.6 billion won isn’t bad.
On October 2nd, a Squid Game pop-up store opened in Paris. A few fights broke out in the line to enter the store where anyone could win a free one-month subscription if they won the dalgona game in up to one minute and 30 seconds.
Squid Game has become a global craze. In September, in the Philippines, a model of the giant, creepy doll was displayed on Ortigas Avenue in Quezon City. In Seoul, a replica of the set opened at Itaewon station, but it was closed quickly due to Covid regulations.
Many South Korean viewers of Squid Game were seriously underwhelmed by the popular K-drama. Online critics called the characters clichéd and thought the story was ridiculous and the violence too much. Some think Squid Game pales in comparison with Battle Royale; they believe the show is overhyped.
Likewise, many Korean Americans have pointed out that the English translation of Squid Game isn’t very good. One tweet reads, “translation was so bad. the dialogue was written so well, and zero of it was preserved.” Some fans have taken to explaining the inconsistencies online.
On the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Park Hae-soo, the actor who plays Cho Sang-woo, revealed that he became a dad the day Squid Game premiered. His baby boy was born at 3:50 KST, and the show premiered just ten minutes later, at 4:00 KST.
Park believes that the newborn son is his lucky charm. He shared that all his friends call his boy “Baby Squid.” Park is set to appear in a South Korean Netflix remake of the popular Spanish series Money Heist, premiering in 2022.
Hwang Dong-hyuk shared that the series has more substance than meets the eye. “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life,” stated Hwang.
He continued, “I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life… [it’s] a story about losers.” Hwang also revealed that Gi-hun and Sang-Woo are based on “two sides” of him. Like Gi-hun, Hwang was raised by a poor single mother, and like Sang-Woo, he attended university and was expected to succeed.