Lee Chang-keun found “Squid Game,” a gruesome Netflix survival thriller about desperate adults participating in fatal children’s games for a chance to get out of debt, a little too close to home.
Since its September premiere, the program has enthralled worldwide viewers on its path to becoming Netflix’s biggest success ever. It has ruffled feathers at home, where people are becoming dissatisfied with rising personal debt, deteriorating job markets, and widening economic disparities exacerbated by financial crises over the last two decades.
In the dystopian horrors of “Squid Game,” Lee finds himself reflected in the show’s protagonist Seong Gi-hun, a laid-off autoworker dealing with a fractured family and dealing with continuous business failures and gambling issues.
Seong is tortured by mafia creditors into signing over his organs as collateral, but then he receives a strange invitation to participate in a series of six traditional Korean children’s games for a chance to win $38 million.
Seong is pitted against hundreds of other financially troubled participants in a hyper-violent fight for the ultimate reward, with losers being murdered at every round on the South Korean-produced program.
It’s generating alarming questions about the future of one of Asia’s strongest economies, where people who once lauded the “Miracle of the Han River” now lament “Hell Joseon,” a mocking allusion to a hierarchical monarchy that dominated Korea before to the twentieth century.
“Some moments were really tough to watch,” said Lee, a worker at Ssangyong Motors in South Korea who suffered from financial troubles and despair after the manufacturer put him and 2,600 other employees off in 2009 while applying for bankruptcy protection.
Lee and hundreds of other Ssangyong employees have just returned to work after years of demonstrations, legal battles, and government intervention. But not before a string of suicides among coworkers and family members who had become bankrupt.
“You see characters fighting to live after being laid off at work, struggling to manage fried chicken eateries or working as ‘daeri’ drivers,” Lee added, referring to those who are hired to transport intoxicated people home in their own automobiles. “It reminded me of one of my coworkers who passed away.”
Lee and his coworkers struggled to find work and were put on the back burner by other car firms because they were considered aggressive labor organizers.
At least 28 laid-off Ssangyong workers or their family died of suicide or serious health issues, including those connected to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2016 investigation by Korea University medical experts.
“Squid Game” is one of a slew of South Korean dramas inspired by the country’s economic difficulties. It has been compared to Bong Joon-Oscar-winning ho’s “Parasite,” another pandemic-era movie with breathtaking graphics and brutality portraying the underbelly of South Korea’s economic success story.
After surpassing 111 million viewers, Netflix said on Wednesday that “Squid Game” had become its most popular original series premiere.
South Korea’s rapid recovery from the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War has been spectacular — from Samsung’s emergence as a global technology giant to the enormous popularity of K-pop and movies that is spreading beyond Asia — but millions of South Koreans are now grappling with the dark side of that recovery.
“Class issues are serious everywhere in the globe,” said Im Sang-soo, a film director. “However, it appears that South Korean directors and writers approach the subject with more courage.”
Seong’s problems in “Squid Game” stem from his termination from the fictitious Dragon Motors a decade before, a reference to Ssangyong, which means “double dragon.”
In 2009, hundreds of employees, including Lee, held a Ssangyong facility for weeks to protest layoffs before being dispersed by riot police who encircled them, beat them with batons, shields, and water cannons, and dropped liquified tear gas from a helicopter.
Hundreds of people were injured in the violent confrontation, which is depicted in the “Squid Game” story. Seong recalls a Dragon teammate being slain by strikebreakers while encouraging other game players to build barriers out of dormitory beds to prevent homicidal surprise night attacks by more savage opponents aiming to destroy the competition.
In the end, it’s “every man for himself” in a brutal fight royale between hundreds of individuals prepared to sacrifice their lives for a chance to escape the nightmare of overwhelming debts.
Other crushed or marginalized characters appear in the show, such as Ali Abdul, an undocumented factory worker from Pakistan with severed fingers and a boss who refuses to pay him, exemplifying how Pakistan exploits some of Asia’s poorest people while ignoring dangerous working conditions and wage theft.
And there’s Kang Sae-byeok, a pickpocketing North Korean immigrant who has only known life on the streets and is desperate for money to save her brother from an orphanage and sneak her mother out of the country.
Many South Koreans are despondent about their prospects in a culture where decent employment are becoming increasingly scarce and house prices have soared, luring them to take out large loans to engage in hazardous financial ventures or cryptocurrencies.
Household debt has already surpassed the country’s yearly economic production, totaling over 1,800 trillion dollars ($1.5 trillion). As struggling couples postpone having children, the birth rate has dropped to an all-time low.
Se-Jeoung Kim, a South Korean lawyer residing in Poland, said in a Seoul Shinmun newspaper editorial that Squid Game’s global popularity is hardly cause for celebration.
“Foreigners may approach you, saying they, too, were enthralled by Squid Game and may wonder if Ali’s predicament in the drama could actually happen in a country as affluent and orderly as South Korea, and I will have nothing to answer,” she added.
Another Ssangyong worker, Kim Jeong-wook, claimed he couldn’t watch Squid Game after episode one since he spent months with Lee sitting on a chimney at a Ssangyong plant in 2015 demanding the firm rehire the dismissed workers.
He replied, “It was too upsetting for me.”