Spoilers for Squid Game
One of the stranger experiences I have on Twitter is seeing non-Koreans speak in defense of Korean pop culture against the clutches of Hollywood, as it’s both heartening to witness and not something I completely agree with. The assertion is that America doesn’t understand what made these originals so great, that X factor unique to the culture. Admittedly, we have a proven track record, from The Uninvited to Oldboy, to still easternmore scars like Death Note and Ghost in the Shell. And yet, we say that a film like Parasite is distinctly Korean but universally understood. Train to Busan is better without a remake despite that remakes are a cornerstone of the zombie subgenre. And then there’s our Squid Game, and if you must take what little remains, hey, The Running Man is good! Believe me, I get the concern that American adaptations won’t capture what the originals are saying — but what are they saying?
Train to Busan (2016)
Train to Busan made waves for being a fun and fast-paced zombie thriller, which is everything the subgenre wasn’t at the time. Despite that the film clocks in at almost two hours, it’s a seemingly conscious departure from the exhausting dreariness of The Walking Dead and even a blockbuster retool of Snowpiercer. Also, it was an opportunity for critics and fans to reiterate Snowpiercer. The result is indeed colorful and open-handed, its smart construction visible and in service of revealing a — wait for it — beating heart. Shaun of the Dead helmer Edgar Wright called it the “best zombie movie I’ve seen in forever.” It broke box office records. It launched Ma Dong-seok to international stardom — though by the time he’s cast in Marvel’s Eternals, insiders had already grown weary of his Train to Busan shtick, enough to warrant a mention on Wikipedia. I must take a moment here, because of all the Korean stars to break through like that, it wasn’t Son Ye-jin or Suzy or IU or even Gong Yoo — it was this dude. Call it encouragement to write characters who do cool stuff, like zombie-punching.
An all-around success story, it nevertheless took five years for New Line Cinema to land the remake. Of the three Korean properties we’ll discuss today, I’m the least convinced we’ll see a Train to Busan remake directed by Timo Tjahjanto, currently slated as director. Grab your tin-foil hat, because, hey — what if they contracted an Asian director (with very little American profile) to allay some of the inevitable criticism? If that was the game plan, I mean, it didn’t work. Tjahjanto’s taken his lumps online, but he’s also had his defenders. This Indonesian director is a total gorehound, and very much part of a modern splat-pack. He’s collaborated on anthologies like the V/H/S series with Gareth Evans and Ti West, and his big Netflix hit was With Eyes East favorite The Night Comes for Us. I trust he’ll do a far grislier zombie kill-fest — which is why I’m not confident about his continued employment — but we know that’s not what chiefly defines Train to Busan.
Jeannette Catsoulis’s capsule review in The New York Times leads with this headline: “All Aboard ‘Train to Busan’ for Zombie and Class Warfare.” She writes that “as zombies chomp and multiply, an assortment of regular folks face them down while furthering an extended critique of corporate callousness,” and this is a red flag for me. I have always had a problem with, say, the original Dawn of the Dead, despite having liked it well enough back in high school. It’s just that when critics talk about it, they describe its own extended critique, this time on consumerism, because the zombies gather at the mall. Unfortunately, that’s only the premise of the movie. What about the rest of it? Well, Alyssa Miller writing for No Film School reminds me that the rest of it is about the survivors in the mall fighting with the marauders, and the argument is that both parties replicate the original zombie-mall metaphor by being greedy. I can buy that, after all these years, and we’ll use it as a baseline.
In Train to Busan, the train itself is a visualization of socioeconomic brackets, suddenly given infrastructure like the ringed cities of Attack on Titan. According to blogger Sam Shepards, “the social warfare [is] represented by those who fall victim to the zombies first and those who, thanks to their contacts, personal preparation, information and sometimes absolute cruel selfishness, manage to live longer.” Wouldn’t this would be automatically replicated by a remake, so long as it takes place on a train with first-class seating? We’re looking for something deeper.
In the meantime, what if we instead consider the satire of Train to Busan a reclamation of villainy by wealthy assholes in an age of “he’s got a point, but I don’t like his methods”? I think there’s something powerful in asserting that, yes, these are the bad guys, and watch them be terrible. There’s nothing clever being said, nothing clever about it, other than how the zombie setup irritates their already surfaced worstness. This NPR story aggregates a few Korean perspectives, including critic Youn Sung-eun, and they all agree that Train to Busan is at least partly about the recent uptick in selfishness among the Korean populace. I mean, that’s sort of the basis for capitalism, but I’d like to draw the distinction between satire that focuses on the abstract villain (corporations, institutions) versus the effects of that villain on society. So many of the most compelling beats in the movie are the latter case, and we see the parasite, so to speak, of capitalism taking root in everyday people’s brains. We also see how the parasite can be overcome.
I may be too literal in this instance, but “social commentary” should be something we can take away, even separate, from the experience — like a lesson. It cannot be that the lesson is “rich people are bad,” because we already know that. At that point, we’re describing characterization, not a moral. The “extended critique” is what fuels the moving character drama, but is not earth-shattering in itself. It’s a cosmic exchange, between filmmakers who use the frame of social commentary to propel their stories toward world-impressing set pieces and payoffs (the very essence of movies), and the critics who rightfully recognize the “social commentary,” abscond to the kitchen to make tea, return and find “social commentary” scrawled on an otherwise blank piece of paper.
As mentioned on the post about Shin Godzilla, I read a negative blurb on the Parasite Wikipedia page so, so long ago which questioned the film for not actually saying anything about poverty and class warfare. That’s pretty much the crux of this post, so I could really use that darned vanishing act. I looked again, and, man, have you ever gone fishing for negative Parasite reviews? In recent memory, I can’t think of a movie more universally beloved, whose most vocal critics are often making accidentally (or not) racist arguments. The run-up to the 2020 Oscars was, let’s not forget, a battle for the soul of cinema. Either crowd-favorite underdog Parasite takes it, or Joker, that floppy Xerox.
Googling “parasite negative review” when I did (thanks, autocomplete) generated a review on the first result page written by John Tamny. In his assessment of the “awful” film which “doesn’t deserve Best Foreign Film, Best Picture, or any kind of serious award,” he makes the argument that because the poor family is talented enough to stage their caper in the first place, they could’ve found success elsewhere. Perhaps all these homeless people outside are simply untalented. Why break into a rich-people house? That’s unrealistic.
But later he decides that poor people have a “migratory” pattern for rich spaces like Los Angeles and New York. Word choice, man. And also, even if he’s correct, there are interesting ways to approach a film. Anyway, therefore, poor people don’t actually hate rich people. And that’s a weird thing to be preoccupied with [when you don’t seem to know what poverty is], but it is what acutely offended him. He doesn’t like that the rich family is “wholly duped, and hint hint, readers can surely guess why: the rich are stupid! Don’t you get it?” I feel like, again, he’s focusing on the wrong thing.
Sure, the rich family is depicted as oblivious enough for the plot to work, but this doesn’t make them terrible people. They’re simply ignorant because they can afford to be. The film is communicating an idea, and the significance of that communication may override the artist’s desire for realism in a medium with the berth to allow such apparently bewildering profligacy. Tamny also describes Park So-dam’s character Kim Ki-jung as “strikingly beautiful,” which is the first time, in all her celebrity, I’ve ever heard anyone be a Creepy White Dude* about her. I know, man, that “T-shirt and pants” look was making me hot. Of course, anybody who’d argue as he does that the economic development of a country eradicates poverty (“Much has changed in this once desperately poor country, and it’s surely for the better”) is probably a rich Republican kind of guy (he doesn’t deny it). For the record, like Ki-jung, I myself am pretty skilled in graphic design, but I can’t prove it the way the next person can. I went to school for film — yes, me, that smart guy. You can’t just get a job in film, and like Kim Ki-woo, I actually work as a tutor right now, making $15 an hour minus 25% and not eight hours a day. All this, despite that America is a rich country like mighty South Korea. I am not poor, but this oddly coincidental anecdote should demonstrate the nuance in human experience. Everybody has a story, because people are not birds.
*I try not to make this reference, because I am also essentially that. I just couldn’t pass it up this time.
This is what really gets me, the implicit requisite for perfect victimhood. If you want a real movie about class struggle, the strugglers should really struggle! Fair enough, the backlash to “struggle media” wouldn’t happen until a year after he posted his review. The characters in Train to Busan are not Parasite-level impoverished — two Nintendo Wiis! — nor are the impoverished characters in Snowpiercer living in a truly realistic world. Either way, the review doesn’t help us here because he’s offended by the very idea of “class struggle” in media. I need him to say that Parasite doesn’t say much, but his argument requires it says too much. And it’s mean. And you can’t make a film about poor people if you have enough money to make a film! That’s hypocritical, and you’re already seeing the “I am very intelligent” guy in your head. If I believed his reaction came from a good place, there may have been something to pull, like, “Why does Parasite even prompt such a reaction?” Even after reading his review, I’m not confident it does. We’ll instead turn to the number-one Google hit, a New Yorker review by Richard Brody who begins by comparing Parasite favorably to Joker and noting Bong’s directorial skill.
Not off to a good start.
In fact, Brody summarizes the thematic core of the movie better than I would have:
“[Parasite] focusses its messaging to wreak a devastating twist on a dark truth of capitalism. Where the nineteenth-century robber baron Jay Gould infamously said ‘I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half,’ Bong suggests, in his whiplash-sardonic satire, that by hiring only one half of the working class, the rich are already in effect killing the other half—that, in the very search for work, the working class can be relied on to kill each other unbidden. The subject of the film is the nexus of unemployment, of gross inequality of opportunity, and of a system of competition that is designed to be fiercest at the bottom, where those with the least also have the strongest incentive to claw against each other in a struggle for survival.”
What ends up bothering Brody is the cleanliness of the plot, which is actually one of my favorite qualities about it. “With Parasite, the machinery is composed in the script, and what’s filmed is so stringently and narrowly subordinated to realizing those plans—and doing so in a way that’s both designed to reach its audience and that weirdly undercuts the movie’s own tone and design.” The proceedings do feel contrived, but this is Bong playing with reality and theatricality. I don’t know why that’s been challenging for these two dudes to grasp, these two dudes who’d surely hate each other if they met. It’s almost like there’s just something in the American sensibility that doesn’t allow magical realism or understand its narrative utility, and, well, we sure don’t like Mexico!
Should I be worried? Is this the thing American filmmakers won’t get? An American filmmaker like Adam McKay, producer of the future HBO Parasite, whose dramatic debut The Big Short hilariously and effectively cut away to celebrity cameos to explain finance?
Brody characterizes Parasite as an essentially “conservative” movie, and now we’re getting somewhere. The film looks “with bitter dismay at an order that falls short, a sense of law and of social organization that functions efficiently but misguidedly—that needs, in effect, more and better order.” And before you say, “Exactly how does it do that,” I think it’s in the statement not made. Does Parasite challenge the existing order? It doesn’t really say anything at all. Nothing we don’t know, that is.
Honestly, my own criticism in the past few years has been a shift away from the reading of film that locates a message in the end. My earlier self was content with a movie like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence because it closes on a beautiful message about human identity, in translating Donna Haraway’s philosophy on cyborgs to a narrative about dolls who don’t want to be children and a soulmate who’s disappeared into the Net. It’s a read I still agree with, but it’s an exception. More valuable now is the experience itself, not the summary, especially if you can write it on a napkin. However, if the experience turns that napkin-writing into a gut punch like in the K-drama Cheer Up!, then have your messages, please. My reaction to Parasite came from the drama of its human psychology, in seeing the bloody desperation of these characters who scramble over the floor for the phone to the dissolution of abstracts like hypocrisy or nobility. It’s suspenseful and darkly hilarious, and even sort of voyeuristic, likely the element tickling any negative review into being, the invitation to self-reflect. No one wins in Parasite, and we arrive at that conclusion breathless. But it’s still napkin-shaped.
Like the survivors in Romero’s mall, the poor Kim family soon takes to the rich family’s lifestyle like they’ve known nothing else. After the shocking midpoint twist, they’ll commit any violence to preserve what they have. This is the film’s broad appeal, and while highlighting South Korea’s poverty is important, this psychology is universally recognizable. We all fear being “demoted” to a lower social station, whether by losing our jobs or catching an illness. Nevertheless, it is true that this variety of human portraiture captured by Parasite is rare in American media. Take the recent Stillwater, for example, a surprising critique of American interventionism that thematically does everything right, yet remains largely a three-hour bore. So I’m asking two questions here, which is confusing me: one, how might the “class struggle” of Parasite make for a substantive critique, and two, how might American media learn to be brave enough to unseat “realism” as gospel?
HBO won the rights to adapt Parasite between the 2020 Golden Globes and the Oscars. After it won Best Picture, its box office revenue increased by 230%. As Olivia Ovenden writes in Esquire, “the fact [HBO] thinks that there’s an audience for a remake of something that’s not even globally released yet shows how embarrassingly small-minded audiences are about foreign-language cinema.” For many, this didn’t play well with the narrative being erected around Parasite at the time. After all, Bong Joon-ho’s memorable Golden Globes speech, in which he encouraged us to overcome the “one-inch tall barrier of subtitles,” is the cherry on top of the underdog story. “What can we learn from Parasite’s success?” Probably to watch Oldboy next, or Train to Busan! Oh, A Bittersweet Life! Man from Nowhere! Hey, we got Memories of Murder on Criterion. Maybe it worked for some people. But for others, was the barrier too tall? Ovenden goes on to lament that “the promise of an English adaptation that you can stream at home is yet another reason for viewers to be less adventurous and seek [Parasite] out at the cinema.”
Squid Game (2021)
Fast-forward one year and we’ve landed in the middle of a new subtitle debacle, with the viral charge that Netflix’s English translation of Squid Game loses so much nuance it’s practically a different show.
So what you’re telling me, universe, is don’t watch anything.
This was a discussion that tossed accessibility and labor and cultural relativism on the pile like so many poker chips. I actually worked in closed captions, because apparently I’m that guy in The Beauty Inside who does every job — but only those relevant to this post. Given that Sae-byeok’s code-switching between a North and South Korean accent will likely be lost on myself, the conclusion this discussion reached was that any given Korean-to-English translation will lose some meaning, and perhaps the Squid Game we watched was only as mind-blowing as we originally thought. I mean, with Jung Ho-yeon’s performance overall, I got the gist. But we’ll remember this as a useful analogy.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Squid Game is the first successful attempt at replicating the perverse appeal of Game of Thrones. That show inspired, as often happens, visual derivatives, from Vikings to See, and our current SF/fantasy lit gold rush. Not to mention all those pilots where a main character gets killed in the end. I mean, do you remember the doctrinal shift in SciFi Channel programming after Battlestar Galactica? They sure invested in high-quality dramas, not revivals of other cheesy ‘80s shows. Staring down the dragon maw of the first Game of Thrones franchise expansion (“sequel” was once the term), is the appeal gonna be “more fantasy drama” or “bad guys brutalizing the good guys”? Choose “Game” or “Thrones,” basically, and Squid Game’s choice is clear. Being a fraction the length of the HBO behemoth, it stays mean for its entire run.
But I didn’t watch Game of Thrones. And were it not for the intervention of my mother, a white woman, my Korean self would not have watched Squid Game, either. I don’t like nihilism, and I don’t like popular things. Granted, I never touched any survival game anything after Battle Royale, except for the second Hunger Games movie (I was with a group, it was alright, actually) and Battle Royale II: Requiem (which maybe explains the distaste). Mom is always sending me news stories about the K-dramas that make it to American screens, and Squid Game had the double effect of being a Netflix show. This is another source of my hesitation, even up until the first episode’s white-knuckle climax. I had just seen snatches of Clickbait, I keep hearing about Fear Street, and what about all that Netflix “anime” shit? Castlevania! The Witcher! Altered Carbon? The streaming service is a dumping ground for meme-ready sensationalism and mercenary strategy, which astoundingly wrings out quality product on occasion, like Mindhunter (my sacred cow) and the recent Sandra Oh-starrer The Chair. Would the already TikTok-approved Squid Game be more K-drama than Netflix?
I’d like to say that my first experience with Squid Game was its various iconography, like the robot girl, the masks, the green track suits, the colorful sets, Ali’s face in episode six, but I hadn’t seen any imagery before watching. This is — usually, anyway — how a show goes so viral, as mentioned by this Vulture article recounting the show’s astronomical success. Quoted in the article, Netflix Head of Global TV Bela Bajaria notes that people “tweeted and TikToked about it, and it just grew through word of mouth.” It’s a shareable show, its visual and thematic elements interfacing beautifully with the language of social media. People find funny and creative ways to, in effect, do the marketing, and should they take off the Roddy “Rowdy” sunglasses to realize this — mission accomplished.
Important as it is for a show to contain marketable elements in a digital age, the thoughtfulness of the art and production design challenges any charges of cynicism. Squid Game at first appears to be another Netflix grab for the headlines, but it morphs into something more considered. In fact, what strikes me about all three titles we’ve reviewed today is their purposeful simplicity. They don’t skirt back and forth in time, and their iconic imagery is rendered clearly, as in Squid Game’s stark color and daylight. The storytelling is universally understood even over the foreign dialogue, or so the logical wisdom goes. Of course, let’s not fall into a trap here, fellow storytellers, that simplicity is necessarily best. Squid Game manages to balance several intersecting storylines once the terms have been established, its mysteries properly hinted at.
Unfortunately, the mystery box at the heart of Squid Game induces a familiar sensation, watching the prolonged denouement and thinking, “make it or break it in the last five minutes.” I don’t know why some stories are constructed this way, where if the final payoff is missing, the whole thing doesn’t work, or you feel cheated. Long experiences like Mass Effect and Game of Thrones are invalidated in the end, like nothing that happened before even mattered. And like these and other examples, the ending to Squid Game isn’t too great. It’s not buoyed by the same suspense or tragedy as the rest of the series, but for our purposes here, it’s also unclear if it was a thematic conclusion. This was the key issue with Mass Effect 3. The relative fizzle prods me to locate the show’s core elsewhere, and if it’s anywhere, it’s probably episode six.
Episode six of Squid Game is one of the best episodes of television I’ve seen in a long time. Like the “Red Wedding,” or the wild first arc of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s third season, Squid Game goes all in, reaping its meticulous harvest and leaving very few plot threads for the show to address later and fully recover. It’s one of those things I seek out reaction videos for, like the endings of Oldboy and The Last of Us. I enjoy watching people cry, I guess.
It’s an interesting setup because Sang-woo is clearly not to be trusted, but Ali brings out the best in him, possibly suggesting the man he used to be. Ali is illustrated very, very basically, a wife and unnamed child back home, but it’s enough context for his active characterization. He saves protagonist Gi-hun during the first game, and is generally an all-around good guy. He’s even a little moe? At 33 years old, he’s got a hyung, a term I’d just learned from Madame Antoine. He’s heavy on those honorifics, an implicit acknowledgement of the dark-skinned immigrant’s place in a social hierarchy. It’s a dagger that he’s betrayed, and the actor Anupam Tripathi plays each step with heartbreaking clarity.
I think if the show is about anything, it’s the examination of human nature best expressed by these moments. In this, it does not render a judgment, as the lines of hero and villain are ever-shifting. We’re treated to a spectrum of reactions to the tournament — strategies, perhaps — with some players forced to break their principles in order to progress and maybe discover it wasn’t worth it. The only truly bad guy is the gangster Jang Deok-su, who started out bad (he’s not even a good gangster). To the show’s credit, while he makes it to the penultimate round, his cutthroat strategies are his downfall. I’m reminded here, actually, of Survivor, which I think ultimately promotes “socially-conscious” strategy in a competition setting. Then there’s Sang-woo, already alluded to, who betrays Ali, yells a guy to death, kills Sae-byeok, and attempts to kill Gi-hun. By the tail end of his streak, Park Hae-soo’s performance has taken on the tint of Chae Soo-bin’s turn in Cheer Up! He’s conflicted, but he’s very good at rationalizing. His final moment is one of self-sacrifice, perhaps contending with everything he’s done.
The unconcealed metaphor of Squid Game translates the signature competition of capitalism into the terms of a game, compressing the arc of a desperate life into microcosm. In the business, we call this “gamification,” and it’s always ugly. This compression, though, reveals flaws in the analogy. Not that the real world isn’t as violent and bloodthirsty, but that success in the game doesn’t map to anything real. An episode six recap in The Daily Dot raises an interesting idea, that the games in the tournament become increasingly ruthless, pushing the players into violence against each other. It’s even a teaching moment, “a parallel to the moral compromises required to become super-rich.” However, these games are also increasingly about luck, not skill (as pointed out by someone on Twitter at some time, in some space). Suddenly, the good and evil strategies are equally useful — or useless — with Deok-su finally getting his due at Han Mi-nyeo’s hands. Ruthlessness is part of becoming rich, but so is generational wealth. Let’s not give these bastards too much credit.
Gi-hun wins the game, including the bonus round, because he believes in the goodness of people and makes the morally correct choices. Unlike Ali, however, he’s just cynical enough to stay ahead of Sang-woo, even making a move to kill him in his sleep before Sae-byeok reminds him of who he really is. This is the character who ultimately chooses to do the “right” thing, to chase down that phone number and about-face in the jet bridge. It’s partly revenge, partly that he has no need for money anymore (a severely cruel but expected twist), and maybe some of that desperate, addictive personality we saw at the horse track now returning.
Where do these angry stories come from? We’re at the end of this post, as good a time as any to ask. In the previous one, about revenge movies, the theory was that the genre impulse comes from narratives encoded onto the peninsula’s DNA. From the 1953 ceasefire through the flirtation with authoritarianism, the Gwangju Massacre, South Korea’s vaunted economic recovery was like a fast-forward version of U.S. history, with all the revolutionary violence but no chance for a breather. Maybe we’re even looking at a shared ancestor, then, between revenge movies and our “capitalist critiques.” More than zero of its presidents have been convicted of crimes and imprisoned, an astonishing figure to “Equal Under God”-icans like me that grows all the more astonishing when you learn the actual number. And let’s not forget the chaebol, how corporate conglomeration is a word over there, and the academic competition so fierce it’s actually fatal. Whether or not I can see them from my house, South Korea remains a country with socioeconomic problems.
For example, the plight of foreign-born labor, as dramatized in Squid Game, or the debt crisis, which I fucking googled and learned about just now because I saw it dramatized in Squid Game. I’ve never been too sure about the organized crime part, but if you believe the many South Korean gangster movies, it’s a bloodbath over there. And if you follow anything South Korean politics or human interest, the conversation invariably flops back to the North, that dangling sword. Reunification would wreck the South Korean economy.
Jin Yu-young did the legwork in her article for The New York Times, interviewing Korean people about their experiences with the show. “Mr. Koo, who binge-watched ‘Squid Game’ in a single night, said he emphasized with the characters and their struggle to survive in the country’s deeply unequal society.” The key story twist in Squid Game that separates it from most other survival dramas or most dangerous games is that the contestants volunteer. Not right away, but when given the option to leave the mass murder arena, they find that their lives — labor, debt, crime, North — are hardly different. In fact, the only difference is the chance that the game offers. It is bound by egalitarian rules, unlike the real world pretty much anywhere. The squid game is all around us, man! You’re the squid! We’re all squid!
I know there have been contradictions throughout this post, and possibly willful misinterpretations of film terminology, but I think the problem I’m having is that my understanding of “social commentary,” the kind we’d consider difficult to replicate, is that it’s the point of the movie. In the revenge films, we expect there to be a statement on the nature of revenge, or at least a reveal of which side the writer was on — essentially, does the hero get revenge in the end? And how’s he feeling afterward? In these three capitalist critiques, whatever commentary is being expressed, however simple, is only motivating the dramatic action of its characters. And their ultimate arrangement in the narrative may point to the writers’ morality, but I’m still not finding the proverbial pamphlet embedded in the screen.
The aforementioned “shift” in “my criticism,” which is surely characterization beyond my means, happens in large part because of how ineffectual I’ve come to see art itself. I’ve really found the “Wow, Cool Robot!” meme useful. Taken to its logical extreme, if art worked, why does everything suck? Why aren’t we learning the lessons? My beloved Ghost in the Shell 2 is a very underrated sequel, and often out of print. Honestly, when provided the opportunity, I don’t think people care enough to let the message in, because the journey was so full of “bad CG” or whatever. I begin to wonder if this is how we should even think about structuring stories, with the 50-page-long sermon at the end telling us the bad philosophy. Will people remember Gi-hun’s final morality a couple years from now when Squid Game 2 is announced? Will I? We’ll definitely be thinking about Ali’s last moments, about the singing robot, the extreme violence, and dalgona. These are the things that reached out and touched us emotionally, not intellectually. They were tragic or frightening or nostalgic or just interesting.
So if I wanted to revise the original concerns about Korean-to-American adaptations, I’d frame them as a question: how will you reach out, and what emotions do you hope to create? What makes these three titles work isn’t anything specific to Korea, it’s good storytelling. I think that, generally speaking, there may be a cultural fascination with themes of capitalism just like with revenge, zombies, and phone calls from the future. No doubt, South Korea’s unique history makes some of these themes prominent in the minds of its storytellers, but I think I’m comfortable seeing our creative drivers today as great storytellers first and Korean storytellers second. It’s an uneasy balance, and maybe an unsatisfactory one, because we’d like foreign imports to be foreign and true, to be envoys into cultures not our own. But good storytelling can come from anywhere, from any history, and so we’ll all hope that even America will someday figure it out, too.
One thought on “Three More the Korean Way: Wow, Cool Capitalist Critique!”
Here’s a good follow-up from Vox, a discussion of the specific cultural background to Squid game, for example, how Ji-yeong’s acceptance of death is specifically Korean: