Comics, gymnastics classes and a workplace drama: the true story behind 'The Squid Game'

‘The Squid Game’ is the hottest series. In just two weeks since its premiere, it has already become the Most-watched release in Netflix history, with more than 110 million viewers worldwide (although this figure has the trap that the platform counts anyone who has seen at least two minutes). To put the data in context, it is equivalent to half of the company’s subscribers.

For those who still do not know what it is about, this Korean drama tells the story of Seong Gi-hun, a former car factory worker that he loses his job and fails in his business project with which he was trying to overcome. Unable to live up to the expectations of his mother, an elderly woman who barely supports him, and his daughter, who lives a good life with her mother and stepfather, Gi-hun enlists in a macabre competition in which 456 people risk their lives to obtain a large financial reward.

Of course, it is a fiction. There is no competition to the death sponsored by mysterious wealthy people – or it is very well hidden – but there is a part of the script that is based on reality. “I wanted to make an allegory or a fable of modern capitalist society, something that represented extreme competition, something like the extreme competition of life, but I wanted to use the type of characters that we have all met in real life,” explains the series creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk a ‘Variety’.

And the character he had in mind was someone very present in the South Korean collective imagination. In one of the first chapters, Gi-hun tells his colleagues that he was fired from the car company Dragon Motors and that he was at the forefront of the strike against the company that everyone knew from the news. This is a clear allusion to Ssangyong Motor, which in 2009 carried out a multitude of massive layoffs, causing workers to riot. In fact, the name of the brand means ‘the double dragon’ in Korean and its symbol is two facing semicircles that represent such a concept.

The consequences of the Ssangyong crisis were devastating for many Korean families. The company reached an agreement for the early retirement of 1,700 employees, but the rest were left to their own devices, which caused 974 of those who had been laid off occupied the plant. As reflected in the series, the eviction by the police was very violent. In real life, fifty people were injured.

Lee Chang-geun, one of the factory workers who suffered the Ssangyong drama, was among the first to realize the parallelism. “During the Chuseok holidays [festividad típica coreana que se celebra en otoño] the people around me told me that I should see the series, but when I saw the scene in which my colleagues and I were beaten by the police, the idea went out of my head, “he says on his Facebook wall. However, It gave him a chance by wondering why the director was shooting this scene and what message he was trying to convey: “If there is an opportunity, I would like to meet him and talk.”

“I wanted to make an allegory of capitalist society, the extreme competition of life, but with characters that we have all known”

“Lee is right that I used Ssangyong Motor as a benchmark. I thought that this incident would help explain how a normal guy like Gi-hun could fall so far, “admitted the creator of the series in an interview with the medium. ‘Hankyoreh’. “In a capitalist society, anyone can find himself in the position of Gi-hun at any time. Even now, many people are fired from their jobs or lose them when the company goes under,” he says.

Without going any further, the realistic base of the series reaches the present: “Gi-hun opens a fried chicken restaurant that ends up closing, just like the owners of small companies They are having problems currently due to covid-19. I wanted to create a character that could represent people like that. That is what I can do as an artist. But meeting Lee for a conversation would be a different matter, and it’s hard to say if that would be appropriate for an artist, “he argues.

The nostalgia game

The socio-economic conflicts in his country were not his only sources of inspiration: “I freely admit that I have taken a lot of inspiration from Japanese comics and animation over the years.” Hwang Dong-hyuk gave shape to his idea in 2008, in the midst of the economic crisis, but at that time he thought it would be too complex and violent to be accepted by society. “I myself was in financial trouble and spent a lot of time in cafes reading comics like ‘Battle Royale’ and ‘Liar Game’. I came to wonder how I would feel if I participated in the games myself, “he admits.

But, unlike those manga, Dong-hyuk did not want the protagonist of his work to be a genius: “The story is about a loser, not a hero”. For this to make sense, the tests the characters undergo could not be brainy puzzles, hence he decided to rely on the most popular children’s games in his country. “The squid game was one of my favorite games. I thought it could be the most symbolic and the one that could best represent the type of society in which we live,” he details.

The participants in ‘The Squid Game’ wear green (the usual color for gymnastics uniforms) and the guards wear red (complementary color). (Netflix)

There is no doubt that childhood plays a very important role in the aesthetics of the series. Perhaps from the outside it is not appreciated so much, but there are many elements that invite nostalgia: from the Doshirak instant noodles that Gi-hun eats in the third chapter —very typical of Korean school life—, to the costumes of the participants in the test green light, red light: a tracksuit reminiscent of the gym uniform that many students in the Asian country have had to wear during their academic years.

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