Archives for November 2021

Squid Game, another shaggy dog story from S. Korea

Squid Game

There is a famous Hol­ly­wood adage which states that the audi­ence only ever remem­bers the final reel. In oth­er words, it’s all down to the end­ing. And the dizzy hys­te­ria that Net­flix’s Squid Game was first greet­ed by on its arrival has now been tem­pered by a gen­er­al sense of dis­ap­point­ment with its ending. 

And, with­out in any way spoil­ing it for any­one who’s yet to sam­ple its delights, here’s what the prob­lem is.

Squid Game, as pret­ty much every­body knows by now, is about two things. On the one hand it’s a quest, as hun­dreds of indi­vid­u­als set off on a jour­ney to win it. And of the hun­dreds who set off, only one can even­tu­al­ly emerge tri­umphant. The catch being, once you’re elim­i­nat­ed, you are lit­er­al­ly killed. 

So on the oth­er, it’s about the sort of soci­ety that pro­duces the kind of des­per­a­tion that its cit­i­zens are pre­pared to go in pur­suit of a prize know­ing they’re almost cer­tain­ly going to get killed in the attempt. It is then a cri­tique of the kind of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety that South Korea exemplifies. 


And the it, the prize they’re all quest­ing after? A big bag of mon­ey. Which then pos­es a conun­drum. Giv­en that the series so clear­ly looks down on cap­i­tal, what are we to make of the per­son who even­tu­al­ly wins it? The one we’ve pre­sum­ably been root­ing for, when all he or she has been doing it for is money? 

Clear­ly, it’s a sto­ry that demands a rev­e­la­tion explain­ing why it was that they were all put through all that. It needs, in oth­er words, some sort of gen­uine­ly sur­pris­ing and mean­ing­ful twist. And, in a word, Squid Game comes up short. 

Any­one famil­iar with Kore­an cin­e­ma will not be ter­ri­bly sur­prised at this. We’ve been here before, most notably with Park Chan-wook’s Old­boy. Which is what used to be called a shag­gy dog sto­ry. Which is a joke that goes on and on before final­ly fail­ing to deliv­er a punch­line. The joke being at the expense of the lis­ten­er for hav­ing wast­ed their time wait­ing for one – for the ulti­mate shag­gy dog sto­ry, see my review of Christo­pher Nolan’s The Pres­tige here.

The prob­lem being, nei­ther Old­boy nor Squid Game, or for that mat­ter The Pres­tige, are intend­ed as shag­gy dog sto­ries. Rather, they just get blind­ly intox­i­cat­ed at the prospect of for­ev­er increas­ing the ten­sion by con­tin­u­al­ly rais­ing the stakes. 

They know the reac­tion that this will pro­duce in the audi­ence, and it thrills them. And they refuse to acknowl­edge that at some point, that audi­ence is going to demand some answers to all the ques­tions that that ten­sion has so impres­sive­ly generated. 

The Pres­tige. Seriously?

Sure­ly, they rea­son, if you’ve just watched all nine hours of a 9 episode tele­vi­sion dra­ma, and 8 ½ hours of it has been that engross­ing, you’re not going to mind if that last half hour leaves a bit to be desired?

Alas no. Because, as with all clichés, this one too is true. It real­ly is only ever the last reel that the audi­ence ever remem­bers. And that’s what we’ll all remem­ber about Squid Game. That, and the inex­plic­a­ble hoopla that its arrival was first greet­ed with. But that as they say is anoth­er story. 

You can see the trail­er to Squid Game here:

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