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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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, clever video game, dreary drama.

Black Mirror:Bandersnatch.

Erst­while tele­vi­sion crit­ic and screen­writer Char­lie Brook­er launched Black Mir­ror in 2011 on Chan­nel Four, and in 2015 he and it moved over to Net­flix for its third season. 

Sort of a cross between the Twi­light Zone and Tales of the Unex­pect­ed, each episode presents a one-off, stand alone fable that explores a tech­no­log­i­cal dystopia set in the very near future.  Invari­ably, the sto­ries revolve around a soci­etal What if ques­tion that is tak­en to its log­i­cal extreme.

The top­ics that each episode explore are momen­tar­i­ly intrigu­ing, and it’s all glar­ing­ly au courant, that is to say trendible, so the first twen­ty min­utes are gen­er­al­ly fair­ly enter­tain­ing. But invari­ably the episode soon fiz­zles out, because Brook­er is not real­ly con­cerned with, and there­fore not much good at, dra­ma. He’s all too eas­i­ly daz­zled by the clev­er­ness of his ini­tial con­ceit. And his lat­est, Ban­der­snatch, con­tin­ues the trend.

Black Mir­ror.

Nom­i­nal­ly a fea­ture film, it’s his and Netflix’s attempt at that much her­ald­ed hybrid, the inter­ac­tive film. The idea of an inter­ac­tive film emerged about 25 years ago as the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion took off, and there were a num­ber of fac­tors that brought it into being.

First, DVDs replaced video, and with them came the advent of the delet­ed scene. At the same time, a new gen­er­a­tion of video game con­soles arrived, offer­ing mas­sive­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed graph­ics. And the evolv­ing world of Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty promised an even more impres­sive visu­al land­scape, from which who knew what might emerge. 

So view­ers began to ask them­selves, what if we could decide what hap­pens in a sto­ry? Could we choose a ver­sion of the film with those delet­ed scenes, instead of the one that the film mak­ers end­ed up decid­ing on? And if so, what oth­er things could we change about the sto­ries we watch? Ban­der­snatch is the real­iza­tion of that fantasy.

Your first deci­sion, to ease you in.

So, as ever, for the first twen­ty min­utes, you’re intrigued. You get ten sec­onds to make a black or white, Yes or No deci­sion. And the sto­ry pro­gress­es, and ends, accord­ing to the deci­sions you make. Except it doesn’t.

Inevitably, if you make the “wrong” choice or choic­es, the film ends pre­ma­ture­ly, and you’re offered the oppor­tu­ni­ty to go back to your “wrong” deci­sion, and choose the oth­er option. Of course you could polite­ly decline, turn off your devise and pick up a book instead. But obvi­ous­ly you don’t, you go back to fol­low the alter­na­tive sto­ry lines, with their choice of end­ings, to see what oth­er ways the sto­ry could have gone. 

Our hero’s been offered a deal, what does he do?

Which is an inter­est­ing idea, and it’s all ter­ri­bly meta and fright­ful­ly clever. But as soon as you can go back and change your deci­sion, that deci­sion no longer has any weight or val­ue. So any sense of ten­sion and all the dra­ma is imme­di­ate­ly neutered. 

When one char­ac­ter says to our hero, one of us is going to jump off this build­ing, who’s it going to be…And the action freezes for a jagged 10 sec­onds, and youhave to decide who, that’s exhil­a­rat­ing, and fright­en­ing and thrilling. But as soon as you can go back, and make the oth­er deci­sion, just to see what hap­pens, before you know it, you’ll be glanc­ing at your phone to see what you’ve missed since you start­ed play­ing the game. 

And there’s the rub. Because inter­ac­tive dra­mas already exist. They are called video games, which is what this is. And as a video game, it’s real­ly inter­est­ing. Because what it shows is that the future of video games lies not with VR, but with live action. Ban­der­snatch is what video games will look like the day after tomorrow. 

Which is a real­ly inter­est­ing polemic. And a polemic, like all the oth­er Black Mir­ror episodes, is what this should have remained as. Had it appeared as an arti­cle in Van­i­ty Fair, or in one of the Guardian sup­ple­ments, it would have pro­vid­ed for a real­ly inter­est­ing dis­trac­tion. But as a dra­ma, nev­er mind a 90 minute plus dra­ma, it’s woe­ful­ly dull and pro­gres­sive­ly tedious.

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BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s secret sleeper star

BoJack Horse­man.

Sea­son 4 of BoJack Horse­man aired on Net­flix this past autumn, and if you’ve yet to be point­ed in its very par­tic­u­lar direc­tion you’re in for a treat. It’s the lat­est in the long line of ani­mat­ed, adult drame­dies that stretch­es back to South Park (reviewed ear­li­er here), King of the Hill, Beav­is and Butthead and of course the Simp­sons.

Ensconced in his hill­top, pent­house apart­ment in the myth­i­cal LA sub­urb of Hol­ly­woo, BoJack is a washed-up has­been who used to the star of the squeaky-clean sit­com Horsin’ Around, who spends his days in a drug-fuelled, alco­holic haze of priv­i­leged self-pity.

Diane, Todd and BoJack.

The show’s stilet­to humour stems from two sources. On the one hand, it’s a glo­ri­ous­ly acer­bic pick­ing apart of the media land­scape as the worlds of film, tele­vi­sion and pub­lish­ing are glee­ful­ly trashed. Bril­liant­ly barbed one lin­ers are fired back and forth with sar­cas­tic brio, in the way that was sup­posed to have been done in the, whis­per it, dis­ap­point­ing­ly over­rat­ed His Girl Fri­day.

And on the oth­er, half of the char­ac­ters are, by the bye, ani­mals. So Bojack is in fact an actu­al horse. But his ston­er house­guest Todd is a 20 some­thing guy, and Diane, his soul­mate and ghost writer is a 20 some­thing girl. She though is mar­ried to BoJack’s best fren­e­my Mr. Peanut­but­ter, who’s a gold­en Labrador. And his agent Princess Car­o­line is a cat, who lat­er hooks up with a wealthy mouse, heir to the Stil­ton Hotel for­tune. What all this allows for is some fan­tas­ti­cal­ly laboured puns and slap­stick, togeth­er with a pletho­ra of ridicu­lous­ly elab­o­rate setups that even­tu­al­ly pro­duce won­der­ful­ly sil­ly pay-offs.

The main man, Raphael Bob-Waksberg.

All of which would be enjoy­able enough. But what real­ly ele­vates the series is the emo­tion­al depth and com­plex­i­ty that they man­age to reap from the soapy sto­ry­lines that they hang all this on. They do this, as Emi­ly Nuss­baum writes in her piece in the New York­er here, by expand­ing the show’s hori­zons from sea­son 2 on, by giv­ing each of the pro­tag­o­nists their own sto­ry­lines, instead of just focus­ing on BoJack, as they do in sea­son 1. So you end up being as invest­ed in Todd, Diane, Princess Car­o­line and even Mr Peanut­tbut­ter, as you do in BoJack.

The result is both the fun­ni­est, and the most engag­ing show cur­rent­ly being aired any­where on tele­vi­sion. And it’s hard not to con­clude that its showrun­ner and chief writer Raphael Bob Waks­berg is some sort of a lat­ter day Dorothy Park­er. If you’ve yet to sam­ple its delights, then by all means begin at the begin­ning, with sea­son 1. But be warned, it gets sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter from sea­son 2 on.

You can see the trail­er for sea­son 4 of BoJack Horse­man here. And here’s a 10 minute com­pi­la­tion of some of the fun­ni­est bits from sea­son 2 here.

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Netflix, What Is It And Should I Sign Up?

Net­flix is the most suc­cess­ful Video On Demand provider in the US. And despite its impres­sive attempt at shoot­ing itself in the foot last year by need­less­ly solv­ing a non-exis­tent prob­lem, it’s like­ly to remain so for the fore­see­able future.

For a small month­ly fee (€7 in Ire­land), they give you access to their library of films and tele­vi­sion series, which you can then stream as many as you like of via your inter­net connection.

So its prin­ci­ple sell­ing points are, that on the one hand you don’t waste any of your pre­cious hard dri­ve space, as all of the titles are stored cen­tral­ly by Net­flix. And on the oth­er, you have an exten­sive and lim­it­less choice of titles to pick from. So, your access to the inter­net aside, what’s it like?

Well it’s cer­tain­ly easy to sign up to, and they pride them­selves on mak­ing it as pain­less as pos­si­ble to unsub­scribe from as well. The idea being, that the ser­vice they pro­vide is some­thing you can come back to at your leisure, when some­thing you see there catch­es your eye. And I imag­ine that many of the peo­ple who availed of their intro­duc­to­ry free month tri­al will very prob­a­bly con­tin­ue to sub­scribe sub­se­quent­ly. After all, you real­ly only need to see a cou­ple of films, or a tv series in any giv­en month to jus­ti­fy the price of €7.

But if they’re hop­ing to make a seri­ous dent in the mar­ket on this side of the Atlantic, then they’ll have to sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand the num­ber of titles they give you to choose from. Nat­u­ral­ly they’re only start­ing up now, and it’s very much a work in progress, but it is none the less a dis­ap­point­ing­ly lim­it­ed selection.

On a more gen­er­al lev­el, what impact is stream­ing going to have on our every day lives? Well, as with most things con­nect­ed with the inter­net, it’s not so much the death of one thing and the birth of the next, as it is a re-imag­in­ing of the over­all landscape.

Just as cin­e­ma was not in fact killed off by the advent of tele­vi­sion, and then video, dvd, cable and satel­lite. On the con­trary, it was strength­ened with their arrival by hav­ing its reach sig­nif­i­cant­ly extend­ed. In effect, they pro­vide cin­e­ma with what amounts to a whole new mar­ket in which to prof­it from. So too the inter­net, and specif­i­cal­ly stream­ing will serve to yet fur­ther extend that reach, and to ever more firm­ly bind them all together.

The rea­son why stream­ing can nev­er replace cin­e­ma or indeed tele­vi­sion is sim­ple. It’s com­plete­ly reliant on the Hol­ly­wood stu­dios that make so much of all the film and tele­vi­sion that peo­ple most want to see for all its con­tent. And those stu­dios are only every going to drip feed the likes of Net­flix after their cash cows, the Har­ry Pot­ters and the Bat­mans, have duly earnt their crust in cin­e­mas and on main­stream tele­vi­sion first.

The only way around that is for Net­flix to begin pro­duc­ing its own con­tent, which is exact­ly what it’s begun doing. But it can no more be cer­tain of pro­duc­ing the next sure fire hit than any­one else can, and would need in effect to become a rival stu­dio in order to be able to com­pete on a lev­el play­ing field. Which is of course what Sky has done by join­ing forces with 20th Cen­tu­ry Fox. So rather than replac­ing any­thing, stream­ing becomes one more arm in an over­all, glob­al media strategy.

But the main and most obvi­ous rea­son why stream­ing is most like­ly to add to rather than sub­tract from how we watch and lis­ten to films, tele­vi­sion and music is quite sim­ply numbers.

In 1920, the world passed the two bil­lion mark. Since then, it’s more than tre­bled, and by the mid­dle of this cen­tu­ry that num­ber will have more than quadru­pled. Fur­ther­more, the num­ber of peo­ple who now live in what is known as the devel­oped world has explod­ed over the same peri­od. So there are incal­cu­la­bly more peo­ple now all try­ing to watch and lis­ten to the same sorts of things.

Add to that the fact all sur­veys sug­gest that those who do down­load, whether legal­ly or ille­gal­ly, tend to spend more than they used to on their enter­tain­ment, and it all points to the same thing. Stream­ing is one more means for a huge­ly enhanced land­scape to expand even further.