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. 

Oldboy

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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