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By Dr. Elaine Chang, School of English and Theatre Studies, College of Arts
Note: The following article contains spoilers about “Squid Game.”
In the hit Netflix series Squid Game, players participate in deadly children’s games in order to win prize money.
By some fishy calculation, the players’ lives are valued less than their debt. An enormous plexiglass piggy bank suspended high above their barracks rubs this indignity into every upturned survivor’s face as it fills at the rate of 100 million won — approximately $105,470 — per eliminated contestant. This jackpot eventually builds to 45.6 billion won.
The games are six contests based on children’s games, and contestants play to win and survive. The price assigned to each player is just one part of the shady accounting and quasi-legal manoeuvring that brings them to Squid Game‘s theatres of cruelty and macabre comedy. What’s more, the players have signed contracts agreeing to pay and play.
Contracts and payments
Before taking part in these games, the show’s protagonist Seong Gi-hun is given the choice by a loan shark to postpone payment of his gambling debts by signing a “Waiver of Physical Rights,” which would allow for the removal of his organs.
Later in the episode, a well-dressed man approaches Gi-hun in a subway station with an offer Gi-hun can’t refuse: an invitation to play a game of chance for cash if he wins or slaps to the face if he loses.
After a string of defeats and stinging blows, Gi-hun’s luck turns. But as he gloats over his winnings, the man rattles off Gi-hun’s consolidated lifetime debts and interest accrued to date to banks, payday loaners, gangsters and other predatory lenders. The amounts are garnished with the coldest facts of Gi-hun’s life, including his divorce.
Cornered, Gi-hun agrees to sign a Player Consent Form, making him the 456th participant in games for higher gains.
Likewise, agreements made prior to the consent form, both ironclad and flimsy as squid floss (a popular Korean snack), figure in the backstories of other players. These include Ali, the altruistic and trusting Pakistani migrant worker cheated by his boss, and Kang Sae-byeok, who escaped North Korea with her brother with the help of an unscrupulous smuggler.
But no one needs to flee the grimmest totalitarian state on Earth to see how Squid Game barely exaggerates how certain people are reduced to what they owe.
Read more: ‘Squid Game’ is influenced by the horror of survival comics and real-life debt
In Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude the famous “banana massacre” honours the strikers against the United Fruit Company in 1928, who were shot and killed by the Colombian military. In García Márquez’s novel, grievances precipitating the strike include the banana company’s payment of workers in chits, redeemable only in the company’s commissaries (and then only for Virginia ham that never materializes). But as the workers had been hired on a “temporary” basis, a court rules in the company’s favour: “the workers did not exist.”
Similarly, Squid Game’s competitors do not exist beyond the profit- and pleasure-generating potential of their desperation, magnified for the entertainment of creepy, bedazzled mask-wearing VIPs and the games’ captain, who enjoys a scotch and a big-band rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” as he watches players trample dead bodies to the finish line of the first game.
Like García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Squid Game can be understood as a work of magical realism, because its most fanciful elements are presented as stark factual matters.
In 1997, it was revealed that the pilot responsible for the Korean Air Flight 801 crash slapped his co-pilot in the face while hearing his respectful, halting warnings as nothing but insubordination.
Phoney meritocracies and suspect contracts are not unique to South Korea. In 2010, retail giant Walmart was sued for taking out secret life insurance policies on its employees.
Paper promises like Squid Game‘s player consent form are cynical nods to individual consent and free and equal agency. Clause 3 permits players to suspend the games by popular vote, and in the second episode, it is enacted when a nail-bitingly narrow majority vote is held to cancel the games, only for most players to return, unable to resist the possibility of debt emancipation.
This resembles many bogus contracts where human lives are exchanged for labour or money, like those signed by Korean “comfort women” during the Second World War as if in willing exchange for their bodies.
In Squid Game, labour agreements seem built to be broken, but only in one direction. Episode 5 features Gi-hun’s flashback to a strike against his former employer, including police beatings of protesters. This scenario was based on the real-life auto manufacturer Ssangyong and the 2009 layoff of 2,646 factory workers, only some of whom received restitution after a lengthy battle in Korean courts.
Squid Game also highlights ongoing education inequities due to poverty. Fiery player No. 212, Han Mi-nyeo, laments that while she is smart, she didn’t have the opportunity to study. This can be contrasted with Gi-hun’s childhood frenemy, Cho Sang-woo (player No. 218), who climbed the social ladder to prestigious Seoul National, but is wanted for embezzlement.
That money is itself contractual — certified in its printed status as “legal tender” — slaps Squid Game fans in the face each time payouts cascade into the piggy bank.
Capitalizing on the show’s mammoth popularity, cryptocurrency scammers stole some US$2.15 million from buyers by jacking up the price of tokens to play an as yet nonexistent online game based on the series. The defrauders cashed out on Nov. 1, right after the funny money — called Squid — surged to US$2,861 per unit.
But what distinguishes real money from fake? Is debt as real as it gets, and the possibility of wealth a necessary fiction?
Unlike the guards engaged in their side hustle selling dead players’ organs, the audience watches the desecration with equal parts outrage and empathy. We might also share a rueful laugh at the end of Episode 1’s carnage, reminded that the billionaire trio of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk are flying themselves to the moon.
The magical realism of the show draws from contemporary South Korean culture’s mix of advanced technologies and traditional hierarchies, but the represented inequities also reflect global truths about how we value human labour and life.