This review of Squid Game contains spoilers.
Top image: Netflix
Korean melodramas are hardly my cup of tea. They’re cheesy, illogical, and everyone looks like a walking ad for plastic surgery. I can’t see how the plot of any Korean melodrama could garner a passing mark if it were a PSLE English composition—nor can I see any self-respecting Executive Producer in Singapore approving any script from a Korean melodrama. But I digress.
So it pains me to say that, hey, actually Squid Game is not bad.
And yes, Squid Game is a melodrama. It’s dressed up with elements of suspense and survival dramas, but make no mistake—it is a melodrama. Its lack of a romantic story arc doesn’t preclude it from being a melodrama, as the show makes up for it with copious scenes that belabour the emotional impact of everything in the show.
But to be honest, it is a fun concept. The show revolves around a group of desperate people who are offered the chance to win 45.6 billion won (about SGD 53.6 million according to Google) if they survive six rounds of lethal games that are ostensibly based on children’s games in South Korea. These people come from all walks of life, with their only commonality being their desire for money. And, as melodramas are wont to do no matter how they’re dressed up, we eventually learn about each of them and their true colours. You also know that it’s a melodrama because there are nine episodes and six games—what a cop-out—so there’s going to be lots of melodramatic padding, two whole episodes worth, to be precise.
The show opens with the main character Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and shows you how pathetic his life is. But the show takes pain to drive home the fact that he loves his daughter, and that becomes his driving raison d’etre. It’s a bit reminiscent of Ant-Man’s Scott Lang, but it’s a reasonably common archetype. His characterisation is touching; it cements his status as a main character, and it gives us a reason to root for him when he takes part in the first game.
But since the show spends so much time on Gi-hun’s back story, it also results in a predictable outcome. Would you spend an inordinate amount of time on a character and kill him off in the game? At the very least, you’re going to want to milk his death scene for as long as possible, so that already killed any tension when it came to Gi-hun. He’s going to survive. I know he is. The show can pretend he’s in danger, but I already know the outcome of any game with him in it.
That leaves us with the other characters in the show, who (surprise!) don’t get as much screen time when it comes to their backstory. That means their survival isn’t guaranteed, and to me, that’s where the drama lies. You have a geriatric, a migrant worker, an investment banker, a gangster, a pickpocket, and an annoying woman as the starring characters.
Yes, an annoying woman who repeatedly and loudly declares that her name is Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryoung) in the show because there isn’t any other way to remind the audience of her name. Having one over the top thespian in any show is more than enough, but she’s accompanied by Lee Jung-jae’s overacting as well.
To set up his character, we have to see how much of a loser he is, and he hams it up so much in the beginning. To be fair, both actors can do serious, dramatic scenes. Still, anything beyond that and the acting devolves into witch-like cackling and movements (for Kim) or goofy shenanigans (for Lee).
Fortunately, you have the games themselves to distract you from their interactions. They’re relatively fun, diverse, and easily comprehensible. But what makes them memorable is the evocative set design for each game.
You have bright, almost whimsical Wes Anderson-ish colours that distinguish each game from the next—although as the number of survivors decreases, so does the overall cheeriness of the colour palette. And the establishing shots are crafted with such meticulous mise-en-scene that you can’t help but fall in love with the visuals.
That’s where Squid Game excels. The story might be derivative and predictable, but the visuals are so meme-worthy—certainly not the producers’ intention, of course—and bold that they etch themselves into your mind long after the episode is over.
But the story is predictable. It rarely deviates from whatever it has blatantly foreshadowed earlier, and you can see it coming a mile away. Then there’s always some sort of long overdramatic confrontation which hammers home something we already know. The quality of those scenes isn’t that bad, but it just feels like it could be resolved in two sentences. I dozed off at some of the major “revelations” because they just kept repeating the same point ad infinitum.
And to me, the most interesting part of the show is going to be in the heavily implied second season, which is the choice of the games themselves, their purpose, and the people behind them.
Sure, the show gives us an explanation for them—but what about those symbols (the Playstation-esque circle-triangle-square)? Are they a subtle plug for Sony’s constantly understocked PS5s, or do they have a stronger spiritual meaning? Will we have a grand reveal about them, or will they end up like Lost’s numbers? The first episode made me want to watch more, not because of some guy and his daughter, but because the villains were so intriguing.
So yes, I’d say Squid Game is not bad. It’s not gripping, as evidenced by the fact that I fell asleep at the repetitive emotional beats. But it’s nice to look at, it feels a little hipster, and it does have a proper cliffhanger that leaves you wanting more.
But it’s still a melodrama at heart.