As big as BTS: Squid Game director on why Netflix thriller's global success is not a surprise – ‘the most Korean is the most universal'

Asia's Tech News Daily

Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, Squid Game, Silenced, Netflix’s Kingdom, Battle Royale, full story

By Lee Gyu-lee

Netflix Korean original drama series Squid Game has become the newest global hallyu, or Korean wave. A sensation worldwide, the series looks set to emulate the success of director Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite.

Since its release on September 17, Squid Game has dominated the global platform’s streaming charts around the world, including in the US, in a first for a Korean drama series.

Director Hwang Dong-hyuk, who both wrote and directed Squid Game, says the global success of the Netflix series came as no surprise to him, partly because he had the global market in mind from the start.

Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, Squid Game, Silenced, Netflix’s Kingdom, Battle Royale, full story

A scene from Netflix’s Squid Game.

“The most Korean is the most universal,” he says. “BTS, Psy and director Bong Joon-ho have already proved that. Korea’s old children’s games, which were used in my series, are simple and old, but I saw the potential to make them appealing worldwide.”

The survival thriller series is about 456 people, including down-and-out Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), playing deadly rounds of children’s games to become the ultimate survivor and win 45.6 billion won (US$39.4 million).

The popularity of the series has led to a Squid Game craze, from social media memes to online sales of merchandise such as Dalgona candy packs, Korean-style lunchboxes and the players’ T-shirts.

Hwang, the director of drama Silenced and the period film The Fortress, says the success of Squid Game felt like a “roller coaster ride”.

“The production crew and I would joke about our series starting a Dalgona craze, like how Netflix’s Kingdom did with the gat – a traditional Korean hat – but I’m astounded that it actually happened,” he says.

Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, Squid Game, Silenced, Netflix’s Kingdom, Battle Royale, full story

(From left) Park Hae–soo, Lee Jung-jae and Jung Ho-yeon in a scene from Squid Game.

The simplicity of the games and the subplots of the characters meant the series resonated with global audiences. These characteristics make Squid Game different from previous releases of a similar genre, such as Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, he says.

Squid Game involves survival games, but it’s actually about people … So it doesn’t take long for audiences anywhere to understand the rules of the games, which gives more room for them to follow the emotions of the characters who are playing the games,” Hwang says.

“Other similar genre series or films follow one hero solving difficult puzzles to become a winner. But this series is a story of losers. There are no winners – no geniuses – but rather a person who takes each step forward with the help of others.”

Each night before filming, I would always think about ways to make the scenes better and revise the scripts. The level of stress that I was under was a full 100 per cent

Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game director

The director came up with the plot in 2008 and had written the script a year later. But because of its bizarre concept, the series took more than a decade to see the light of day, he explains.

“But after about 12 years, the world has changed into a place where such peculiar, violent survival stories are actually welcomed,” he says. “People commented on how the series is relevant to real life. Sadly, the world has changed in that direction.

“The series’ games that participants go crazy over align with people’s desires to hit the jackpot with things like cryptocurrency, real estate and stocks. So many people have been able to empathise with the story.”

Despite the massive success of Squid Game, the director says the production was a gamble for him.

“Making the story into the series was still an adventure, just as it was about a decade ago. I knew that it would be all or nothing; either a masterpiece or a quirky flop,” he adds. “The idea behind this work was very experimental. So I would keep on asking myself if audiences will find it convincing that the characters are risking their lives to play children’s games.”

He says he found the entire process, from writing the script to filming, immensely stressful.

Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, Squid Game, Silenced, Netflix’s Kingdom, Battle Royale, full story

A still from Squid Game.

“Each night before filming, I would always think about ways to make the scenes better and revise the scripts. The level of stress that I was under was a full 100 per cent, which hit me hard,” he says. “I’ve always considered every work as a challenge, but this piece had a much higher risk, so I put all my effort into making it a good one.”

His efforts to make the show convincing meant he was particularly careful choosing the children’s games that feature in the series.

“I came up with which games to use in the story about 10 years ago. And it was, to begin with, the red light, green light game that makes a big impact with shocking mass deaths,” he says.

He chose the squid game as the last round because it aligns with the irony of the series, he adds. “I thought players fighting like warriors using the shapes, which form a ring, would demonstrate the irony of it being a children’s game, as well as the players’ desperation.”

Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, Squid Game, Silenced, Netflix’s Kingdom, Battle Royale, full story

Lee Yoo-mi (left) and Jung in a scene from Squid Game.

Hwang says balancing the fiction and the realistic elements in the story to appeal to a wider audience was difficult.

“Such a situation would never happen in real life, so it’s unrealistic and could possibly only appeal to those who like this specific genre. So I had to find the perfectly even balance between fantastic and real-life elements,” he says.

He has a few ideas about a possible second season, but he refuses to make a definitive statement about a sequel.

Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, Squid Game, Silenced, Netflix’s Kingdom, Battle Royale, full story

The Hunger games: Mockingjay Part 2 is from a similar genre as Squid Game.

“As I led the series alone, writing and directing, it was mentally and physically too much … so I’m concerned whether, if we were to do a season two, would I be able to do it all myself?” he says.

“I’ve been telling people how we can’t make the second season right away. But since so many people love the series, it sort of does feel like I can’t say that I won’t do it.”

The series’ success has been both a blessing and a curse, Hwang says. “It’s the acknowledgement of a lifetime, yet it is also a label that will follow me around. From now on, anything I do will be compared to Squid Game, which to me is both a burden and an honour.”

Read the full story at the Korea Times

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