Are you one of the millions of viewers who nearly broke the internet by streaming "Squid Game" on Netflix? If so, you'll recognize a scene from episode one. It takes place in a subway station in the South Korean capital, Seoul. A down-and-out compulsive gambler is desperate to get money for his daughter's birthday present.
He's already heavily in debt to loan sharks, when suddenly, a charming, mysterious man at the station lures him into a children's game. If he wins a round, he gets a cash prize. If he loses, he won't owe the recruiter money, but he will get slapped. Later, the stakes of the game get much bigger and deadlier.
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"Squid Game" is intense, it's brutal and it's fiction — but the far-reaching fascination with the storyline doesn't come out of nowhere.
Jean Kim, a psychiatrist who teaches at George Washington University and wrote about the Netflix blockbuster this month in The American Scholar, spoke with The World's host Marco Werman about the drama series, and why it's so controversial, yet so popular.
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Marco Werman: So, for those of us who have not seen the series yet, introduce us to "Squid Game," Jean, and why you chose to write about it?
Jean Kim: Sure, "Squid Game" is a show where it's set in modern-day Seoul, and the protagonist is in a really dire situation and joins, unintentionally, this game. It's this unexpectedly horrifying game where the stakes are really high because you could win a $40 million prize at the end of it, but unfortunately, as the contestants find out, it's because there's only one winner at the end; the only one person — spoiler alert — being alive at the end. So, it's a pretty high-stakes game.
What, actually, is "squid game?" It's an old game, right?
It's apparently a children's game, kind of like a version of hopscotch. Most South Koreans apparently know this game very well. So, for it to have this dark spin on the show is quite a thing to see.
Right. Because of course, in the series, it's got a much more insidious win-lose outcome.
So, as a psychiatrist, I'm really intrigued, why did you choose to write about "Squid Game?"
Sure. So, I guess my background is Korean American, and seeing that this show became the number one show on Netflix, I was kind of intrigued, well, what is this show that's popping to the top of the rankings? And then, I decided to watch it and found it very compelling, because I felt like it hit upon a lot of things that are going on today and also in other works that have been prominent coming from South Korea, such as the movie "Parasite" that won an Oscar, where they talk ... basically, it's about capitalism and the extreme negative side of what can happen when there's too much of a disparity between the poor and the rich and the exploitation that can happen. So, Korea has been particularly nailing those issues in their recent artworks.
Korea has just had a very difficult 20th century. They were basically occupied by imperial Japan for the first half of the century and then were freed after the Japanese lost World War II. In the meantime, the country got divided in half by the Soviets and the United States. And the Korean War happened in the '50s, which was definitely the most chaotic event they went through in modern history. And since then, the country has been split in following two very different paths, the North and the South.
Your parents emigrated from South Korea to the US in 1971. What's happening in Korea right now is something you might be living through, were you there. You do talk about economic pressure and the widening gap between rich and poor in South Korea, but that's also kind of like the US. Does that help explain "Squid Game's" popularity here?
It's a global phenomenon, where the economic disparities [are] happening and pretty much every country on the planet now to varying degrees. Definitely, it's been a major theme of politics and concerns here. What, I guess, Korea is kind of bring to the table is that it's kind of difficult to escape your neighbor there, in a way. It's a very small country and kind of like one big, crazy family. And they literally live on top of each other. It's mainly high-rise buildings that everyone lives in. So, there's no way to really avoid seeing people you know, who are super-rich now versus super-poor, and I think that breeds some resentment and tension that's inspiring some of these works coming out, because it's just unavoidable to feel that human discord that comes from that.
Jean, I'm really curious what you make of South Korea seemingly dominating culture across the globe right now. I mean, there's a lot going on.
It's kind of amazing to me, because growing up in America, you just didn't hear much about Korea. Everyone always used to ask me, are you Chinese or Japanese? Korea wasn't really on the map at all. So, to see it become this thing that everyone knows now ... just random people I talked to, know random actors who are in Korea that I wouldn't think they would know, it's kind of exciting for me. It's very interesting.
So, in your own space, Jean Kim, you've earned an MD, a master's degree in writing, you're teaching at a major university and you blog, your byline is in a lot of major publications. I mean, you're a success. So, if you were a player and "Squid Game," how would you do?
I wouldn't really want to join the game, hopefully. I'm hoping that I can find what's happy in life and not need tons of money to feel happy with my life. And maybe that's part of what the show is about, that, what else can we do to make human beings feel fulfilled outside of this system?
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.