October 21, 2021
The Netflix hit is as fantastical as it is violent – but underpinning its macabre story of impoverished contestants risking their lives for money is a real crisis of personal debt in Korea. Why has it resonated all over the world?
The Korean debt crisis that inspired Squid Game’s dark dystopia
A high-concept, ultraviolent South Korean thriller that was rejected by Seoul TV executives for a decade might seem like an unlikely candidate for the most popular series ever to be shown on Netflix. But by now you probably know that Squid Game – in which hundreds of down-on-their-luck contestants play a series of children’s games for a vast cash prize in the knowledge that if they lose they will be killed on the spot – has defied that analysis and become a worldwide phenomenon, a lightning rod for debates over depictions of violence, and an instant classic costume option for Halloween.
Underneath all that hype, though, is a story that resonates deeply in South Korea – where levels of personal debt are now equivalent to 105% of GDP – and has struck a chord around the world. In Rachel Humphreys’ final episode as presenter, the Seoul-based culture journalist Nemo Kim explains the connection between the TV show and a crisis founded on a system that makes taking out a loan as easy as buying a cup of coffee. And the TV critic Ellen E Jones examines how those themes have been picked up by audiences everywhere – and what the show’s success tells us about the extraordinary power Netflix holds to reshape our cultural tastes.
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