Before Bong Joon-Ho's remarkable win at the Oscars 2020 with the unprecedented top 4 awards (Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film) for the Korean film, Parasite, which also earned top honours at the Cannes film festival 2019, the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, for most Indians of my generation (other than film festival regulars), exposure to Korean popular culture in the last decade or so was limited to Psy's 2012 smash hit song Gangnam Style, or the occasional mention of the late maverick director Kim Ki-duk in drawing room conversations.
Millennials seem to be better clued in; the growing popularity of K-Pop groups such as BTS shows that our youngsters are more open and welcoming of cultures from our East. And as the astonishing success of Squid Game has shown, Indians of 3 generations are now ready to welcome Korean films & web series into our homes.
If you had asked me 5 years ago, which Korean film have you watched and enjoyed, my instant reaction would have been - Train to Busan! This 2016 zombie film has attained cult status among film lovers world-wide. A previous occasion on which I realized the reach and popularity of Korean films, was in 2013 during a program in Bangkok I was attending in connection with celebrations of 100 years of cinema.
After my talk on the occasion delivered at a private University to a mixed audience that consisted of people of Indian origin as well as Thai folk who loved Indian culture, I was amused and delighted to hear that Thai baby boomers and Gen-Xrs were very fond of the Rajesh Khanna-starrer Haathi Mere Saathi. However, when I asked, "After Haathi Mere Saathi, which other Hindi /Indian film have you watched?” the shocking reply was- None.
Korean films had over the last 3 decades, taken over the space of Indian films in Thailand. I got a similar response in China on my 3 work visits to Beijing. On my first visit in 2012 when we were negotiating an audio-visual bilateral agreement with China, I learnt that out of the quota for imported films that were allowed into China every year on either flat fee or revenue sharing basis, Korean films had a far bigger quota as compared to Indian films (less than 5 from India out of quota of 34).
Around 2014, Korean films moved out of stringent import quota to more lucrative co-production avenue of release in China. And the Chinese young museum interns who accompanied us during the Taihe Forum at Beijing in 2017 reaffirmed that the reigning culture was Korean-pop music.
And it was clear that the success of an occasional Aamir Khan superhit like 3 Idiots or Dangal can't make a dent in the market for Korean films in China. And South Korea is fast catching up in number of films produced annually; with an annual average of 1200 films as against 1800 by India in recent years.
The web series Squid Game which has been released worldwide on OTT platforms, has been discussed all over the world. I look at Squid Game from the lens of cinema here, as most web series use similar techniques as films, and equipment such as the cameras are similar too. Original content being made for OTT is now being considered "cinema" by prestigious film festivals such as Cannes, after initial reservations.
In fact, these web series have erased the line separating films from TV dramas; these web series are now competing for and winning awards both at film festivals and at TV awards such as Emmys.
The pandemic has blurred this distinction further; we are watching most audio-visual entertainment on the small screen, so it doesn't matter to the lay viewer whether they are watching a film, a TV show or a web series. Quality is important, genre doesn’t matter. Good writing will find a way to reach viewers; if not in cinema halls, then in their own living rooms.
From Mike Hale at New York Times who said one who hasn't watched Squid Game didn't miss much, to the reviewer at The Hindu who thinks the show is “a gloriously gory binge-ride from hell,” reactions have been mixed.
In my opinion, here’s why the average Indian should consider watching Squid Game.
For one thing, the series is an engaging, riveting piece of work. It is a dramatic thriller, which is the ideal kind of audio-visual experience that lends itself to effective subtitling. The massive success of blockbuster action films from Hollywood which are increasingly dubbed into all major Indian languages, is testimony to this fact. The viewer is able to follow most of the action on screen with the help of the visuals, so subtitles are a bonus.
The screenplay and writing are intelligent and layered. The series is a scathing comment on the evils of capitalism, which is characterized by greed. Gordon Gecko famously averred in Wall Street that greed is good. At first, Squid Game seems to deliver a similar proposition. After watching a couple of episodes, one starts getting into the mind of the writers and the director.
I am reminded of the cult film Fight Club which prima facie is about a bunch of guys taking out their frustrations by joining the eponymous Fight Club. When one peels the layers, one discovers a fine commentary on how humans have become slaves to consumerism. Taking this premise of Squid Game further, one can draw comparisons with Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, a Marxist critique of industrialization which reduces human beings to machines or just another means of production.
Squid Game makes the discerning viewer uncomfortable in a similar manner that Fight Club and Modern Times do. And that for me, per se, is the hallmark of good cinema. Good cinema should provoke and disturb.
The very first game shocks and delivers a punch in the stomach to the viewer who had hitherto been lulled into a false sense of complacency about watching a bunch of losers compete in a series of games for a large sum of money. Once one realizes that the price of competing and losing is death, one starts questioning the reasons for each contestant putting their life at stake.
Each contestant has an excellent back story - of a life wasted, problems with family, an impending separation and custody battle, loan sharks at the door, a sick parent, a parent stuck at the border and unable to enter the country, etc.
With each compelling story, Squid Game sucks us in, taking the viewer by surprise, manipulating their emotions, consuming them. Who would have known that we would get involved in the life and problems of a pick pocket or an ageing man dying of a brain tumour, instead of simply enjoying watching a racy thriller.
Hunger Games is the closest experience one can think of, which makes for a compelling drama of hope and hopelessness. That film series, based on the books by Suzanne Collins, made a star out of the very talented Jennifer Lawrence who plays the lead character of Katniss Everdeen. In Hunger Games one had the miserable, the poor, the wretched inhabitants of the districts in a dystopian land, compete in an unfair competition driven by the whims and fancies of the evil Capitol.
Squid Game has a similar evil group of men moving around a group of wretched souls like pawns on a chess board, for their amusement. In both cases, the price of failure was death. In both cases, the evil, powerful game designer seems immune to the misery and death of participants. In both cases, the participants are driven by a primal need, the hunger for a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
There is depravity in Squid Game (the VIPs), but there is also nobility (the hard-working mothers of Seong Gi-hun and Cho Sang-woo who raise & support their sons through periods of great hardship). There are villains whose souls are beyond redemption (Heo Sung-tae as Jang Deok-su), but there are also the innocent & pious souls (Anupam Tripathi as Abdul Ali).
There are friends who rise to the occasion when they need to sacrifice their own lives (Lee Yoo-mi as Ji-yeong and Jung Ho-yeon as Kang Sae-byeok). There are friends who look after each other's families (Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun and Park Hae-soo as Cho Sang-woo).
As the old man asks the protagonist Seong Gi-hun in the last episode of Season One of Squid Game, "Do you still believe in the goodness of human beings?” The answer the series gives us is a resounding “Yes.” That message alone- that the human spirit shall triumph, despite all odds - makes Squid Game worth watching. Excellent production values, fast paced action and a superb cast are added attractions. I am looking forward to Season Two.