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MORE GAMES WITHOUT FRONTIERS…A CONSIDERATION OF “SQUID GAME”

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PHENOMENONS SHOULD BE investigated regardless of one’s partisan view(if any) going in. The sensation may be about more than peer pressure, of not having a specific opinion or feeling “left out” of a discussion. The investigative curiosity also may trying to analyze exactly what the phenomenon means, of why so many people so strongly about X or y. We’re only human, after all.

Which is an ironic juxtaposition into comprehending Netflix’s latest firestorm, Squid Game, the most successful original series (so far) ever launched by the streaming service. When over 100 million people across the world engage with anything, can it really be avoided? 

Netflix has become so ubiquitous in international mass popular culture, that its Amazonian growth in just a few short years that it is both devoured like no other comparable service(and for good reasons) and despised by a vocal minority(and for good reasons).

Like YouTube Netflix is a search engine in disguise, among the most powerful in the world. Both platforms on the surface promote true programming interactivity on behalf of the user. For a short monthly fee a user catch can watch anything on the service, any variety of entertainment made available 24/7/364. The popularity of streaming services like Netflix is a stern rebuke of no confidence to cable providers who for decades ignored customers’ complaints of having to pay for channels they didn’t want in order to watch the relatively small number of channels they actually viewed regularly.

 

But over the course of Netflix’s reign a certain segment of savvy customers have grown disenchanted with a specific agenda Netflix has always appeared to actively promote.

Call this strain “Illuminati,” “Luciferan,” “nihilistic,” “dystopian,” “sinister,” “Satanic.” And evil.

If Netflix is the largest media provider in the world then its programming, its selections, let alone its “agenda” is not going to go unnoticed. 

Regardless of the vast array of offers available to customers is it a coincidence that certain strands of “entertainment” consistently outranks others? 

Squid Game’s titanic success abounds in curiosity, a collective sense of misery and desperate attachment to an ever more fleeting grasp at materialism and a rankling of the sadism, nihilism and moral, particularly religious contempt it vividly flaunts. 

Though the nine-episode series was created in South Korea and has the hallmarks of that country’s excellent cinema, from its trademark horror idioms to the recent neo-realistic offerings which have found a Western audience, its true origins are distinctly Hollywood.

Though it ups the ante in terms of violence, moral depravity and Christian blasphemy, the blueprint of the Squid Games recycles one of Hollywood’s favorite plots: the urban legend of rich people literally hunting poor people for their own sadistic pleasure. The 1924 short story, “The Most Dangerous Game” has never gone out of print–onscreen. It keeps getting remade in some form or other. Sometimes film makers use the exact title. Sometimes they create others, but the concept is always the same. The films may vary in popularity but the reverberations are always consistent with any audience, any era. For behind the horror façade, the more taut stirrings are about the eternal class struggle between the “obscenely” rich 1% of any society and the greater majority who are struggling to eek out any kind of subsistence living within that same society. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the plots are always of eternal recurrence: a rich man entices a poor man into willingly disappearing from society into a cloistered environment to play a “game” for which promises to make the winner of said game extremely wealthy. The rich man does not appear to be a predator. The poor man can’t think of anything beyond the considerable “prize.” The poor man has major debts to pay off. He can’t envision a scenario in which anything could befall him, so blinded by instant wealth is he, thus the spider lures the fly again and again.

At first blush with Squid Games the emperor has new clothes. Maybe the staging of “The Most Dangerous Game” in a more exotic setting(South Korea) adds an initial burst of vitality. The Korean backdrop, with the rich and pampered as chess masters while their  poor and anxious country mates are moved around the board like controlled pawns will superficially remind the viewers of the recent American Oscar winning triumph of Parasite, becoming the first non-English language film to ever win the main Oscar for Best Film.

To Western eyes South Korea seems both East and West, familiar enough and yet alien. Unlike its Asian neighbors of Japan and China, their recent films bespeak of a financial anxiety and unyielding class struggle tearing apart the seams of their democracy, a vulnerability recognizable to many non-Koreans.

But apart from that mooring, Squid Game aligns itself with a vibrant modernity not confinable to any border within the “first” world. 

Squid Game hits the viewer like a remote-controlled rubber band around the wrist. The old tropes of the genre are still tethered there(the remote island where the game takes place; the “Wizard of Oz” leader; the intimidating thuggish Gangster and his henchmen, the annoying Moll, the Degenerate Gambler Loser, the Star Pupil With a Secret Vice, the Religious Fanatic, the Moody Girl et al). But it also inflates and pulls away from the skin with some force. 

Squid Game uses our collective childhood memories against us with an unrivalled viciousness, which perversely may explain some of its popularity.

The premise has the adult participants playing some of the earliest games they probably learned in kindergarten–but now with deadly consequences. To enhance the cruelty the rules of the half dozen games are virtually the same but blown up to fill enormous rooms, mini coliseums for 21st century gladiators. The goliath size of the environments serves to mock them as they desperately try to remember how to play games they haven’t played in decades while trying to mentally keep it together in true life-or-death scenarios. 

So of course the first game of Red Light, Green Light(which I learned to play in Bible Belt America at Vacation Bible School) features a giant animatronic schoolgirl, who suggests a Korean version of “Lucy Van Pelt,” who would instantly appeal to children despite her size, yet is a sensory motion device created to detect the slightest movement ,thus dooming the unfortunate.

Or that tug of war would be played at skyscraper height. With predictable results. 

There are elements of Lord of the Flies to deepen the plot, but also uncomfortable evocations of the Power Rangers and PlayStation video game controllers in the hooded garb of the soldier-overseers. More elements from our collective childhood returning in new demonic forms.

And anyone who has seen Eyes Wide Shut can’t notice the similarity in masks between “Red Cloak” and the chief organizer known as the “Front Man.”

These symbols and many more dominant Squid Game. It wouldn’t be 21st Century “entertainment” without them. And if anyone has paid attention to anything cultural from South Korea, including K-Pop, knows they are strangers to pure “Illuminati” images. Some symbols are apparently universal.

Without giving away the ending: Squid Game never recovers from its devastating opening momentum with the arrival of the “VIPS” in episode #7 and its unsatisfying finale. 

The former is absolutely amateur hour, an embarrassing spectacle which docks the series from greater aesthetic consideration. The cultural elites on display here would be cartoonish whether or not they were wearing elaborate animal masks worthy of actual Rothschild parties.

  Mostly Western men with a Japanese-sounding voice thrown in for variety, the characters are embarrassing stereotypes, speaking dreadful dialogue and; unlike their Korean counterparts, are so poorly directed by the series’ creator Hwang Dong-hyuk that it degenerates into the worst camp imaginable. And its depiction of a predatory gay old man would have been laughed at even during the pre Stonewall era.

Exasperation and even rage are likely to be common reactions to the finale even before its cliffhanger(leading to a Squid Game II, perhaps). To those of you who decried the last episodes of Lost, The Sopranos,  Game of Thrones prepare to uncork your venom. I never watched a minute of Lost; and I perversely like the endings to The Sopranos(it makes perfect sense if you watch it on David Chase’s terms) and Game of Thrones(okay, what I really love is the epilogue).

But I can’t defend Squid Game. The final game is anti-climatic, the “surprise” twist is a betrayal of its own deus ex machina while the whole episode is unnecessarily truncated, providing no tangible resolution. By episode 8 the whole enterprise has run out of steam, collapsing from within. Fiction has begun to imitate life. Just as the characters are no match for the endless sadism of the elites the series’ creator too seems over-matched. 

Depending upon one’s perspective the final scene is sadly realistic–like the relapses of actual drug addicts–or a betrayal of idealism that somehow survives in some of us despite the leviathan of evil we have just witnessed.  It also seems like an excuse to prepare for the inevitable sequel. In other words nihilism vs. optimism, darkness versus the light. Adulthood versus childhood. Games we are forced to play despite the game being rigged from the moment nearly all of us are born. As Squid Game incessantly reminds us.

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