“Squid Game” characters from the director’s life
Many of the characters in the Netflix sensation “Squid Game” are loosely based on its South Korean director’s own life, and he believes his theme of economic inequality has resonated with viewers around the world.
Hwang Dong-hyuk’s TV debut last month became the streaming giant’s most popular series at launch, drawing at least 111 million viewers.
His dystopian view sees hundreds of marginalized individuals pitting themselves against each other in traditional children’s games, which Hwang all played growing up in Seoul.
The winner can win millions, but the losers are killed.
Hwang’s works have consistently and critically responded to social ills, power, and human suffering, and he has based many of his highly imperfect but relevant characters on himself.
Like Sang-woo, a struggling investment banker in “Squid Game,” Hwang is an elite graduate from Seoul National University (SNU) in South Korea, but struggled financially despite graduating.
Like Gi-hun, a laid-off worker and obsessive gamer, Hwang was raised by a widowed mother, and the poor family lived in the kind of underground housing in the basement depicted in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning satire “Parasite.”
And it was one of his first experiences abroad that prompted him to create Ali, a migrant worker from Pakistan abused and exploited by his Korean employer, he told AFP.
“Korea is a very competitive society. I was lucky to survive the competition and get into a good university, ”he said.
“But when I visited the UK at the age of 24, a white airport immigration staff member gave me a scornful look and made discriminatory comments. I find it really shocking to this day.
“I think I was someone like Ali back then.”
Bottom of the ladder
Hwang studied journalism at SNU, where he became a pro-democracy activist – and he named “Squid Game” main character Gi-hun, after a friend and fellow activist.
But democracy had been achieved by the time he graduated and he “couldn’t find an answer to what I needed to do in the real world.”
At first, “watching movies was something I did to kill time,” he said, but after borrowing his mother’s video camera, “I discovered the joy of filming something and project it for others, and it changed my life ”.
His first feature film, “My Father” (2007) was based on the true story of Aaron Bates, a Korean adoptee whose search for his biological father ultimately led to a death row inmate.
In 2011, her crime drama “Silenced” – based on an actual case of sexual abuse involving disabled children – was a commercial success, as was her 2014 comedy “Miss Granny”, partly inspired by her single mother.
Three years later, the critically acclaimed 2017 period drama “The Fortress” was about a seventeenth-century king of Korea, the Joseon dynasty under siege in a brutal Chinese invasion.
“Squid Game” refers to several traumatic collective experiences that have shaped the psyche of modern South Koreans, including the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2009 layoffs at SsangYong Motor, both of which saw people commit suicide.
“By referring to the layoffs of SsangYong Motor, I wanted to show that any ordinary middle-class person in the world we live in today can fall to the bottom of the economic ladder overnight,” he said. Hwang told AFP.
“Absurd, strange and unrealistic”
Jason Bechervaise, professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University, described Hwang as an “established and respected filmmaker for over 10 years” even before the huge worldwide success of “Squid Game”.
He “deals with social issues” at the same time as “finds ways to entertain his audience,” he added.
“Hwang is part of a capitalist system and the success of his series means that he takes advantage of such a system but that does not mean that he does not fight against the very nature of it,” he said. he told AFP.
Areum Jeong, an expert on Korean cinema at the Sichuan University-Institute of Pittsburgh, said the director used to spark social debate before the Netflix series arrived.
On the one hand, “Silenced” addressed “injustice, moral corruption, unresolved issues in the Korean justice system and ultimately motivated viewers to demand legislative reform,” she told the AFP.
Hwang wrote “Squid Game” about ten years ago, but said investors were reluctant and those who read the script told him it was “too absurd, bizarre and unrealistic”.
But the rise of streaming services has made age-restricted content more commercially viable than with movie audiences, and he returned to the project with the prospect of working with Netflix.
Nonetheless, he never imagined that “would become the global sensation that she is now”.
“I think viewers around the world are deeply connected with the theme of economic inequality” depicted in Squid Game, “he said,” especially in a time of a global pandemic. “