Behind the Global Appeal of ‘Squid Game,’ a Country’s Economic Unease

SEOUL — In “Squid Game,” the hit dystopian television show on Netflix, 456 people facing severe debt and financial despair play a series of deadly children’s games to win a $38 million cash prize in South Korea.

首尔——在网飞(Netflix)热播的反乌托邦剧《鱿鱼游戏》(Squid Game)中,456位陷入严重债务和财务困境的人为了获得456亿韩元(约2.5亿人民币)的现金奖励,在韩国参与了一系列致命的儿童游戏。

Koo Yong-hyun, a 35-year-old office worker in Seoul, has never had to face down masked homicidal guards or competitors out to slit his throat, like the characters in the show do. But Mr. Koo, who binge-watched “Squid Game” in a single night, said he empathized with the characters and their struggle to survive in the country’s deeply unequal society.

35岁的邱容贤(Koo Yong-hyun,音)是首尔的一位上班族,他从来没有像剧中角色那样,面对杀气腾腾的看守者或是想要割断自己喉咙的竞争者。但用了一个晚上就全部看完《鱿鱼游戏》的邱容贤表示,他对剧中角色在极不平等的韩国社会里的生存挣扎感同身受。

Mr. Koo, who got by on freelance gigs and government unemployment checks after he lost his steady job, said it is “almost impossible to live comfortably with a regular employee’s salary” in a city with runaway housing prices. Like many young people in South Korea and elsewhere, Mr. Koo sees a growing competition to grab a slice of a shrinking pie, just like the contestants in “Squid Game.”


Those similarities have helped turn the nine-episode drama into an unlikely international sensation. “Squid Game” is now the top-ranked show in the United States on Netflix and is on its way to becoming one of the most-watched shows in the streaming service’s history. “There’s a very good chance it will be our biggest show ever,” Ted Sarandos, a co-chief executive at Netflix, said during a recent business conference.

正是这样的相似之处,让这部九集系列剧出乎意料地引发了全球轰动效应。《鱿鱼游戏》成为了网飞在美国收视最高的剧集,并有望成为该平台有史以来收视最高的剧集之一。“这很有可能会成为我们受众规模最大的剧集,”网飞的联合执行总裁特德·萨兰德斯(Ted Sarandos)在最近的一次商务会议上表示。

Culturally, the show has sparked an online embrace of its distinct visuals, especially the black masks decorated with simple squares and triangles worn by the anonymous guards, and a global curiosity for the Korean children’s games that underpin the deadly competitions. Recipes for dalgona, the sugary Korean treat at the center of one especially tense showdown, have gone viral.


Like the “Hunger Games” books and movies, “Squid Game” holds its audience with its violent tone, cynical plot and — spoiler alert! — a willingness to kill off fan-favorite characters. But it has also tapped a sense familiar to people in the United States, Western Europe and other places, that prosperity in nominally rich countries has become increasingly difficult to achieve, as wealth disparities widen and home prices rise past affordable levels.

就像《饥饿游戏》(Hunger Games)系列丛书和电影一样,《鱿鱼游戏》的引人入胜在于其暴力基调、嘲讽的情节和(剧透警告!)对杀死最受粉丝喜爱的角色的热衷。但它也触及到了美国、西欧等各地人们习以为常的认知,即随着贫富差距扩大,房价上涨到无法承受的水平,名义上的富裕国家已经越来越难以实现富裕的生活。

“The stories and the problems of the characters are extremely personalized but also reflect the problems and realities of Korean society,” Hwang Dong-hyuk, the show’s creator, said in an email. He wrote the script as a film in 2008, when many of these trends had become evident, but overhauled it to reflect new worries, including the impact of the coronavirus. (Minyoung Kim, the head of content for the Asia-Pacific region at Netflix, said the company was in talks with Mr. Hwang about producing a second season.)

“这些故事和角色遇到的困难都是极度个人化的,但还是反映了韩国社会的问题和现实,”该剧创作者黄东赫(Hwang Dong-hyuk)在电子邮件中写道。2008年,他创作出该剧的电影剧本,当时许多趋势已经很明显,但后来他对剧本进行了修改,表达了更多新的担忧,包括新冠病毒的影响。(网飞亚太区的内容总监金敏英[Minyoung Kim,音]表示,该公司正在与黄东赫商谈第二季的制作事宜。)

“Squid Game” is only the latest South Korean cultural export to win a global audience by tapping into the country’s deep feelings of inequality and ebbing opportunities. “Parasite,” the 2019 film that won best picture at the Oscars, paired a desperate family of grifters with the oblivious members of a rich Seoul household. “Burning,” a 2018 art-house hit, built tension by pitting a young deliveryman against a well-to-do rival for a woman’s attention.


South Korea boomed in the postwar era, making it one of the richest countries in Asia and leading some economists to call its rise the “miracle on the Han River.” But wealth disparity has worsened as the economy has matured.


“South Koreans used to have a collective community spirit,” said Yun Suk-jin, a drama critic and professor of modern literature at Chungnam National University. But the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s undermined the nation’s positive growth story and “made everyone fight for themselves.”

“韩国人曾经有一种集体精神,”戏剧评论家、忠南大学(Chungnam National University)现代文学教授尹淑珍(Yun Suk-jin,音)说。但上世纪90年代末的亚洲金融危机导致韩国的经济增长神话破灭,“人人都各自为战。”

The country now ranks No. 11 using the Gini coefficient, one measure of income inequality, among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the research group for the world’s richest nations. (The United States is No. 6.)

在研究世界最富裕国家的经济合作与发展组织(Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)的成员国中,韩国的基尼系数如今排在第11位,该指标是衡量收入不平等的标准之一。(美国排名第六。)

As South Korean families have tried to keep up, household debt has mounted, prompting some economists to warn that the debt could hold back the economy. Home prices have surged to the point where housing affordability has become a hot-button political topic. Prices in Seoul have soared by over 50 percent during the tenure of the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, and led to a political scandal.


“Squid Game” lays bare the irony between the social pressure to succeed in South Korea and the difficulty of doing just that, said Shin Yeeun, who graduated from college in January 2020, just before the pandemic hit. Now 27, she said she had spent over a year looking for steady work.

2020年1月,也就是在疫情前才从大学毕业的辛誉恩(Shin Yeeun,音)说,《鱿鱼游戏》通过揭示在韩国取得成功的社会压力和实现这一目标的难度,将讽刺意味展露无遗。现年27岁的辛誉恩说,她花了一年多时间来寻找稳定的工作。

“It’s really difficult for people in their 20s to find a full-time job these days,” she said.


South Korea has also suffered a sharp drop in births, generated partly by a sense among young people that raising children is too expensive.


“In South Korea, all parents want to send their kids to the best schools,” Ms. Shin said. “To do that you have to live in the best neighborhoods.” That would require saving enough money to buy a house, a goal so unrealistic “that I’ve never even bothered calculating how long it will take me,” Ms. Shin said.


“Squid Game” revolves around Seong Gi-hun, a gambling addict in his 40s who doesn’t have the means to buy his daughter a proper birthday present or pay for his aging mother’s medical expenses. One day he is offered a chance to participate in the Squid Game, a private event run for the entertainment of wealthy individuals. To claim the $38 million prize, contestants must pass through six rounds of traditional Korean children’s games. Failure means death.

《鱿鱼游戏》的故事围绕着主角成奇勋(Seong Gi-hun)展开,年过四十的他赌博成瘾,连给女儿买份像样生日礼物的钱都没有,也付不起他年迈老母的医药费。某一天他得到了参加“鱿鱼游戏”的机会,这是一种为富人提供的秘密娱乐活动。为了获得3800万美元的奖金,参赛者必须完成六轮传统的韩国儿童游戏。失败就意味着死亡。

The 456 contestants speak directly to many of the country’s anxieties. One is a graduate from Seoul National University, the nation’s top university, who is wanted for mishandling his clients’ funds. Another is a North Korean defector who needs to take care of her brother and help her mother escape from the North. Another character is an immigrant laborer whose boss refuses to pay his wages.


The characters have resonated with South Korean youth who don’t see a chance to advance in society. Known locally as the “dirt spoon” generation, many are obsessed with ways to get rich quickly, like with cryptocurrencies and the lottery. South Korea has one of the largest markets for virtual currency in the world.


Like the prize money in the show, cryptocurrencies give “people the chance to change their lives in a second,” said Mr. Koo, the office worker. Mr. Koo, whose previous employer went out of business during the pandemic, said the difficulty of earning money is one reason South Koreans are so obsessed with making a quick buck.


“I wonder how many people would participate if ‘Squid Game’ was held in real life,” he said.


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