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Abu Dhabi/Dubai: There’s no question Squid Game has made a splash around the world. Its appeal has reached pandemic proportions.The plot is shockingly simple: cash-strapped contestants accept an “invitation" to compete in children's games. The prize is extremely tempting — the stakes are horribly deadly.
Now, schools and parents up in arms against the Netflix sensation. There’s no question the South Korean series has gained extreme virality no other show has seen.
Schools, parents concerned
As with anything that goes viral in the virtual world, the show has gotten on the radar of children and teenagers, thanks to apps such as TikTok.
There are reports of kids recreating in real life the games they saw in the series. Schools around the world — from the UK and Egypt to Belgium and Australia — have warned parents about this and urged them to ban their kids from watching the show.One Belgian school issued a notice to parents after children were caught playing a version of ‘Red Light, Green Light’ from the show.
‘Squid Game’ isn’t the first: Here are 10 films and shows that depict extreme violence on screen
“We are very vigilant to stop this unhealthy and dangerous game! We count on your support and collaboration to make your children aware of the consequences that this can cause!” read a Facebook post from the school Erquelinnes Béguinage Hainaut, according to Brussels Times.
In Egypt, parents got an email from a school warning them to keep their children away from the show due to its violence.
In Australia, the Dulwich Hill Public School sent a letter to parents saying that the series was “simply not suitable for primary and early high school-aged children” and that the games and “other inappropriate content are negatively influencing playground games,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Teens and young adults captivated
Compelling plot, screenplay and set design lend to its appeal
Its compelling plot, brutal character archetypes, a gamified exploration of class divides and their disturbing impact have made Squid Game into a runaway hit. The show, now Netflix’s most-watched series ever, has been just as widely consumed in the UAE, with teens and young adults testifying to its bingeable nature and appeal.
Gulf News asked a number of students about their encounter with the Korean production:
Kinda Kassab, 14, a Palestinian student in Dubai, said she watched the show when it was first released, and couldn’t wait to get to the end.
For 15-year-old Adithyan Ajithkumar, a Grade 11 student in Abu Dhabi and aspiring filmmaker, it was the show’s captivating screenplay and filmmaking.
Ajithkumar, who himself developed a short film last summer, said he will finish watching the series once his exams have finished.
“The screenplay is truly addictive, especially the use of cliffhanger endings. And I believe it was the use of unique design elements, like the distinctive game participant uniforms and giant doll figure, that has made the show into such a singular phenomenon. For me, it is amazing that these sets were filmed entirely in a studio with the use of a blue screen,” he said.
Not all teens, however, were as impressed.
Jana Mouazen, a 20-year-old Lebanese student of American University in Dubai, said she felt bored after the first few intense moments.
Mouazen, however, did say that the show exposed viewers to a singular world of its own. “What I found interesting is that it is a little bit different than the rest; still it was not life-changing,” she added.
The survival drama also had its takers among young adults, who used it to reflect on human nature.
Hasna Saheer, 26, a real estate executive from Sri Lanka, said she finished all nine episodes in three days.
“I generally like thrillers and crime shows, so when I came across the hype surrounding Squid Game, I had to watch it. It is interesting to see how the characters prioritise money over lives, and it makes you question what you would do in a similar situation. The ending also has me hooked, because it doesn’t resolve all the questions raised by the show,” she said.
Saheer has previously watched movies with a similar survival gaming theme, like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. “I like the dystopian nature of these movies, so Squid Game was obviously something I was interested in,” she said.
Squid Game itself comes with a warning about an age limit — it’s labelled as 18+
Parents are deemed responsible for enforcing rules with their children and setting the appropriate parameters on Netflix accounts and internet usage.
However, content takes a life of its own. The biggest point of contention is the high level on violence, though it's not a first for any piece of media (remember the ‘Saw’ franchise or even ‘Game of Thrones’?)
Since Squid Game has taken over the world, combined with young people having more access to social media than ever before, it does become harder to shield children from this type of content. It’s up to parents to have the tough conversations with children about what they should be watching and how they should be behaving with others.
Impact on society
It hits social issues: debt, inequality, migrant workers' plight, capitalism's excesses
To the average non-Korean viewer there are many elements of Squid Game that might have been missed. Yes, the plot was electric and addictive, apart from violent. But some of the major aspects include its commentary on South Korean social issues such as debt, inequality, the plight of some migrant workers and capitalism.
“Over the years, South Korea has developed a very strong sense of telling stories about exposing injustice, and I think it has a lot to do with Korea’s 20th century history that has been marked by struggle and tragedy,” Suk-Young Kim, a University of California professor who researches North Korean cinema, told NPR.
“And having seen the popularity and critical response to Parasite, I am not surprised that this show, which tackles similar themes of social inequality, critiques of capitalism and dire condition of the pandemic, has been really well-embraced,” she added.
Parasite director Bong Joon-ho famously took on class divides in his award-winning movie, and has often addressed serious issues with his past projects. It’s no secret that Korean moviemakers have used their art to prod at social issues in a subversive way — as do filmmakers all over the world.
Whether such projects will lead to real-world changes is debatable. Art has the ability to influence pop culture and get people interested in deeper topics that otherwise might have evaded them. However, just like other real-world issues such a climate change and women’s rights, regular people can only do so much — it’s up to the policymakers, corporations and the society as a whole to bridge the glaring social gaps.
Shocking cruelty, violence
The new series is more than just a new competition reality show. There’s a juxtaposition of scenes of innocence — where people participate in children’s games — and hyper-cruelty, which ends in a sort of elimination by mass murder.
Though fictional, it portrays the great lengths people take in order to succeed; or, in the case of the series — in order to survive. It seems the creators’ ultimate aim is to shock viewers. And shock they did, as the games invariably degenerate into violence, both chilling and mind-numbing.
In a way, it mirrors the way people sometimes treat each other at different levels, both personal or societal, marked by an us-versus-them narrative. Its raw brutality got the world thinking — and talking.
Viewership numbers and ratings prove its appeal. Many, including school-children and teens, profess getting hooked into it, ready with rave reviews. Still, not everyone is a fan, as some find it lacking. What grown-up viewers in the UAE think:
Imad Idroos, 35
The show has the potential to be a lucrative series if handled right. “Everyone loves rooting for the underdog, but the series plays it out pretty well because there are times you do get frustrated with the main protagonist,” he said, while also reflecting on why he believes the show has become such a global phenomenon. In the current climate we live in where “many people [have] lost their jobs or work hard for little pay… they could relate to the characters wanting to get ahead in life by any means necessary.”
Idroos also had ideas for the story to move forward in season two: “I would love to know if the organisation gets taken down and to find out the fate of the police officer on the show.”
Aditi Khanvilkar, 35
She watched the series in two days, liked the show for its ability to speak the truth. “Nothing is sugar-coated in the series. ‘Squid Game’ shows you a mirror to society, telling us how far people are willing to go to pull themselves out of the depths of poverty. If you are uncomfortable watching it, then perhaps you are uncomfortable learning the truth about how people work."
He found plot holes that could not be ignored. “[I’m] not taking away from the fact that the production quality was great — the detail in every shot, actor performances, scene setting and cinematography — all above par. However, plot lines were too evident, including the lead up to the crucible in it. The plot twist with the old man wasn’t meaty enough and left me wanting for a more plausible explanation. Some of the side stories were endearing but I struggled to tie them in to the central theme. While there were many unanswered questions, the series did not engage us enough to discuss or attempt to answer them.”
John Garner, 48
He didn’t appreciate the violence of the show and said it could have been toned down. “The sets and costumes are impressive, the filming style slightly less. My impression was of a cross between ‘Alice in Borderland’ and ‘Parasite’. But the amount of raw violence is sickening, on top of the depressing overall message about the inequality and desperation of some in South Korean society. Whereas a Tarantino type, detached or even comic style can take the edge off violence, here it is crude and gratuitous. Violence serving little purpose; sensational rather than being meaningful. Complaints about subtitles have surfaced, notably subtleties being destroyed by poor translations. Maybe this contributed to dull down underlying meaning and character traits?”
Achint Singh, 31
The first parts of the show was "enjoyable", but controversial ending was not: “The show hooked me instantly and kept my attention until the last few episodes. I felt Hwang Jun-ho’s B-plot was a clever way to show the inner workings of the game but otherwise felt unnecessary and largely lead nowhere from a plot perspective, the VIPs took away from the mystery of the organisation and the final ‘host’ reveal, other than being rather boring, tried to force a dull philosophical quandary that didn’t need to exist. It is well known that the show is, on some level, a criticism of capitalist society. The show didn’t need to explore any other philosophy beats and in doing so took away from a tightly written and edited script.”
Krystal Fernandes, 32
Krystal Fernandes, 32, simply didn’t understand all the buzz about the show. “‘Squid Game’ has a unique concept and good for the weekend binge watch. But what’s the hype all about? The story is pretty much [figured out] by the second episode. Way too much violence and bloodshed and very much unrealistic. You know what’s going to happen after each game. Then there’s the police man who suddenly gets into the loop and that storyline in my opinion could have been different but just got fizzled [out] in a random direction with no proper depth for the character or its storyline. Credit must be given to the creativity in visualising the games though,” she said.
From virality to an industry: The soaring popularity of the Netflix hit has stormed into the global fashion market, with Squid Game-themed merchandise now wide available online.
(As of October 17, 2021)
Globalising effect of Korean pop culture
The Korean Wave — hanliu (Mandarin) or Hallyu (Korean) — was first coined by the Chinese media to describe what seemed like an overnight explosion of interest in Korean culture inside China.
From there, the popularity of all things Korean, from pop bands to fashion, continued to grow and spread throughout the Asian continent. This development featured all the aspects of cultural globalisation as Asian countries embraced Korean pop culture.
One common factor linked all the places where the Korean Wave hit — the originating agent was always the import of South Korean television dramas. From the initial consumption of these TV serials, the effect then spills over to other cultural areas such as music, film, food, and fashion.
Certain titles such as Winter Sonata (2002), and Dae Jang Geum or Jewel in the Palace (2003) have repeatedly made headlines or influenced major trends. The initial phase of the Korean Wave can be traced to South Korea’s export of television dramas to mainland China, Taiwan, and several other Southeast Asian countries.
Advances in telecommunications and hi-tech infrastructures laid the groundwork for South Korea to develop its own entertainment industry. Compared to Japanese and Hong Kong dramas, Korean products cost considerably less. Yet, they were high in quality and Asian broadcast companies found the productions to be impressive. At the same time, Korean pop music made a similar breakthrough in China and Taiwan.
The South Korean government, surprised and excited at the pace of events, began to draw up greater plans to support the explosive growth of Korean pop culture abroad. Korean Wave halls were planned to be set up in major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Hanoi, where the phenomenon had the heaviest impact.
As the Korean Wave penetrated the other countries of Asia and beyond, the developments were also varied but had visible effects.