HWang Dong-hyuk laughs at me from his office in Seoul. I just asked the creator of Netflix’s hit series Squid Game if his astonishing success made him rich. In the dystopian survival drama, a mysterious organization challenges 456 players from all walks of life to play a series of children’s games. Win and they go home with 4.6 billion won (28m). Lose and they are shot in the head.
Maybe Hwang is now as rich as the first prize winner? I’m not that rich, he said. But I have had enough. I have enough to put food on the table. And it’s not like Netflix is paying me a bonus. Netflix paid me according to the original contract. It seems unfair. After all, the 50-year-old South Korean filmmaker has made hundreds of millions for his payers. Squid Game earlier this month overtook Bridgerton as the most successful Netflix show of all time. According to leaked documents, the nine-episode series cost $ 15.5 million to produce, which works out to $ 1.75 million per installment. His feedback on this was extraordinary. The series that Netflix estimates was watched by 142 million households and increased its subscriber base by 4.4 million is estimated at 650m to the streaming service.
Perhaps Hwang should have negotiated a performance clause, especially since creating, writing, and directing put him under so much stress that he lost six teeth in the process. It was physically, mentally and emotionally draining. I kept coming up with new ideas and revising the episodes while filming, so the amount of work multiplied.
The idea for Squid Game was born out of Hwang’s family situation in 2009, after the global financial crisis that hit his homeland hard. I was in great financial difficulty because my mother retired from the company she worked for. There was a movie I was working on but we couldn’t get funding. So I couldn’t work for about a year. We had to take out loans from my mother, myself and my grandmother.
Hwang sought relief in Seoul comic book cafes. I have read Battle Royal and Liar Game and other survival game comics. I was talking to the people there, who were in desperate need of money and success. It was a low point in my life. If there was a survival game like this in reality, I wondered if I would join it to earn money for my family? I realized that since I was a filmmaker, I could put my personal touch to these kinds of stories, so I got into the script.
He was inspired by a version of tag he played as a boy called the squid game, named after the different shapes of squid body parts that were drawn on the ground he was played on. . I was good at working my way up to the squid head, Hwang said. You had to fight to win.
In Game 1 of the series, all 456 contestants can only move when the face of a sinister mechanized doll is turned away from them. Those who are caught are cut down with a machine gun. Why did Hwang create a horribly brutal competition that reduces human life so cheaply? Because the show is driven by a simple idea, he says. We are fighting for our lives under very unequal circumstances.
Are you making a deep point about capitalism? It is not deep! It is very simple! I believe that the global world economic order is unequal and that about 90% of people think it is unfair. During the pandemic, the poorest countries cannot vaccinate their populations. They contract viruses on the streets and even die. So I tried to get a message across about modern capitalism. Like I said, it’s not deep.
But isn’t there a contradiction in the fact that without the money from an international company, i.e. Netflix, your critique of global capitalism would never have been seen? Hwang laughs at me again and says: Oh, Guardian, asking deep questions! Well, Netflix is a global business, but I don’t think that makes the inequalities worse. I don’t think there is a contradiction. When I was working on the project, the goal was to be # 1 on the Netflix US chart for at least a day. But it ended up being much more successful, the most watched show on Netflix ever. It is very surprising. It shows that the global audience is resonating with the message I wanted to reflect.
Did Hwang watch Bridgerton to study the competition? I find it hard to watch an entire series. There are only two that I watched until the end: Breaking Bad and Mind Hunter. People said Bridgerton was really good so I tried to watch episode one but gave up in the middle. I don’t really like love stories on television because I’ve been in a relationship for six or seven years. I really have trouble identifying myself.
Maybe that’s why the sex scenes in Squid Game are so dark. I think of the one in episode four where two players, including a macho gangster, have sex in a bathroom. There is no love in Squid Game, is there? Yes there is! Hwang insists. It’s a different kind of love in a weird, weird, hopeless situation. The woman leans on the strongest man in the group. She has to find something to lean on. She believes her love or else it’s too sad, you know, to sell guy sex just to survive. So she thinks her emotion is love, but not romantic love like in Bridgerton.
Hwang says he wrote this scene after watching a reality TV show in which contestants are stranded on a desert island. It was about the psychology of people in extreme situations. They are sexually attracted to people they believe to be stronger and better at the hunt, when they would not have been before. Don’t you describe women as sexualized commodities? For once, Hwang’s smile fades: Why are you asking questions about excessive sexual portrayal of women? He says his sole purpose was to show that regardless of gender, women and men tend to perform desperate actions in extreme situations.
A competitor of Squid Game is a North Korean defector. They are probably the largest minority in South Korea now, Hwang says. It will only increase. I think that the exchanges between the two Koreas will develop. We will achieve reunification at some point. I hope. North Korea did not take such a benevolent line on the show. According to the propaganda site Arirang Meari, Hwang’s drama shows that South Korea is plagued by the fittest rules of survival, corruption and immorality. Not words, of course, that could ever apply to a truly egalitarian North Korea.
But Squid Game isn’t just a snapshot of its home country. I wanted to create something that would resonate not only for Koreans but around the world. It was my dream. In this fight for life or death, social norms are uprooted and competitors are trapped in a war of all against all, in which human life is wicked, brutal and short. We live in a Squid Game world, Hwang says, but he says not everyone in his drama selfishly takes care of number one, scaling the faces of losers to make money.
Some viewers have found the ending in which the winner makes two surprise decisions regarding family and cash prize maddening. American basketball legend LeBron James, who loved the series, said this: I didn’t like the ending though. What are you doing?
Is James wrong? Hwang laughs at Seoul, before referring to one of the highlights of James’ film career. Have you seen Space Jam 2? he asks. Not until the end, I answer. LeBron James is cool and can say whatever he wants. I respect that. I am very grateful to have watched the whole series. But I wouldn’t change my ending. This is my end. If he has his own ending that would satisfy him, maybe he could make his own sequel. I’ll check it out and maybe message her saying I liked your entire show except the end.
But surely there’s another reason for that end: It’s gearing up well for a sequel, with the winner getting to face off against the evil secret organization that runs Squid Game. No announcement has been made and Hwang isn’t sure there will be a season two, or what its history would be. Of course, there are discussions. It’s inevitable because it’s been such a success. I am considering it. I have a very high level image in mind, but I’m not going to work on it right away. There is a film that I really want to make. I think about what to do first. I’ll talk to Netflix.
He doesn’t want to just become the Squid Game guy and is now lobbying Netflix to screen three films he has made in the past decade. But he certainly didn’t rule out a sequel, if only for a very material reason. It’s possible, he said with a last laugh, that I would have to do season two to become as rich as the winner of the Squid Games.
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