Brian Ng on the flimsiness of Netflix’s latest hit.
When the players walked into the first playroom on the new Netflix it-show, Squid Game, I thought it was going to be an immersive projection, like the cube in HBO show Made for Love or those inane “immersive van Gogh” experience rip-offs. The players looked around in awe as they entered what was really a gladiatorial arena. Oh Il-nam (the old guy) looks upwards and grins at the sky; we see birds flying. I rewound and checked to see that the room had no ceiling; the walls had merely been painted trompe l’oeil.
This is also where we encounter the giant robot doll (which is apparently now granting interviews). Before this, the players ascended candy-colored Escher-staircases.
On first viewing, it looks like the survival drama went all out on production. The show is all about funds: A lot of money is spent to put on a deadly school recess, with the goal being to win a bunch more money; the players participate because they’re all in, over their heads in debt.
But as we progress, the sets get decidedly less ornate: The second playroom is decorated with the waxy clouds of a child’s art project.
When we see the lair of the Front Man, as he’s called in the English subtitles, it looks like a poor attempt at luxury: There is a single-seater leather chair, lit from above by a chandelier. Later, we see marionettes (of white people, it should be noted) which mime along with “Fly Me to the Moon,” seemingly the soundtrack for when Front Man watches the games (and also a jazz standard fave for karaokeing Asians). The dolls remind me of how prevalent cosmetic surgery and the obsession with beauty is in South Korea, which came about as a consequence of how quickly it became an economic powerhouse in a mere handful of decades (though, I did enjoy this aspect of the “plot.”)
The flimsiness of the set is one thing–someone’s artistic choice–but the poor subtitles take away from the viewing experience. Netflix has already said it wants to increase its local offerings (especially off the backs of numerous non-English shows going viral, like Call My Agent! and Élite), but Korean speakers are taking to Twitter to call out the English subtitles: We don’t just lose out on the nuances of oppa, hyung and ajumma (terms of relationships that go beyond “old man” or “elder brother”, or even “sir” as it kept getting rendered), but also in interpretations of characters — one woman sounds crazy when she keeps saying she’s a genius in English, but, in Korean, is actually saying she’s naturally smart but never had the funds to study.
Viewers lose the code-switching that Kang Sae-byok (Player 067; the young girl) does as the subtitles don’t tell us she speaks in the North Korean dialect to her brother (in the beginning, we only see references to her mother being up north; I needed the reference to Dandong, a Chinese border town, to understand they meant North Korea north).
The aesthetics of Squid Game mirror the show: Seemingly shiny and impressive, it’s nothing more than a simple critique of capitalism veiled in an 8-hour adrenaline injection. — By Brian Ng