Squid Game

Taking The Zeitgeist’s Temperature

John Fraim

Giant plastic girl in the Red Light, Green Light game from Squid Game

In a Silent Way / Miles Davis

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One of the greatest series for Netflix began streaming on September 17 and in just a few weeks has skyrocketed to the top global ranking for all of Netflix series. The series is called Squid Games and it is a South Korean series based much on ideas from movies like The Hunger Games, to streamers or novels like Lord of the Flies, or reality television like Survivors and Lost. After all, the survivalist mentality continues to build in these times with more and more going off the grid and planning for a survival scenario on a grand scale. Ideas in people’s minds do not wander too far from thoughts of survival today. Even in the isolated suburbs of the wealthy, there is a new fear that hangs over communities like a type of whispered gossip. Not loud enough to dominate thoughts of that football game over the weekend or the party over the weekend. But always there in all minds. 

Too bad Carl Jung is not around today to help figure out the collective unconsciousness of American culture and global culture. The collective psychology of the nation is at a new peak and exhibits one of Freud’s last ideas: individual psychology plays itself out in the collective psychology of a culture. Therefore, it was possible for an entire culture to be neurotic or under some other powerful psychological effect or delusion. Certainly, American culture and society today is a perfect candidate for Freud’s idea that an entire culture can suffer under a common psychological spell or effect. Jung’s greatest student, Erich Neumann found a cycle and sequence of this general movement of collective psychology in his stunning The Origins and History of Consciousness. In effect, he gave individual and cultural movement to Jung’s archetypes and symbols.

Or Marshall McLuhan to help us understand the effects of all of this “whispered gossip” all around us called media. Surrounding as an environment. Yet, like the environment of water is to fist, always more invisible than anything else. It is never those “message” objects of our lives. Our homes, cars, families. Their actions. Our actions. All props put into the scene of a Hollywood movie or a Broadway play. Stagehands moving them on and off what the audience is allowed to see by the director and the director is allowed to see by the original writer of an idea, a story, emotion, memory. Observation. Statement. 

* * *

Each day, talking heads yak back-and force-all day over the cable networks. On talk radio. It never ends and never gets outside the small area of bounce back the two sides are involved with. Usually, the events of interest defined by the main media broadcasting the government narrative. The job of media is to keep popular attention focused in one direction while things are done in other directions with little attention.

Besides this back and forth of attention, there is that whispered gossip or message out there. In the environment. The context or medium that holds the scene or the stage with all its message props. And then overall, the traditional isolation of America from the rest of the world, thanks largely to its special geographical position between two oceans. The only nation in the world between the two great oceans. Always broadcasting her message outward, transmitting messages to the world. Yet seldom receiving messages from this world.

The one-way broadcast media, McLuhan called hot media or non-participatory media. The opposite was two-way back and forth media like the telephone or Internet emails. The original television and radio networks were hot media. For the first hundred years of the film medium, America’s films ruled over the world. Were, in effect, were “hot” and “broadcast” out to the rest of the world. The message asked for no participation in its message. Only the reception of the message.

Players assemble in their dorm during first part of Squid Game

But now Hollywood was poor and unsuccessful and dependent on financial input from other parts of the world. Chinese and Indian films were only becoming larger each year. Owning greater and greater parts of Hollywood. These parts of the world would have a certain amount of control out of what was produced in Hollywood.

The Chinese become huge owners of Hollywood. And more and more Hollywood films are aimed at global audiences to break even. It is important to ensure return on investment that the film will appeal to a global audience. So far, in my opinion, the China-Hollywood connection has not produced any movie or series of importance.

Yet working all this time was an incredible South Korean film director Hwang Dong-hyuk was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. After he graduated from Seoul National University (the Harvard of South Korea) with a B.A. in Communications, he wrote and directed numerous short films including Our Sad Life and A Puff of Smoke. Moving to Los Angeles to study for an M.F.A. in Film Production at the University of Southern California. At USC, he continued to make films, completing two shorts Heaven & Hell and Desperation (2000). His graduation thesis film was Miracle Mile (2004), a short starring Karl Yuen, a Korean American illegal taxi driver who helps his fare, a young Korean woman (played by Hana Kim) search for her brother who was adopted by Americans 20 years ago. Miracle Mile screened at over 40 international film festivals and won several awards, including the DGA Student Film and Student Emmy Award.  

Squid Game was created and written by Hwang Dong-hyuk. Hwang says he originally developed the script in 2008 when he was in a bad financial situation and living in a Manhwasbang, a place in South Korea where one can find and read Japanese survival mange books such as Battle Royale, Liar Game and Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji. This was after all the above. It was one of the worst periods in his life. More than anything, he was beginning to understand what this battle for survival was about.

However, he feared the storyline was “too difficult to understand and bizarre” at the time. Hwang stated, “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life.” The two main characters Gi-hun and Sang-Woo were based on Hwang’s own personal experiences and represented “two sides” of himself; Gi-hun shared the same aspects of being raised by a poor single mother, while Sang-Woo reflected on Hwang having attended Seoul National University with high expectations by his family and neighborhood.

* * *

The tug of war game where losers are pulled over the precipice

Hwang had conceived of the idea for Squid Game based on his own economic struggles early in life as well as the class disparity within South Korea. Though initially scripted in 2008, Hwang had been unable to find a production to support the script until Netflix in 2019 found interest as part of their drive to expand their foreign programming offerings. Released on September 17th, 2021, it’s become one of the most watched shows on Netflix in several regional markets.

I just binge-watched the entire nine episodes in two days.

Between peaks at the football games on Saturday.

But when the credits rolled at the end of episode nine, I knew I had watched somethings special. Here was that voice behind so many things in the modern psyche, all put brilliantly and dramatically into the series. It captured – like some form of lightning bug – the zeitgeist of the times. Flashing a glow-in-the-dark pale color of radium.

For many years, America’s collective psyche has never been interested in receiving much from the rest of the world. Only broadcasting it out. One way. Hot media.

But with Squid Game, a violent movie where 454 people get killed. The story narrator is the sole survivor of this ordeal we are told about in nine episodes. Most, 50 minutes each on average.

* * *

It is the great context of the mind and spirit today, that of course absolutely no one talks about, that has the greatest interest to me. Have you given any thought to the lack of any interest in this medium surrounding everything that the media never mentions? It is a collective mood that is over us today that no one has been able to express in the most popular media in the world right now.

That is, until Squid Games was released to the world.

From South Korea.

Streaming series on a label like Netflix. 

This is what gives the nine-episode series Squid Games this magic that has captured the entire world in just a month. I just might be the first time the world has really united for something since (or even before?) the Pepsi revolution (or was it Coke?) – the “we are the world” commercials of the 80s.

Here, the first time that the world has united around a streaming series. A series on survival today. It should tell you a few things. Survival is within that context of medium surrounding all the loud and bright everyday messages. The objects on the scene of set. Placed in that strange place of Korea in American minds, more distant than Japanese or Chinese for that matter. Within Squid Games, we are surrounded by the fact that North Korea is so close to them. For many, a fatalistic mood during all the economic success of South Korea. A mood of constant struggle and death of literally all the characters in the series. This has in fact brought them to respond to playing the economic games of survival and brutality they are taken into captivity and forced to to play for money from deaths of people in the game. A large scoreboard shows deaths of people during each of the five “games” they play against each other. Killing others in these games by their actions.

* * *

One of the VIPs in Squid Game / A Minor Revival of Eyes Wide Shut

America knows little about this area of the world. Her tourists don’t visit it like other destinations. There is little evidence America wants to know much about this area. The area where all its TVs and many of its cars come from. As well as most of its electronics. The South is a great industrial power, yet it is still attached by a common border to North Korea. Somehow, it seems to me, this had made Korea more of a perpetual mystery to America and the West. 

It starts out being much brutal than any American can imagine in that it takes place in the incredibly successful South Korea that borders the most incredibly brutal backward country of North Korea. The fact that it takes place in modern day Seoul, perhaps the industrial center of the whole world, plays an important part in establishing background context or medium holding the objects of the scenes in them 

We see the world through the eyes of a thirty-year-old South Korean man who is very down on his luck. He is in debt way over his head to a mob-type person who threatens the next time. He is a chauffeur driver who gambles away any extra money he has at the racetrack. He lives with and helps support his mother. But offers little financial support to her. One day, he meets a strange person in the subway who offers to play a game with him and then invites him to an exclusive club to participate in the games. He gives him a card with a number on it and then disappears.

* * *

Netflix founder Reed Hastings wearing a Squid Game contestant suit

The movie is about the pursuit of winning the set of games that the phone number on the card ultimately brings to the young man.

Still digesting this brilliant, psychedelic film. Its perspectives and ideas are so far outside the stuff Americans are fed each day by the propaganda machine. A certain, raw truth about the modern world is expressed in all its forms in this brilliant series. More than anything I have heard, watched, or read, or conjured up.

The brilliant set designs should provide an immediate Oscar to the art director of the film. A combination set and lighting of a Stanley Kubrick film with some David Lynch mixed in. The colors of the various series sets are all spectacular. If nothing else, this offers more than a valid reason to watch this groundbreaking series.

Much more to ponder on this brilliant series. A global event of coming together over a series. Not just in America. But across the globe. 

* * *

What is it in this series that captures this illusive spirit of American culture at this moment in time? What is it in the series that captures the spirit in over a hundred other nations that Netflix streams to right now? This invisible medium of our times. The spirit, the evilness, the humanity, the fear that we hold in today. With Squid Games, this spirt wrangled into powerful film images put together in sequences and segments not seen before in any other global films.

The arrival of the VIPs at Squid Games

After I finished watching the series, I put together the below list of reviews of Squid Games in most of the major media of today. I did this with the plan to write a longer piece on the series. I include this research in the PDF below for all those interested in the cool media of participation in creating communication. The communication below on Squid Games is already at 10.589 words and this is only from a few hours of Google search today. There is sure to be more academic articles coming out about the series in the future 

But I doubt hardly anyone will see the true brilliance of Squid Games in expressing global images today in film and through the new story method of a series of episodes of telling stories. The dramatic structure. The lighting. The sets. The vision of the film. All beyond the thinking of American film artists at this time it seems to me. All so focused on the magnetism of American politics affecting even art. Local, national concerns. Caught up in the new civil war in culture, all engaged, enraged at their fellow citizens, to simply lift their head up above the battle for a few seconds at the context of the whole fight.

Anyway, here are the notes. Write back after watching the series and reading the below. I have a feeling that this series might touch off something inside yourself that hasn’t been touched off for a long time. A magical global feeling put into images for the first time. By our new modern visionary filmmaker. The new Stanley Kubrick with much more of a focused direction for his powers. 

The Hero of Squid Game / A religious symbol?

At the end of the series, the young South Korean man has transformed into a new man, It will probably be argued by some future PhD thesis that he is a modern Jesus Christ figure. This is hard to know but I do know that he creates the image and emotional spectrum of the new model for global citizenship. He finds out the person behind the strange games.

And, decides to go back to play them again.

And, find out those behind them. Like the old man.

 Best,
John

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