The backroom of ‘The Squid Game’ and other Korean series: millionaire investment, audacity and exploitation


During the era of streaming, few series have achieved the status of cultural event on the same scale and with the same speed as the new Korean fiction of Netflix. Since it was released on September 17, its striking title has spread its tentacles to press headlines, discussions on social networks and talks in WhatsApp groups, and is on its way to becoming the most viewed title in the platform’s entire catalog. This is an especially remarkable achievement considering that it is also one of the most disturbing scenes.

The success of ‘The Squid Game’ is a giant step in the propagation process all over the planet – originally known as Hallyu – that the different exponents of Korean culture –From movies and series to K-Pop bands like BTS and Blackpink, passing through the most typical dishes of the national gastronomy– they have been starring for a long time; Specifically since 1993, when South Korea freed itself from the censorship that had prevailed during decades of military dictatorship and led to a boom in the cultural sector.

The first emergence of Korean television fiction was in the heat of Chinese demand, which became its main client


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The emergence of television fiction, also known as K-Dramas, coincided with the beginning of China’s economic flourishing and its growing demand for entertainment. Beijing considered that the American series were incompatible with communist values, and also refused to import content from an enemy country like Japan; immediately, Korea became its main supplier. During the decade that followed, the popularity of K-dramas spread throughout the rest of Asia, and as of 2010 they began to make their way into the West. And then Netflix came along.

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Aggressive financial strategy

In fact, several of the reasons that explain the international triumph of ‘The Squid Game’ are summarized by a big red N. The almighty content generator arrived in Korea in 2015, and after spending 700 million dollars in the production of 80 films and television series between that year and 2020, your plans investment for 2021 alone is at 500 million.

That aggressive financial strategy, complemented by the magic of the algorithms on which its viewing platform is based, had already provided the company with series of successes in the past. Among them is’Kingdom‘, an imposing mix of political intrigue and zombies set in the days of the Joseon dynasty; or ‘DP The Defector Hunter‘, a social drama centered on the systematic mistreatment suffered by conscripts performing military service; or ‘Sweet home‘, a horror story that imagines humans mutating into ferocious monsters and that, just four weeks after its premiere, at the end of 2020, had already been seen by 22 million subscribers.

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That said, it should be remembered that, until not long ago, the bulk of the K-Dramas were rom-coms and melodramas aimed primarily at that label called ‘female audience’. Also in that sense, the arrival of Netflix in the country was a shock, which pushed rival production companies and cable television channels to bet on more diverse, daring and provocative content.

In recent years series about serial killers have proliferated – ‘Beyond Evil‘,’The Tunnel‘-, destructive sects -‘Save me‘-, devilish spirits -‘The Guest ‘,’ The Uncanny Counter‘-, companies that help their clients satisfy their thirst for revenge -‘Taxi Driver‘-, air accidents hiding large-scale conspiracies -‘Vagabond‘- and detectives who live in different times and still communicate via walkie-talkies to solve crimes, like’The Signal‘.

Inequality and violence

Those viewers for whom ‘Parasites’ (2019) was the first contact with Korean entertainment will detect several similarities between ‘The Squid Game’ and Bong Joon-ho’s movie; after all, the new series also resorts to copious doses of black humor and also, we say, speaks bluntly of the inequalities on which the economic system is based and the extreme competition it imposes among members of society. Its protagonists, after all, are a group of people in debt up to their necks who volunteer to participate in a series of sadistic survival games. There can only be one winner, who will be a millionaire; the 455 remaining contestants will die, almost always executed, in the attempt.

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Korea’s particularly savage form of capitalism has also been portrayed in other series such as’Sky Castle‘(2018) and’The Penthouse‘(2020-2021), both focused on the world of the disgustingly rich, but has also been in evidence in some cases of labor exploitation recently unveiled in the realm of K-Dramas. Two years ago the Studio Dragon company, one of the most important audiovisual content producers in the country, had to face reports according to which its film crews were subjected to work up to 151 hours per week.

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Korean society, those who know it say, is a society not only exceptionally subject to the fierce laws of the market but also deeply aggressive; the traumas that the country suffered throughout the 20th century – Japanese colonization, the Korean War, almost 40 years of dictatorship, various financial crises – have left indelible marks on their collective psyche and they have also been printed in fictions produced in the country.

But, if the films directed for more than two decades by filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook or Kim Ki-duk have contributed to popularizing that image of the Korean as a depraved and bloodthirsty human being, the explicit violence portrayed in ‘The Squid Game’ is an anomaly in the realm of television. Depending on your tolerance level, in the face of the most Kaffir scenes, some viewers are most likely to twist their faces, others to gape and others to resort to nervous laughter. The success of the series shows that none of them, yes, stop looking.

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