By Brigette Lee ‘22
By now, almost everyone will have heard of the international Korean sensation, “Squid Game.” Yet apart from the attractive cast and dystopian setting, the drama also touches upon another aspect of Korean culture: their problematic economic scene.
The contestants are asked to participate in the game after being profiled as low-income individuals desperate for cash in any way, shape, or form. These potential competitors have many reasons contributing to their insolvency. Ali Abdul, an immigrant worker, had a boss who refused to pay his wages largely because of his ethnicity. Gi-hun suffered from a gambling addiction and Sae-byeok had just fled from North Korea with her brother looking to settle down with her family. Moreover, real estate prices have only continued to rise past affordable levels largely due to mounting household debt.
Wealth disparities have only broadened within the past few decades, effectively maintaining a constant fear of bankruptcy and financial uncertainty within the lower to middle-class citizens of Seoul. This anxiety is certainly a catalyst for the contestants’ rash decision to join the deadly game.
Once the games start, we are introduced to the unruly and disruptive character of Mi-nyeo, or as others know her, the bathroom lady. While “Squid Game ” was raging on TikTok, and I for one, had my FYP flooded with content, I came across a video that explained the blatant inaccuracy of the TV show’s subtitles. Such a comment is not meant to attack subtitlers (who are both overworked and not at all paid enough for what they do), but instead the decision of the producers to be frugal and unattentive in their choices to provide subtitles for foreign audiences.
Though what sparked my interest was when @youngmimayer explained what Mi-nyeo had said while desperately trying to find a partner for the fourth game: “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study.” The TikTok continues to explain how the trope of a “poor” person that is smart but unable to pursue higher education because of financial barriers, is incredibly common and well-known in Korea. This is largely due to the unrealistic costs of education in addition to the necessity to live in pricey areas surrounding “good” schools for the sake of image as well as mitigating travel time. As such, South Korea has suffered from a dramatic drop in births partly due to the feelings young prospective couples sense—that raising children would be too expensive in the current economic climate.
That being said, this article by no means covers even a quarter of the issues “Squid Game” director Hwang Dong-hyuk intended to share with his audience, yet it is meant to serve as a springboard for further exploration and discussion around the deeper meanings behind the global sensation.