Since pop culture tells us a lot about our national state of mind, I have been intrigued by the internet buzz that has surrounded “Squid Game,” a South Korean survivalist drama about a peculiar form of class warfare in a dystopian setting.
Its success with audiences, hitting No. 1 on Netflix in 90 countries including this one, is no less surprising and impressive than “Parasite,” another South Korean drama about class differences that won four 2019 Oscars, including Best Motion Picture.
What’s going on here? I detect a trend familiar to both countries.
The nine-part “Squid Game” series is the latest entry in a parade of films and shows — including “The Hunt,” “Black Mirror” and the “Hunger Games” movies — centered on a common theme: Desperate people pitted against each other in life-or-death competitions in dystopian settings for unequally distributed resources.
Sound familiar? Having been immersed in clashes over race, class, and economic insecurities in recent American politics, I am fascinated by the ways such issues have popped up on theater and at-home screens, not just here, but across the industrialized world.
South Korea offers a dramatic example. The country’s rapid rebuilding from the 1950-53 Korean War has been one of the world’s economic wonders, offering successes as varied as Samsung’s global growth and the international popularity of teen-oriented K-pop.
But the dark side of boom-and-bust cycles hit the country with financial crises in the past two decades, along with soaring personal debt, ailing job markets, spikes in suicide rates and deepening income and opportunity gaps between rich and poor.
Without giving away too many spoilers, “Parasite” follows a poor family into a wealthy family’s home in which they scheme to become employed and move in by posing as unrelated, highly qualified domestic workers. Differences in economic experiences are visible in such elements as rain, which is depicted as a mild nuisance for the rich family but a disaster for the poor folks.
In the “Squid Game” series, everyone is living in such seemingly hopeless circumstances, and on the brink of financial ruin, that the most desperate are easily coerced into playing adult-sized childhood games that quickly turn deadly. Quite deadly.
In both productions, the metaphors for corruption and predatory capitalism are so obvious that even my tin ear for symbolism could hear them.
Yet the entertainment value is solid, if you can stomach the violence, particularly in “Squid Game.”
The themes of economic insecurity and despair in a land where the more fortunate are doing better than ever easily resonated with me after our recent presidential campaigns.
For example, our national political conversations have been so focused on racial divides, in different ways by each party, that we give too little attention in my view, to the economic divides that we all need to patch up.
Racism is a real issue, of course. But of the nearly 700 counties that twice sent Obama to the White House, an impressive one-third flipped to support Trump in 2016, according to The Associated Press. Trump also won 194 of the 207 counties that voted for Obama either in 2008 or 2012.
Obviously, a lot of Trump supporters were moved by something more than race. But too often both of our political parties treat race like a red herring to draw attention away from thornier problems of income inequality and economic development shared by all Americans.
As an avenue to vent the barely-suppressed rage in our population, as in South Korea’s, “Parasite” and “Squid Game” offer a medium and message that can transcend borders and cultures.
But who is offering some hope? I can’t help but wonder as I talk to my son and other millennials who often express a very similar cynicism about their futures.
For their generation, the vigorous supply of low-skilled, well-paying industrial jobs that my generation enjoyed before, say, the 1970s and ‘80s have dried up. Same for reasonably priced college tuitions.
The birthrates for young adults have been in decline, experts say, because of economic barriers to a goal that we used to take for granted: starting a family.
All of which, I believe, contributes to the popularity of movies here and overseas that offer a cynical dog-eat-dog, hustle-whatever-you-can view of life. Perhaps watching such struggles play out on a movie or TV screen can help him to cope with them better in real life, where we can’t rely on every story to end happily ever after.
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.