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'Squid Game': Solid thriller, good twists, too violent

Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon in Season

Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon in Season 1 of Netflix's "Squid Game." Credit: Netflix/Noh Juhan

SERIES "Squid Game"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A mysterious man has selected 456 people out of the vast population of Seoul for a chance to play a series of games on an island off the South Korea coast. Winner takes all, or specifically the equivalent of about $40 million. Most of the players are broke, notably divorced father Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) who's chased down by gangbangers to pay back his gambling debts. When the 456 begin to play — adult versions of "Red Light, Green Light," marbles, hopscotch and a popular Korean child's playground activity called "Squid game" — they learn the rules the hard way: If you lose, you die. In fact (spoiler alert) nearly all will, under the watchful gaze of someone called "The Front Man."

MY SAY On the month anniversary of launch (Sept. 17), "Squid Game" is king of the world, or streaming world anyway. One hundred and eleven million "views" (a Netflix record) and soon, the most viewed piece of content on Netflix ever. "Bridgerton" (685 million total hours viewed) still holds that record, but the crown is about to pass.

All these records and views tend to raise questions and you don't have far to look for answers either because the internet is full of them, specifically this: That "Squid" is a parable on predatory capitalism (it is indeed) which has resonated with cohorts of the 99% because they've found a reflection of themselves in these besotted game players.

Maybe. Maybe not. Big numbers are one thing, the motive behind them another. Does the vast popularity of "Bridgerton," for example, indicate some sort of hidden worldwide nostalgia for Regency-era London?

Moreover, dystopian fiction has always done something like "Squid Game" — the hardy band of survivors fighting the powerful elite … the have-nots vs. the haves … good vs evil. That evil triumphs here is hardly a departure from genre convention either. Dystopias aren't supposed to have happy endings.

So why? For that, go to Occam's razor. Maybe it's just because "Squid Game'' is a well-produced thriller with a couple of decent twists and a whole lot of violence. Violence always sells and has certainly helped to sell this.

"Squid Game'' also has a particularly good ensemble cast. Each is someone you know or at least have seen on-screen countless times, their plights (and degradation) relatable. There's the gangster Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), with his sneer and cold reptilian gaze. Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) is the resourceful hero cop we're all rooting for. Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-Soo) is the Wall Street investment type with the Dudley-do-right demeanor. Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su) has one last shot at an elusive payday before he dies from a brain tumor. Series breakout Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) is a North Korean defector with hidden motives.

Gi-hun is our lifeline into this dark world, our escape hatch too. Every fictional dystopia needs a Seong, otherwise it'd be overwhelmed by despair, or in this case, the Candyland aesthetic of all those deadly game rooms.

And much as the characters are manipulated by the Front Man, we too are manipulated — baldly, mercilessly, and cynically. Best not to get too close to a favorite character, lest they abruptly leave both the game and our affections.

There's nothing especially original here and the creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, has nearly admitted as much in various interviews. A veteran filmmaker, Hwang wrote "Squid Game" in 2009, during a particularly bleak period of his life, while gorging on manga comics like "Battle Royale," which also inspired "The Hunger Games." Nevertheless, there is an auteur feel to all this, and the sense that a real flesh-and-blood person created the series as opposed to a committee. Maybe that's what's best of all or at least most noteworthy. This is an original Korean TV series, and not just one more procedural off the Warner assembly line. The world, after all, is a big place. Shouldn't television reflect that too?

Yet dark-brutal-bloody "Squid Game" remains a trip through Dante's 9th circle of hell (treachery) with frequent side-trips to the 7th (violence.) Proceed with caution, if at all.

BOTTOM LINE Solid thriller, good twists, too violent.

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