SASKATOON — Since its premiere on Sept. 17, Netflix’s “Squid Game,” has exploded in popularity with Co-CEO Ted Sarandos saying it has a “very good chance” of being its most popular series ever. An internet provider in South Korea is even suing Netflix to pay for costs from the surge in network traffic and maintenance.
One Canadian professor says the South Korean show is resonating with so many viewers because of how the streaming giant has expanded into non-U.S. markets; the growing prominence of South Korean pop culture in the West; and the story’s global themes of inequality and uncertainty.
“‘Squid Game’ is building on the dramatization of class conflict and the enormous gap in wealth disparity,” Michelle Cho, professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “I would say they’re global themes. I think that they are tapping into the crises of capitalism that are experienced by a number of places around the world.”
For the uninitiated, the South Korean dystopian horror series is about indebted people trying to win cash by competing in deadly versions of popular children’s games such as “Red light, green light.” Cho said the show draws on horror elements which are reminiscent of the series “Black Mirror,” as well as “Battle Royale,” a 2000 Japanese thriller which itself went on to inspire “The Hunger Games” series.
Cho said the show is highly-produced and boasts colourful set designs which provides a visual contrast to the characters’ anxiety, despite living in a country with a robust post-war economy.
“A lot of [them] are not sure that modernization process has really yielded a better place to live or more happiness,” Cho said. “South Koreans right now are very, very concerned with the cost of life and wealth inequality.”
She said many of them feel too many aspects of their lives are hyper-competitive.
“And I think that questions that Koreans are asking themselves are: ‘Well, in what way is it possible to survive when everything is a competition?’” she said, adding that many workers around the world likely feel the same.
“So it is like it’s drawing on these already existing ideas and global culture and that’s what makes it also more appealing and more current.”
And although the show was filmed in Korean, the streaming platform offer subtitles in 37 different languages and voice dubs in 34 languages. And the platform’s strategy appears to have paid off, as according to the company, 95 per cent of the show’s viewers aren’t in South Korea.
A LOT OF SUCCESS THANKS TO NETFLIX’S EXPANSION
Twitter and TikTok have been set buzzing with memes and clips from the show since it first aired, with Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s global TV head, telling Vulture this has helped drive conversations about the show.
“People hear about it, people talk about it, people love it, and there’s a very social aspect to that, which does help grow the show outside of what we do,” she told the outlet last week.
Cho also credits the show’s success to Netflix’s push to expand into markets outside of the U.S.
That growth has meant the platform has turned to showcasing and producing diverse content in different markets, to draw in new viewers. She said this includes shows such as the Spanish heist crime drama “Money Heist” or the French mystery thriller “Lupin.”
She said China and South Korea are simply some of the latest parts of the world feeling Netflix’s push to diversify which began in the early 2010s. The company has even set up two studios just outside of Seoul as a way to create more local content there.
“So it was only a matter of time before a show that was produced outside of the ‘West’ would have gained traction,” Cho explained, adding that the platform’s capabilities itself played a huge role. “Once something starts to trend, the algorithm will suggest it and it’s an extremely powerful tool that the platform has to focus subscribers’ attention.”
But Cho also believes the show’s success is directly tied to the growing global prominence of South Korean pop culture in the past decade via soap operas called K-dramas, K-Pop music, and films such as Bong Joon-ho’s Academy-Award-winning film “Parasite,” which also touched on inequality and class struggles.
“There’s been this really been a steady expansion of exports of Korean media since the early 2000s, starting with film festivals,” she said, noting that since the 2010s, there’s been a concerted effort – especially on the part of South Korean government – to provide subsidies or tax rebates to media production studios and promote cultural products and industries, such as films, television, gaming and online comics called “webtoons.”
On Netflix’s part, it said in a statement earlier this year that it had spent roughly US$700 million on Korean films and TV shows between 2015 and 2020