First there was Parasite, shaking up the global movie industry and snatching Oscar glory. Then there was Squid game.
It’s been quite three years for content from Korea, a nation that has long had an outstanding reputation for producing high-quality entertainment that had nonetheless struggled to travel beyond Asia, a few exceptions. This seriously changed last September when Hwang Dong-hyuk squid game launched, breaking records that no one could have thought could be broken and stealing the air of time in a way that no show has done in recent memory. If you don’t know someone who dresses up as squid game character for Halloween, you probably weren’t invited to a Halloween party.
Hwang is in a reflective mood after a whirlwind half-year in which his show rocked the global television landscape, sending him from relative unknown outside his home country to being told by Steven Spielberg: ” I want to steal your brain.”
“I feel like I’ve been swept away by Niagara Falls for the past six months and fallen off a cliff,” he says. “Receiving such compliments from Steven Spielberg was completely beyond my imagination. I still can’t determine if it’s real or if I’m dreaming.
The success of squid game may have happened at lightning speed, but going from idea to green light took a bit longer. As an avid comic book reader in the late 2000s “without a penny” in his pocket, Hwang took to reading stories about people risking their lives for money. “If I had been asked to participate in one of these games at the time, I probably would have done so,” he says. “As a creator, it got me thinking about how I would design such a game. So I started building the story and I made a survival game. I’m not smart or strong physically, so I decided to make some simple games for kids.”
Hwang was fascinated by the contrast of people risking their lives on simple games they hadn’t thought of since they were children, and he spent a year working on a feature film version of what would become Squid game. But at the time, there was no appetite for such a violent feature film, and after pitching in several places, Hwang put his script away in a drawer and worked on other projects.
Fast forward seven years and the Korean launch of Netflix provided the environment for squid game which Hwang craved. The streamer ordered local content globally in several different languages and was happy to go to very dark places with the tone of its shows. squid game the feature film has become squid game the television series in 10 episodes and Hwang was given the green light.
He’s quite measured that he had to wait so long for his passion project to hit the screen and cites a second reason why it took so long. “This story seems much more realistic in 2021 than in 2011,” he says. “People’s survival feels more threatened now. We’ve seen the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ widen due to Covid, so given these global circumstances I can see why people are more immersed in this story and it resonates.
Hwang is full of praise for the autonomy with which Netflix let him go about his business (“I was able to do things in the most free way,” he insisted), but the deal that secured the show has been publicly maligned for failing to secure the creator a bonus for the millions of subscribers he has attracted to the service.
Reports put the show’s impact value at nearly $1 billion for the service and yet it only cost $20 million to produce, a bargain for the streamer. Had he had his time again, Hwang says he would have “absolutely no matter what” would have made a deal that would have allowed him to retain some of the show’s intellectual property.
“I will get compensation as I have been successful and I can do something bigger as the next step but if I could come back to the table I would have made sure it was an IP sharing deal “, he says.
Netflix is no stranger to this form of criticism. British multi-hyphenate Michaela Coel walked away from a multi-million dollar Netflix deal for a global breakthrough I can destroy you that would have left her without an IP address. This show ended up with the BBC and HBO, and the rest, as they say, is history. But unsure of his potential success, Hwang signed the deal and squid game became what it became, at one point atop Netflix’s most-watched list in 94 countries.
How did Hwang break into the global market like no designer before? He thought long and hard about the question before laying down three important factors: “Overcoming language and cultural barriers with a simple, visual message”; “focus on the emotional aspect of the characters”; and playing with familiar “intuitively understandable” colors and shapes.
On the first point, he specifies: “The games are very simple, they are children’s games, so whatever your age, you can understand the rules in 20 seconds. Whether it’s Red Light, Green Light or Tug of War, everyone has experience of one of these games, so I wanted to draw on the memories of so many people around the world.
The focus on character emotions avoided the need to make games more complicated, he adds, pointing to viewers’ close connection to many of these characters, whether in the form of adoration towards the main character Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae) or the hatred directed against arch-villain Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae).
“I also wanted familiar colors and shapes, with a focus on roses, circles, triangles,” he says of the third factor. “They are used intuitively to define the hierarchy of characters in the series.”
The show’s success has contributed to the flourishing of Korean culture around the world, not only in television and movies, but also in K-pop, Hwang said. He expects that feeling to continue for a long time to come as the world returns through the archive of TV shows, movies and music that have been popular with him for many years.
The world is obsessed with what Hwang will do next, and while the deal still isn’t signed, he’s pouring a lot of his mental energy into squid game Season 2. “The success of season 1 put a lot of pressure on me and I have nightmares about the poor reception of season 2,” he candidly admitted.
Hwang says he is formulating ideas and thinking about new games and characters to introduce to the series, and the first run left a lot of questions unanswered. It’s aiming for a Halloween 2024 launch, and recently confirmed to Deadline that fan-favorite Gi-hun will return with the shadowy Front Man, played by Lee Byung-hun.
Far from frank, Hwang is developing a feature film based on a novel by revered Italian essayist Umberto Eco, with the working title Kill the old man’s club. He teased this project as “even more violent” than squid game but I will not detail more.
On the lighter side, Hwang exclusively revealed that he is working on a comedy tentatively titled The best show on the planet, a satire based on his personal experience of forging a worldwide hit overnight.
As for the legacy of squid gameplus non-US/UK Netflix breakouts including Spain Money Heist and that of France Lupine, Hwang believes the show could be one of the founding programs to shift the global balance of content from English language to non-English language.
“There are untapped parts of the world that don’t speak English and you just have to think about the size of their market,” he says. “These are huge and growing populations. Non-English titles may not yet reach the level of English titles due to a lack of investment, but if the trend continues, I personally believe there will come a time when non-English language content will go above and beyond. beyond English-language content.