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The magical realism of ‘Squid Game’ shows the contradictions of funny money and dodgy contracts

TEXT Elaine Chang
PHOTOS Pix­abay

Note: The fol­low­ing arti­cle con­tains spoil­ers about “Squid Game.”

In the hit Net­flix series Squid Game, play­ers par­tic­i­pate in dead­ly children’s games in order to win prize money.

By some fishy cal­cu­la­tion, the play­ers’ lives are val­ued less than their debt. An enor­mous plex­i­glass pig­gy bank sus­pend­ed high above their bar­racks rubs this indig­ni­ty into every upturned survivor’s face as it fills at the rate of 100 mil­lion won — approx­i­mate­ly $105,470 — per elim­i­nat­ed con­tes­tant. This jack­pot even­tu­al­ly builds to 45.6 bil­lion won.

The pig­gy bank in Squid Game fills above the heads of contestants.

The games are six con­tests based on children’s games, and con­tes­tants play to win and sur­vive. The price assigned to each play­er is just one part of the shady account­ing and qua­si-legal manoeu­vring that brings them to Squid Game‘s the­atres of cru­el­ty and macabre com­e­dy. What’s more, the play­ers have signed con­tracts agree­ing to pay and play.

Con­tracts and payments

Before tak­ing part in these games, the show’s pro­tag­o­nist Seong Gi-hun is giv­en the choice by a loan shark to post­pone pay­ment of his gam­bling debts by sign­ing a “Waiv­er of Phys­i­cal Rights,” which would allow for the removal of his organs.

Lat­er in the episode, a well-dressed man approach­es Gi-hun in a sub­way sta­tion with an offer Gi-hun can’t refuse: an invi­ta­tion to play a game of chance for cash if he wins or slaps to the face if he loses.

After a string of defeats and sting­ing blows, Gi-hun’s luck turns. But as he gloats over his win­nings, the man rat­tles off Gi-hun’s con­sol­i­dat­ed life­time debts and inter­est accrued to date to banks, pay­day loan­ers, gang­sters and oth­er preda­to­ry lenders. The amounts are gar­nished with the cold­est facts of Gi-hun’s life, includ­ing his divorce.

Cor­nered, Gi-hun agrees to sign a Play­er Con­sent Form, mak­ing him the 456th par­tic­i­pant in games for high­er gains.

Like­wise, agree­ments made pri­or to the con­sent form, both iron­clad and flim­sy as squid floss (a pop­u­lar Kore­an snack), fig­ure in the back­sto­ries of oth­er play­ers. These include Ali, the altru­is­tic and trust­ing Pak­istani migrant work­er cheat­ed by his boss, and Kang Sae-byeok, who escaped North Korea with her broth­er with the help of an unscrupu­lous smuggler.

But no one needs to flee the grimmest total­i­tar­i­an state on Earth to see how Squid Game bare­ly exag­ger­ates how cer­tain peo­ple are reduced to what they owe.

Mag­i­cal realism


In Colom­bian nov­el­ist Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez’s One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude the famous “banana mas­sacre” hon­ours the strik­ers against the Unit­ed Fruit Com­pa­ny in 1928, who were shot and killed by the Colom­bian mil­i­tary. In Gar­cía Márquez’s nov­el, griev­ances pre­cip­i­tat­ing the strike include the banana company’s pay­ment of work­ers in chits, redeemable only in the company’s com­mis­saries (and then only for Vir­ginia ham that nev­er mate­ri­al­izes). But as the work­ers had been hired on a “tem­po­rary” basis, a court rules in the company’s favour: “the work­ers did not exist.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, Squid Game’s com­peti­tors do not exist beyond the prof­it- and plea­sure-gen­er­at­ing poten­tial of their des­per­a­tion, mag­ni­fied for the enter­tain­ment of creepy, bedaz­zled mask-wear­ing VIPs and the games’ cap­tain, who enjoys a scotch and a big-band ren­di­tion of “Fly Me to the Moon” as he watch­es play­ers tram­ple dead bod­ies to the fin­ish line of the first game.

Like Gar­cía Márquez’s One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tudeSquid Game can be under­stood as a work of mag­i­cal real­ism, because its most fan­ci­ful ele­ments are pre­sent­ed as stark fac­tu­al matters.

In 1997, it was revealed that the pilot respon­si­ble for the Kore­an Air Flight 801 crash slapped his co-pilot in the face while hear­ing his respect­ful, halt­ing warn­ings as noth­ing but insubordination.

Phoney mer­i­toc­ra­cies and sus­pect con­tracts are not unique to South Korea. In 2010, retail giant Wal­mart was sued for tak­ing out secret life insur­ance poli­cies on its employ­ees.

Bro­ken promises

Paper promis­es like Squid Game‘s play­er con­sent form are cyn­i­cal nods to indi­vid­ual con­sent and free and equal agency. Clause 3 per­mits play­ers to sus­pend the games by pop­u­lar vote, and in the sec­ond episode, it is enact­ed when a nail-bit­ing­ly nar­row major­i­ty vote is held to can­cel the games, only for most play­ers to return, unable to resist the pos­si­bil­i­ty of debt emancipation.

This resem­bles many bogus con­tracts where human lives are exchanged for labour or mon­ey, like those signed by Kore­an “com­fort women” dur­ing the Sec­ond World War as if in will­ing exchange for their bodies.

In Squid Game, labour agree­ments seem built to be bro­ken, but only in one direc­tion. Episode 5 fea­tures Gi-hun’s flash­back to a strike against his for­mer employ­er, includ­ing police beat­ings of pro­test­ers. This sce­nario was based on the real-life auto man­u­fac­tur­er Ssangy­ong and the 2009 lay­off of 2,646 fac­to­ry work­ers, only some of whom received resti­tu­tion after a lengthy bat­tle in Kore­an courts.

Squid Game also high­lights ongo­ing edu­ca­tion inequities due to pover­ty. Fiery play­er No. 212, Han Mi-nyeo, laments that while she is smart, she didn’t have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to study. This can be con­trast­ed with Gi-hun’s child­hood fren­e­my, Cho Sang-woo (play­er No. 218), who climbed the social lad­der to pres­ti­gious Seoul Nation­al, but is want­ed for embezzlement.

Mag­ic money


That mon­ey is itself con­trac­tu­al — cer­ti­fied in its print­ed sta­tus as “legal ten­der” — slaps Squid Game fans in the face each time pay­outs cas­cade into the pig­gy bank.

Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the show’s mam­moth pop­u­lar­i­ty, cryp­tocur­ren­cy scam­mers stole some US$2.15 mil­lion from buy­ers by jack­ing up the price of tokens to play an as yet nonex­is­tent online game based on the series. The defraud­ers cashed out on Nov. 1, right after the fun­ny mon­ey — called Squid — surged to US$2,861 per unit.

But what dis­tin­guish­es real mon­ey from fake? Is debt as real as it gets, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of wealth a nec­es­sary fiction?

Unlike the guards engaged in their side hus­tle sell­ing dead play­ers’ organs, the audi­ence watch­es the des­e­cra­tion with equal parts out­rage and empa­thy. We might also share a rue­ful laugh at the end of Episode 1’s car­nage, remind­ed that the bil­lion­aire trio of Jeff Bezos, Richard Bran­son and Elon Musk are fly­ing them­selves to the moon.

The mag­i­cal real­ism of the show draws from con­tem­po­rary South Kore­an culture’s mix of advanced tech­nolo­gies and tra­di­tion­al hier­ar­chies, but the rep­re­sent­ed inequities also reflect glob­al truths about how we val­ue human labour and life.

Elaine Chang, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor, Eng­lish and The­atre Stud­ies, Uni­ver­si­ty of Guelph
This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

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