It’s hard to stay indifferent about Squid Game. After the twentieth time that I watched someone carve out a shape from a candy-like brittle piece on TikTok, I finally logged on Netflix and binge-watched the whole season. 456 players – gamblers, gangsters, people in debt, immigrants, terminally ill men – compete in a series of children’s games for a cash prize of $38 million, all the while the losers are killed graphically and brutally by soldiers or a sniper rifle.
The dystopian thriller took the world by storm. Ever since it premiered on September 17, Squid Game has become Netflix’s biggest hit, drawing over 100 million viewers within a month. The global fascination with the drama not only marks the success of Netflix’s strategy of producing local content in foreign countries but also proves that South Korea’s cultural clout has extended beyond the Asia-Pacific region.
Although South Korea has long been one of the largest entertainment exporting countries in Asia, most of the products only receive regional popularity. For movies or TV series, there is always the dilemma of whether to attract more international audiences even at the cost of cultural relevance.
Cultural barriers become an important factor that many producers in the creative industry need to consider when wanting to resonate with viewers from different cultural backgrounds. For Korean dramas, this work will be done easier in other Asian countries, such as China and Japan, where people share similar sociological characteristics and are less likely to be overwhelmed by obscure cultural references. In the absence of geographical and historical proximity, overseas audiences, in contrast, require more effort in diminishing these barriers.
In retrospect, the global phenomenon of Squid Game is not pure luck but a perfect embodiment of successful cross-cultural communication, much like what has been said by Bong Joon Ho, the writer-director of the Oscar winner film Parasite, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
The storyline of Squid Game is nothing new to viewers. We have seen it in Hunger Games, Battle Royale, and Alice in Borderline in which players compete in survival games under the threat of grisly death. Like Parasite, Squid Game centers on the long-unsolved wealth disparity in Korean society – an economic plight existing in many more countries. The characters are from all walks of life, on the margins of society, living a life of desperation. Even when offered the chance to quit the game, 93% of the players still choose to come back well aware of the fatal penalty, because for them it’s “just as bad out there as it is in here”.
The hopelessness illustrated by the characters about an end to their material and economic inequality, to some degree, can resonate with audiences from diverse backgrounds. Meanwhile, the cultural elements which normally require a certain degree of background knowledge in relevant social context or historical epochs are slightly underplayed in the show.
As a result, the same story of Squid Game seems to be applicable and ready for reproduction in other countries without much localization efforts. Especially, the pandemic further fueled the public fear towards an unknown future. The audience can easily relate to the characters, feel their despair, and immerse themselves in the surreal yet realistic allegory.
The usage of signs is another way to foster cross-cultural communication. The simplicity of symbols sometimes can carry a stronger message than words. Famously in Squid Game, a circle, a triangle, and a square. The same shapes that are on the controller of the Sony PlayStation are drawn on the ground to play the squid game, written on the cards sent to invite all the participants, printed on the masks of the guards, and many more scenes in the show.
Back in the 18th century, Sengai Gibon, a Japanese Buddhist monk, painted “The circle-triangle-square” to symbolize the essence of the universe. The circle stands for the infinite when the triangle is the beginning of all forms, and the square is the triangle doubled. The three shapes together reveal the process of creating everything: from a formless circle to multitudinous forms.
In Squid Game, the three shapes tend to allegorize the hierarchic pyramid in a microcosm of a world. The lowest level of soldiers is the ones with a circle on masks who are subordinate to the ones with squares and can talk only under the permission of the latter. The order of shape makes sense also from a psychological point of view. Research has proven that human beings have a visual preference for curved contours over sharp-angled ones, evoking various emotions based on a perceptual and cognitive mechanism.
This might explain why the circle-marked soldiers are only responsible for harmless work such as corpse disposal or guarding, leaving the massacre job to other colleges: in the hope to generate coherent emotions from the audiences.
Re-creation of memorable scenes by fans around the world adds extra impetus to the growth of viewership as well. Most of the series’ content is the production of children’s games that are reintroduced and turned into brutal contests: red light green light, sugar honeycombs (also known as Dalgona candy carving), tug of war, games of marbles, glass jumping, and finally the squid game.
Videos in which creators pretend to be a participant in the game quickly go viral on social media. Many popular digital creators also join the trends on TikTok. Often the videos are accompanied by the same spooky earworm music in the show and barely pose any language restraints. Memes coming from iconic scenes generate similar effects. There are many “Meme-able” scenes in the show that inspire fans to improvise and create funny memes.
Quite a few brands also spot these amazing opportunities to relate to their audience and try to engage in various ways. Some posted on their social media a sugar disc with the shape of a product or logo, mirroring the aforementioned Dalgona game in the show. Other brands leverage the symbolic signs of a circle, a triangle, and a square by adding their own logo. Such innovative social media posts are constantly attracting more people to watch the show.
The success of Squid Game on a global scale can absolutely inspire other countries to reflect on their entertainment export strategies. It encourages us to rethink in a cross-cultural context how to better leverage content and what is the right way to overcome the barriers of those one-inch-tall subtitles.