Television

You Can’t Understand Squid Game Without Understanding the Korean Concept Driving It

Man screaming after losing at a carnival game.
Lee Jung-jae in Netflix’s Squid Game. Noh Juhan/Netflix

At this point, it’s hard to walk across an abandoned lot without hearing about Netflix’s Squid Game. It’s easy to see why the show’s such a hit. The megaviolent South Korean drama boasts Battle Royale-style action with striking set design, moving performances, and ample plot twists. The South Korean survival drama’s first month on the platform amassed an estimated 111 million views, beating out Bridgerton for the biggest launch in Netflix history. The show’s runaway global success has been attributed to themes that viewers around the world can identify with: widespread socio-economic disparity and the desperation that comes with it. But to really understand the full power of the show, you also have to understand han, a uniquely Korean concept that can be loosely translated to a form of intense grief and unresolved resentment.

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The prominence of han rose during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and then again during the Korean War—explaining its close association with a sense of injustice and involuntary loss—and still is a core part of Korean identity and experience today. (It likely lives in every old woman’s pained proclamation of “aigoo!”) To Koreans, han influences every dispute on some level, every feeling of misery and helplessness. It lives in each grand display of emotion, each trademark staccato wail by mourners when someone dies—an outward explosion of feeling after bubbling inside like an angry stew. With han in mind, the most powerful moments in Squid Game start to take on a new dimension, where high-stakes turning points are not just plot, but expressions of a deep-seated individual and collective struggle against feeling wronged.

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In case you’ve been living under a rock (and don’t mind spoilers): Squid Game centers on Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-Jae) and other hard-on-their-luck people who agree to participate in a series of deadly childhood games for a cash prize. Early on, Gi-hun, a divorcé and gambling addict who lives with his mother, finds out that his daughter and her new family are moving to the United States. Gi-hun’s mother tells him that if he doesn’t do something, his daughter will forget how to speak Korean, and he’ll eventually become a stranger to her. This is the precipitating crisis for Gi-hun, and one of the reasons he signs up for the game: What’s at stake is not just money, but his tenuous connection to his daughter and her ties to their language and culture.

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What finally pushes him into the game is his mother’s ill health. She says to him, exasperated: “Now you suddenly show up to play the good son?” Despite the fact that fewer Koreans are now caring for their aging parents, filial piety is still very much a part of Korean values and society, and failure to meet those standards is seen as highly shameful, even unacceptable. To Gi-hun, joining the game—and perhaps more importantly rejoining after initially leaving it— is to submit to humiliation and violence as the only way out, materially and spiritually. Gi-hun’s hangdog face, his garment-rending bursts of emotion, is pure han.

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The other emotional anchor of the show is Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), whose own han is more literal than most, as a North Korean whose family was split apart during their escape. Every decision she makes—including a stint in a life of crime—is to make enough money to reunite with them. Frequently referred to as the “spy” or “the defector,” Sae-byeok also faces being othered by her fellow players, despite their shared language and ethnic heritage. When asked about where she’d like to go after the games, she says Jeju Island, because it looks nothing like Korea. The reunification Sae-byeok seeks isn’t about national allegiance—it’s for the sake of togetherness and security. Han, although a Korean phenomenon, is concerned not with geography or politics, but the suffering endemic to those caught up in them. When she says “I want to go home” right before dying in Episode 8, she isn’t talking about North Korea, where her brother is, or any other place that exists in the present moment. It’s more an expression of unresolvable longing, vulnerability, and regret.

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Han isn’t always about active suffering; it’s often about contradiction, and can bring a bittersweet quality to otherwise warm moments. This is clearest in Episode 6, “Gganbu”—probably the most devastating episode in the series, as it pits against each other the players with the closest bonds. It’s a clever conceit that matches levels of loyalty and trust with that of betrayal and guilt, shattering alliances that have built up so far. One such pairing is the brief friendship between Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi). When Ji-yeong loses the game on purpose to sacrifice her life for Sae-byeok’s, it both provokes the most emphatic outburst of emotion from Sae-byeok thus far, and a rare moment of tenderness, just before Ji-yeong dies. “Thank you,” she says while struggling to get the words out between tears, “for playing with me.” Elsewhere, Player 1, Il-nam, also loses on purpose to Gi-hun, even after revealing he knows Gi-hun had been cheating. There’s a nebulous mix of shame, gratitude, and helplessness that makes this emotional moment so hard to parse—and yet so precisely rendered.

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When Gi-hun finally returns home from the games, he finds his mother passed away on her bedroom floor. The quiet of the scene is anti-climactic, but makes the most sense to a Korean audience that understands this is a mainline dose of han. All the violence and suffering Gi-hun went through in the name of redemption—all of it too late. At the moment there’s nowhere for all this trauma to go but back inside himself. Gi-hun’s not the same person anymore and there’s no one really around left to see that or even comfort him.

There’s one more major expression of han in the show: the ending. One that strikes the notes that audiences who have experienced popular Korean cinematic exports like Parasite or Old Boy may be familiar with: a deep, sad, helpless rage that threatens to eclipse one’s reason for living. Koreans even have a term for the accompanying illness: hwabyeong, which is thought to be the physical manifestations of such intense, repressed, unresolved anger.

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In the world of Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook films, han always wins. You can fight it, you can let it work through you, but it is always bigger than you. In Squid Game, creator Hwang Dong-hyuk swaps out colonization for capitalism but the sense of han remains the same: the rage against an insurmountable situation and the spiteful futility that follows. We last see Gi-hun just about to board a flight to visit his daughter in the U.S. After finding out that the games are continuing, he turns around, abandoning the reconnection with his remaining family. What started out as a determination to keep his family together now shifts into another starker form of han, a need for retaliation so fierce that it becomes an all-consuming obsession.  It’s when the game runners tell him to hang up and board the plane that something goes off inside him. All of the feel-it-in-your-bones hatred started out as a byproduct of a cruel game made by bored, rich people. Now it’s probably the only thing driving him forward. Do you cheer for him, feel sorry for him, or both?

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