Last September, a new Korean dystopia series took the nation by storm. Now, Colby considers the long term implications of Netflix’s latest hit show Squid Game.
If you have access to the Internet, you probably know what Squid Game is. Hunger Games meets Parasite meets Lord of the Flies, the Korean Netflix TV show is incredibly popular. It’s inspired TikTok trends, countless memes, and a healthy amount of tears. But what caused the series to skyrocket to becoming Netflix’s biggest hit of all time, and what does it mean for the future of Netflix? Specific plot points won’t be revealed, but Squid Game will be discussed in some detail below!
Squid Game, part of Netflix’s effort to increase non-English language entertainment, has already been viewed by 111 million households, attaining the highly converted title of the most-watched content on Netflix. Minyoung Kim, the Korean American Netflix vp for Asia Pacific content, described the importance of authentic but universally-appealing media in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. At its core, the show is obviously and essentially Korean—the Korean language, a Korean cast, and Korean cultural references are the base for the entire series.
Still, it tackles some global issues like class division, gender inequality, and the dangers of unfettered capitalism and material culture. These kinds of social justice-oriented topics, increasingly common in Netflix entertainment like Money Heist (2017) and 13 Reasons Why (2017), are incredibly popular both in America and abroad. The series taps into the existing demand for survival shows in the fashion of something like Battle Royale but also takes advantage of the ongoing increase in popularity of Korean cultural products across the globe—commonly known as hallyu or the Korean Wave.
Hallyu, which has been documented and tracked by cultural scholars since about the turn of the century, has been particularly important for Korean entertainment products whether they be TV shows, movies, or music. Think of the rise in popularity of K-pop—BTW, TWICE, Blackpink, etc.—K-dramas—Crash Landing on You, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, Kingdom, etc.—and Korean films—Parasite (2019), Train to Busan (2016). This is hallyu.
While this popularity may seem relatively limited compared to the strong predominance of American products in the entertainment industry, hallyu contributes an estimated 12.3 Billion USD to the South Korean economy directly. This spike in popularity has also come with countless secondary benefits—eg. a boost in tourism. Thus far, hallyu has been mostly limited to Eastern and Southeastern Asia in countries like Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand. Its endorsement by Netflix, a mainstream media platform for Western consumers, signals that “hallyu [will] go beyond fandom culture and [evolve] into pop culture” according to Seoul National University professor Hong Seok-kyeong.
But how is hallyu relevant to Netflix? As part of the media giant’s strategy to expand beyond the Anglophone world, Netflix has been ramping up production of TV shows in other languages. In producing Korean-language media, Netflix can tap into the existing demand for Korean media while simultaneously diversifying and expanding its non-English offerings. Squid Game is just the latest, and most successful, in a string of productions including shows like Lupin, Las Chicas del Cable, Money Heist, and Bordertown. According to Netflix high-up Minyoung Kim, the success of these shows speaks to the need for authentic international content. International subscribers don’t want just international versions of American TV shows but original content that they identify with culturally. Squid Game may represent the first step in a new entertainment movement and demand for international content spearheaded by Netflix.