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A game of patience

A game of patience


Squid Game’s director Hwang Dong-hyuk originally had the idea for this year’s runaway TV hit in 2009. His story is a 12-year lesson in endurance.

ANDREW BUTLER, narrating:

Hello I’m Andrew and this is the Sensemaker.

One story everyday to make sense of the world.

Over Christmas and the New Year, we’re doing something a bit different here on the Sensemaker podcast. 

We’re asking: who are the 10 people who really helped us make sense of 2021? 

Now, I usually present the Playmaker podcast here at Tortoise – it’s our daily football podcast – one story a day to make sense of the beautiful game. But for today’s episode, I’m going to be looking at a different type of game entirely. 


[Music from the Squid Game soundtrack]

For anyone who’s watched the runaway success series of the year, Squid Game, that eerie sound that runs through it is unmistakable. 

The premise of the show is straightforward enough – it’s a Battle Royale, pitting cash-strapped down and outs against each other in a series of children’s games on a private island for the amusement of the super rich. 

Only one person can win – and only the winner gets to live.

Now, Netflix usually holds their cards quite close to their chest, but they were in a triumphant mood in October, a month after Squid Game’s release. It had reached 111 million viewers. 

It became the most-viewed title in more than 90 countries and while it cost the company only $21.4million to produce, it generated almost $900 million in revenue for them. 

For context, Bridgerton, Netflix’s second most popular show, was watched by less than half that number. And it doesn’t stop there. 

Jung ho-Yeon, who plays one of the lead characters Kang Sae-byeok, had 400,000 Instagram followers back in August. Now? She has nearly 24 million.

It might look, at first glance, like an instant hit but not for its director, Hwang Dong-hyuk.

“It’s frightening, it’s shocking, but it’s also beautiful, and right now it’s number one on Netflix in 90 countries”

Tonight with Jimmy Fallon

Hwang Dong-hyuk originally dreamed up Squid Game back in 2009. It has been a project 12 years in the making. 

12 hard years. 

Hwang Dong-hyuk agonised over the entire creative process – he claims to have lost six teeth due to the stress of making it. He told CNN, there are elements to this dystopian, violent show, which mirror some of his own life. 

“They represent the two sides of me,” he said, “like Gi-hun – the main protagonist – I was raised by a single mother in a financially troubled environment in Ssangmun-dong.”

While he was trying to get Squid Game made, Hwang Dong-hyuk did have reasonable success in South Korea with other projects, like Silenced and Miss Granny. 

But this year, everything changed. 

And so this is, really, a success story about patience. But it hasn’t happened in isolation. 

Just think back to the Oscars, in 2020. 

“And the Oscar goes to… Parasite”

Academy Awards Ceremony, 2020

South Korea is having a cultural moment – the so-called Hallyu, or Korean wave. 

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite triumphed at the 2020 Oscars, but the Korean wave is also obvious in the incredible success of K-pop groups like BTS. And that’s important to Hwang Dong-hyuk. 

Because, he says, Squid Game is also about shining a light on the real crisis facing South Korea right now. Household debt in the country has risen in recent years – and is now equivalent to more than 100% of the country’s GDP. There’s a dramatically widening income gap. 

Rising youth unemployment and property prices in big cities are too expensive for ordinary people. 

Squid Game is an allegory for all the things going wrong with modern capitalism – packaged up in the most gripping show of the year. Hwang Dong-hyuk probably wasn’t expecting his 2021 to be quite like this but after the numbers, and subscribers, poured in to Netflix, all eyes have now turned on what’s next. 

The end of series one leaves a tantalizing prospect for a second series, which Hwang Dong-hyuk says is now in the planning process.

And, given its success, we probably won’t be waiting 12 years for it. 

Today’s story was written by Andrew Butler and produced by Studio Klong.