More Than a Phenomenon
Lee is watching Park Hae-soo, his Squid Game co-star, climb a splintery tree barefoot, in half awe and half concern. They’re gathered for a photoshoot in the hills of sunny Los Angeles, and there is a general mood of giddiness on set. Jung Ho-yeon arrived early ahead of the call time; the consummate model is overjoyed to be lensed by Ryan McGinley, one of her favorite photographers. The private garden, with its fully bloomed lemon trees and bed of roses, serves as a perfect backdrop for this jubilant reunion.
It’s almost surreal to see the cast back together, outside the ultra-secretive island with its armed, masked guards. On this grassy hilltop surrounded by luscious trees and colorful flora, the trio seems worlds away from the grim, lethal reality that is Squid Game. As finalists in the deathly games, the trio were pitted against each other to brutal extremes onscreen. But in real life, they interact like a close family, buoyed by the welcome spring breeze and each other. “They are like my two dads!” Jung jokes, sandwiched between her fellow Squid Game stars.
Unbeknownst to them at the time of our shoot, the cast would go on to win two major awards the next day, at the 27th Critics’ Choice Awards. For the role of Seong Gi-hun, Lee made history as the first-ever person to win Best Actor in a Drama Series for a non-English language show, one of Squid Game’s many record-breaking feats (their other award was Best Foreign Language Series). “We were all just very happy,” Lee tells me a few days later about his win. “We had no idea Squid Game would become this big. I remember when I first read the script I asked myself, ‘What is this?’ I had never seen anything like it before.”
To call Squid Game a cultural sensation would be an understatement. At the time of writing, more than six months after its release, the fantastical, all-too-cruel survivalist drama remains Netflix’s most popular series globally, to date. Viewer reactions, in the form of parodies, memes, and mass media attention the world over, were unprecedented in scale. The nine-episode series also snagged wins at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards (including Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor and Female Actor in a Drama Series for Lee and Jung, respectively), and the 2021 Gotham Awards (Breakthrough Series — Long Form), with more than 20 equally impressive nominations across the awards season. Squid Game was a meteoric crash-landing arrival of a shocking new genre, fresh and devourable not only to international audiences, but also in Korea.
Decades before the terms K-pop, K-drama, or K-beauty ever became popularized, Korean television had already cultivated mass fandoms outside its country’s borders in what was referred to as Hallyu, or the Korean wave. It was not unlike the boom of Hong Kong cinema that preceded it, when Kung-Fu action features and triad-police dramas dominated theater screens across East Asia in the 70s and 80s. Just as Cantonese and Mandarin movies were accepted as popular culture across Asia at the time, so too have Korean dramas and music been sweeping many corners of the world for nearly 30 years.
“I remember the late 90s and early 2000s as being a really thriving, exciting time for Korean dramas,” Lee reminisces.
“I believe the attention we are getting now is the accumulated result of all the good things we’ve been putting out. We’ve consistently developed our production methods and quality of output over the years, together, as a culture. This isn’t a sudden, passing phenomenon — I hope it’s just the beginning.”
Squid Game was game-changing not only in its level of global, commercial influence, but also in that it completely altered the face of what K-drama could look like to viewers abroad. Although esteemed filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho (Parasite, Okja) and Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, Oldboy) have brought worldwide recognition to the realm of Korean cinema, Korean TV has largely been known for its soapy rom-coms. So when Squid Game, in all its bloody glory, became the most talked-about show ever, it was a revealing surprise that shed light on vastly new potential for the region’s entertainment industry.
As uncanny and fantastical as the series is, it was inspired by a real period of economic hardship in the life of writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk. “I was always struggling — my mother had retired and I was the only person earning a living to support my family,” he tells me over Zoom from his hotel room in L.A. Director Hwang initially wrote Squid Game as a feature film in 2009, in the wake of the global financial crisis. He modeled Gi-hun, the personable, debt-ridden protagonist played by Lee, after actual workers who were laid off at SsangYong Motor the same year. (In Squid Game, Gi-hun is laid off from Dragon Motors, a direct reference to SsangYong, which translates to “double dragons.”)
The Korean automobile manufacturer’s firing of more than 2,600 employees left countless families in dire circumstances, resulting in national outrage, protests, and strikes — even a string of suicides. According to director Hwang, what he remembers about that time isn’t unique to the era. “Things haven’t gotten any better over the years,” he says. “If anything, with the widening wealth gap and the COVID pandemic, it’s a tougher world to live in now than it was before.”
Unable to find the right investors and producers, director Hwang had to file away Squid Game for a decade while he worked on other movies — Silenced, Miss Granny, and The Fortress — which earned him A-list director status in Chungmuro, Korea’s answer to Hollywood. Although he believes the financial crisis was a contributing factor for Squid Game’s delay, he recalls the industry’s overall reaction to the script at the time. “People thought it was too outrageous,” says director Hwang. So what does it say about the world that it’s so accepted today? “What we once thought was unrealistic hits too close to home now. People relate so much with Squid Game because as a society, we push each other to the extremes and prioritize materialism over everything else. The real world looks a lot like Squid Game.”
Once director Hwang got the greenlight for Squid Game in 2019, one of his biggest challenges was creating a series that felt heightened yet plausible. “We had to balance the real and surreal,” director Hwang says. “We were bringing these people, who are in so much real pain, into an almost fantasy world. I was very careful about how that clash would be presented.” What ultimately inspired the painted skies in the game sets for Red Light, Green Light and the dalgona challenge were the indoor canals at The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. “Those painted skies can be confusing,” director Hwang says. “Are you inside or outside?
I thought that combination of fakeness and reality was also eerily symbolic of capitalism.”
To enter the uncanny world that director Hwang created, Lee, Park, and Jung had to thrust themselves into a state of moral chaos. “My emotional context was deprivation and jealousy,” Park says of his character, Cho Sang-woo. “I thought Sang-woo would have felt envious and resentful of Gi-hun since they were kids because Gi-hun has the warmth and likability Sang-woo could never possess. Sang-woo’s way of survival is working hard and beating his competition, stepping on others. Gi-hun is the opposite, where he lifts others up.”
To understand Sang-woo’s persona, Park frequented Seoul National University, the character’s elite alma mater, notorious for its cutthroat competition. “I wanted to speak with actual students there to hear their thoughts on what it’s like to come in second place,” Park recalls. “Everyone at S.N.U. is number one where they’re from, but among each other, most of them eventually have to admit defeat, even if that means coming in second. One student told me that his friends thought second or third place was meaningless, and that he’d rather not try at all if he can’t come out on top. That really was the crux that helped me build Sang-woo’s character, who looks down on Gi-hun for being less driven and competitive.”
For Lee, who is known for his glamorous image and memorable roles in New World, The Face Reader, and Assassination, preparing for Gi-hun also brought back memories of his humble past. “When I was young, my family and I went through similar hardships as the Squid Game contestants,” Lee says. “The core, underlying emotion I focused on was desperation — that feeling of having nothing can drive you to the edge of a cliff, like you have no choice.” Lee studied Gi-hun’s mannerisms by visiting local markets to observe passersby: “I thought Gi-hun should be the kind of familiar guy everyone knows. I wanted to remind myself of how people act in everyday situations.” Lee would disguise himself with a hat and mask and wander the streets at night, watching vendors. Although his star power at home verges on legendary status, he was so skilled at blending in that nobody noticed. “I guess I got a bit lucky that everyone had to wear a mask during the pandemic,” he says. “Acting is
a very specialized profession where you have to be chosen. The most important thing for me is to try and portray every character in a different way, so I don’t remain static.”
When creating the characters for Gi-hun and Sang-woo, director Hwang projected himself in equal parts onto both of them. “I’m a mix of those two, half and half,” director Hwang explains. “Sang-woo has the same personal history as me, where he studied hard and went to S.N.U. and had to support his family. But when Squid Game first aired, my friends made fun of me because Gi-hun dresses exactly like I did when I was younger. I used to be that guy, gambling at horse races and complaining about my life.”
Kang Sae-byeok, the North Korean defector desperate to reconnect her dispersed family, came to life onscreen through Jung, who took a different acting approach from her male counterparts. Instead of looking to outside sources, she homed in on Sae-byeok internally, by transplanting her own experience with displacement and loneliness. “I was able to draw a pretty clear picture of Sae-byeok almost immediately — I could relate to her because I also spent a long time away from home,” Jung tells me of her modeling years in New York. “There were times I would go a whole week without speaking to anyone, especially when I didn’t know English.” That experience of feeling isolated inspired Sae-byeok’s dark demeanor and husky voice. “When you try speaking for the first time in a while, your voice starts cracking,” Jung says. “I thought it would be the same with Sae-byeok, who had to run away and keep to herself.”
For the parts of Sae-byeok that required deeper introspection, Jung started journaling from her character’s perspective: “I wanted Sae-byeok’s presence to reflect the weight of her past, without having to say much. I tried to fill in the details about her background and what happened to her and her parents while they escaped North Korea.” Jung would read and reread her diary between takes, immersing herself in the role so intensely that sometimes it was difficult to break character. “There were scenes, like with my little brother Kang Cheol, or with Ji-yeong, where I couldn’t stop crying, when it wasn’t even my turn to shoot,” she says.
If Gi-hun and Sang-woo represent opposing values, Sae-byeok is the link between them and the rest of Squid Game’s marginalized community. The depth of Sae-byeok’s emotional range, from seething anger to deep sadness, vexation, and helplessness, reflects the frustrations experienced by many unempowered, underprivileged people. Gi-hun, Sang-woo, and Sae-byeok’s tug-of-war team, mostly made up of minorities (women, the elderly, and people of color), was a microcosmic view of groups most often shunned by society’s power structures. “I wanted that team to be a metaphor for how we should move forward as a civilization,” director Hwang says. “By accepting each other and working together to achieve, rather than excluding the weak.”
This is also why director Hwang gave one of the most crucial lines in the series to Sae-byeok. In the penultimate episode, as Gi-hun approaches Sang-woo to kill him in his sleep, Sae-byeok says, “Don’t do it. You’re not that kind of person.” This is the single most important message that director Hwang wants to send out to the world. “Sae-byeok’s words stop Gi-hun and make him put down his knife. That’s what I want to tell everyone — we’re not that kind of people,” director Hwang says. “We lose humanity in our chase of material things, but inside, each of us still have the warmth in our hearts, the willpower to change the world. The only thing we can depend on is each other, and our humanity. That is our last hope.”
If there is one thing the Squid Game team has in common, it’s their commitment to working together. “No matter how good you are at acting, you have to get along,” director Hwang says.
Adds Park, “The most important thing for me as an actor is the trust between me and my colleagues — especially in something like Squid Game, where we are all confined in one place and have to go through everything together.”
For Lee, that trust extends to the audience. “Viewers are always very sharp, and they will know whether or not you’ve tried your best in your performance,” he says. “Actors have to constantly challenge themselves in new ways to continue building that trust with them.”
Now onto the obvious but inevitable question: What’s next for the three finalists of Squid Game Season 1? “It’s difficult to just be so happy about [the series’] success. It’s an honor to get so much love and all these awards, and I am grateful for that,” Jung says. “But looking ahead to my future, I just want to concentrate on how I can continue acting for a long time.”
It’s still sunny in L.A. as our picture-perfect shoot comes to a close. Jung frolics in a field of flowers with Lee and Park as they pose for their last group photo. They stand together, spread apart, and come back together again, sometimes leaning on each other, or holding hands. Their fluid interaction feels like a dance — it’s magical, like the process of self-discovery — and serves as a reminder that they’ve achieved something together. “I want to continue moving forward, one step at a time,” Jung continues. “Look forward to seeing more of us.”