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Netflix’s ‘Squid Game,’ a South Korean TV thriller, is over-hyped — but still historic

Foreign language productions have finally broken the English-language dam. Streaming services featuring global content have dispelled the myth that Americans won’t watch movies and TV shows with subtitles, and no international hit has made that clearer than South Korea’s “Squid Game.”

It saddens me to think how many great pieces of art we’ve been shielded from because of this fictional language hurdle.

The dark and gory thriller, focused on a man willing to do anything to support his daughter and save his dying mother, is the No. 1 Netflix show in 90 countries, and it is on course to overtake “Bridgerton” as Netflix’s most-streamed series of all time in the U.S. and around the world.

Indeed, the rampant popularity of “Squid Games” is what got me to start watching it, as talk of the show on social media is almost impossible to avoid. Just on the video app TikTok, #SquidGame has been used over 22.8 billion times. Falling into the FOMO trap, I tuned into the show a little over a week ago.

I have to admit that I don’t understand the hype. The first few episodes tediously set the scene for various characters and their struggles with debt. We learn that the mother of one of the main characters, Seong Gi-Hun, has no medical insurance and needs lifesaving treatment that the family can’t afford. Gi-Hun and other characters are presented with an opportunity: Play a series of children’s playground games and potentially win billions of South Korean won; lose and be fatally “eliminated.” Gi-Hun’s character and others in the series can feel overly melodramatic, making it a struggle to empathize with them early on.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to enjoy about the series, including the suspense and the many grim decisions characters are forced to make, leaving us to ask ourselves how far we would go for our loved ones. Most of all, the story captures the relatable struggle people face to stay financially afloat. Medical bills continue to be the top cause of bankruptcy in the U.S., while getting treated for Covid-19 can leave you hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. One man in Pakistan was even forced to sell his own kidney to ensure his daughter’s survival.

This resonance, of course, is what matters in attracting a global audience — not whether productions are free of subtitles scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Netflix and other streaming services have seen that expanding their offerings to include foreign language productions has only helped the bottom line and, with it, opened up new opportunities for storytelling and audiences.

“Squid Game” follows on the success of a host of other K-drama (Korean drama) shows, with viewership of the genre tripling among U.S. audiences last year through shows like “Kingdom S2” and “The King: Eternal Monarch.” Other countries have also gotten in on the act. “Money Heist,” a Spanish TV thriller, has developed a cult following around the globe. Other European productions, like “Barbarians” from Germany and “Rogue City” from France, also proved to be popular among Americans, among many others.

All of which proves the prediction of Bong Joon Ho, the Oscar-winning director of the South Korean movie “Parasite,” the first non-English-language film to win the best picture award at the Oscars: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” No longer do U.S. audiences shy away from subtitled content; clearly, they welcome it.

Their interest has been greatly aided by Netflix’s attempt to grow its audience internationally after it began losing subscribers to Disney and other studios creating their own streaming services. Of Netflix’s 5,806 series and films, 2,626 are non-English-language productions. Flooding the global market by purchasing a variety of local productions helped Netflix jump from 75 million subscribers outside the U.S. in 2015 to 204 million subscribers five years on.

But once Netflix provided access to international content, it changed the consuming experience for Americans, as well. In the past, a foreign show made for, say, the BBC in London would need a U.S. distributor to purchase the rights to sell them to a U.S. television network. But when a show like “Squid Game” is released on a global streaming service in South Korea, it is immediately available worldwide. And audiences have shown that they are eager to consume it quickly as is. U.S. viewership of foreign-language productions on Netflix increased by 50 percent last year.

It saddens me to think how many great pieces of art we’ve been shielded from because of this fictional language hurdle, while U.S. studios and distribution companies have often opted to remake works in English. I still remember enjoying Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning “The Departed,” only to find out that it was a remake of the Hong Kong-made “Infernal Affairs.” “The Departed” has a 90 percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared with the 94 percent for “Infernal Affairs.”

“Squid Game” was itself inspired by a 2000 Japanese film, “Battle Royale,” one of iconic director Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies, which few of us have heard of because of its limited availability in the U.S. Now the tables are turning, and Netflix is even promoting local language adaptations of U.S. productions, like the South Korean version of USA Network’s “Suits.”

As a filmmaker myself, I once had a large production company turn down a film pitch because the idea wasn’t considered global enough for its audience, as it was focused on the Middle East and didn’t have English-speaking characters. It makes me wonder how many other great stories have also been rejected. The reality, as productions like “Squid Game” have shown, is that every story in every language is now global. Let’s focus on promoting those and not reflexively favoring English content.

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