Posts Tagged ‘Korea’

A slaughterhouse operating in an oversized child’s playhouse…that’s the overriding image of “Squid Game,” a South Korean mini-series that melds the cult-classic mayhem of “Battle Royale,” the winner-take-all ruthlessness of “The Hunger Games,” the cutthroat strategies of “Survivor” and “Big Brother” and the dour social/political underpinnings of “Parasite.”

Written and directed by Dong-hyuk Hwang, this seven-episode mind-blower (reportedly it’s on track to be Netflix’s most popular series ever) envisions a hidden island arena where the has-beens and wannabes of Korean society are given a chance to win millions of dollars by playing childhood games (red light/green light, tug of war, marbles) on a king-sized playground.

The only problem: Lose the round and you also lose your life.

Our protagonist is Seong Gi-hun (Jung-jae Lee), a middle-aged loser who’s been out of work for a decade. A degenerate gambler, he’s deep in debt to murderous loan sharks; like a junkie, he steals from his impoverished mother to finance his days at the track.

Gi-hun has a daughter he adores and an ex-wife who plans on taking the little girl to the U.S. The guy’s desperate.

So when he’s approached on a subway platform by a stranger who engages him in a children’s game and then offers a business card for game playing on an even bigger scale, Gi-hun figures he’s got nothing to lose.

Picked up by a van and sedated by gas, Gi-hun awakens in a vast dormitory filled with bunk beds and more than 400 other desperate contestants. They all find themselves wearing teal-blue sweatsuits; each player has a number instead of a name.

The contests are overseen by a seemingly endless staff wearing hot pink jump suits and mesh masks that sport symbols delineating their ranks: a square (a boss), a triangle (an armed soldier) or a circle (a common worker).

The entire operation is overseen by the masked Front Man, whose all-black outfit makes him look like the love child of Darth Vader and “G.I. Joe’s” Cobra Commander.

Park Hae-soo, Jung-jae Lee and Jung Ho-yeon

A typical episode of “Squid Game” centers on a competitive event that bloodily halves the number of participants. These thrilling nail biter segments are bookended by what goes on in the dorm between games — the contestants form alliances, plan double crosses, try to undermine the competition.

That may mean staying up all night lest you be murdered in your sleep.

Just as insidious, the whole setup is designed to force the players to question whatever notions of morality or decency they may have had in the outside world. It’s on this level of the narrative that Gi-hun becomes more or less heroic — his conscience appears to have the longest self life of any in the place.

“Squid Game” finds lots of time to get into the other players. Sang-woo (Hae-soo Park) is Gi-hun’s childhood friend, a guy who became a business school star but now faces indictment for squandering his clients’ money.

There’s also an old man (Yeong-su Oh) who seems way too decrepit for this competition; ironically, as someone who grew up analog he’s a walking encyclopedia of strategies for the old-school games the island’s masterminds are updating.

A low-level gangster (Her Sun-tae) who stole his boss’s money now forms his own posse of killers to terrorize the other players. A tart-tongued harridan (Halley Kim) uses sexual favors to prolong her survival. A sad-eyed North Korean defector (Jung Ho-yeon) wants to win the game so that she can get her little brother out of an orphanage.

And then there’s the police detective (Hae-soo Park) who in search of his missing brother has infiltrated the island and is hiding inside one of those pink jump suits. From his perspective we’re allowed a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

“Squid Game” is an audacious piece of work. But it’s not perfect.

The Grand Guignol grotesqueries are often at odds with the playful production design, and by series’ end you’ll still have major questions about who’s behind this and how they’ve been able to keep such a massive undertaking a secret from the rest of the world. (It’s not just the hundreds of faceless employees…what about the construction workers who built the place and fabricate the gigantic game pieces?)

And late in the series things turn painfully heavy handed with the arrival of VIP millionaires who have paid to watch the finalists game each other to the death. These creeps all wear gold animal masks (the most reprehensible is, quite literally, a fat cat), talk in American English and with cigars and bubbly lounge about like Romans betting on the gladiators.

Gotta tell you: the dialogue Dong-hyuk Hwang has provided for these wealthy creeps is embarrassingly bad; the delivery is worse. Ouch.

Still, “Squid Game” is a rousing, disturbing, candy-coated, brain matter-splattered experience steeped in societal ennui. An American remake seems a certainty.

| Robert W. Butler

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“POETRY”  My rating : B

139 minutes | No MPAA rating

Beauty and brutality, poetry and pessimism are uneasy neighbors in Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry,” a character study about an elderly woman whose rosy view of life is shattered by the casual cruelty of the modern world.

Mija (Yun Jung-hee, Korea’s greatest actress, who came out of 16 years of retirement to take this role) is a sixtysomething widow rearing her teenage grandson. She lives off a pension and the money she earns bathing and cleaning up after a cranky stroke victim.

Yun Jung-hee in "Poetry"

Once a great beauty, Mija takes girlish pleasure in being told how pretty she still is. In fact she’s flighty and shallow and — perhaps because her looks have always seen her through — naively upbeat.

That’s about to change.


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