Season 2 Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk Discusses the Show's Greater Meaning on "Squid Game."
[This story contains spoilers for Squid Game.]
Squid Game is not to be missed. The Korean thriller series is now ranked among the most watched on Netflix in 94 countries around the world. Squid Game, on the other hand, will soon be Netflix's most watched piece of material, in any language, ever, and it'll be even more breathtaking: the streaming service claims that SQUID Game will be its most viewed piece in every language.
The Korean series phenomenal success for Netflix is both a pleasant surprise and reaffirmation of, long-held belief that distinctive, culturally authentic content travels farthest. For Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game's creator-writer-director, the experience has been harrowing.
Hwang has previously enjoyed a lot of success in South Koreas domestic entertainment industry, where he is well-known for dozens of feature films that show an improbable degree of creative flexibility. Squid Game, on the other hand, is arguably his first taste of Bong Joon Ho-level global adoration and acclaim. Squid Game only premiered on Netflix on Sept. 17. The whole thing has come to an end in a few weeks.
Hwangs second film, Silenced, from 2011, was his first taste of viral attention. The film focuses on real-life incidents at South Korea's Gwangju Inhwa School for the Deaf, where young people were sexually abused by their teachers in the early 2000s. The film became a worldwide sensation and sparked fervent social activism, eventually resulting in local legislators passing legislation that repealed Korea's statute of limitations for alleged racial violence against minors and the disabled. Miss Granny (2014), his next film, could not have been more different: a lighthearted comedy, the film follows narrator in her 70s who magically finds herself in the body of her 20-year-old self. The film was a smash and was later remade by producer CJ Entertainment in over dozens of other countries and languages. Hwang took a different approach with The Fortress (2017), launching opulent period drama set during the Second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636, yet another critical and commercial success.
So, its perhaps less surprising than it may initially seem that Hwang executed Squid Games candy-colored, high-concept dystopian material with such skill. The director famously wrote the initial script for Squid Game, which was then intended as a feature film, in 2009, but it was soon rejected by Korean studios as too violent and conceptually impossible. Netflix responded in 2018 with the green light, and the rest is history.
Squid Game stars Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-jun, Jung Ho-yeon, Lee Hail-jeet, Kim Seung-hooneotea, and several other well-known Korean names and newcomers. The ongoing global fascination with the show is making fortunes and making mega-stars of the cast, such as fan favorite Jung, a model turned actress whose Instagram following has grown from fewer than 5,000 several weeks ago to nearly 20 million today.
This week, The Hollywood Reporter met with Hwang via Zoom from Seoul to discuss the difficult personal origins of Squid Games concept, his views on the storys deeper meanings, and where hed like to take his blockbuster series next (spoilers ahead).
What was the beginning of the Squid Games development? How came the idea to you?
So back in 2008, I had a script that I wrote, which I was trying to get investment, but it didnt work out and it wasna film. So that actually put me in a really bad financial situation, and I was in financial ruin. So I spent a lot of time killing time in comic book cafes, reading. I also read a lot of comics centered on surviving death games, such as Liar Game, Kaiji, and Battle Royale. And then, I read about these indebted individuals entering into these life-and-death games, and that became really immersive for me because I was struggling financially myself. I was even thinking that I would love to join a game like that, if it existed, to make oodles of cash and escape from this horrible situation. I thought, Well, Im a director. Why dont I just make a movie with this sort of storyline? So, thats how it all started. I decided to create a Korean survival game in my own way. Squid Game was originally conceived in 2008, and I wrote a script for 'a feature-length film version' throughout 2009.
Its interesting how deeply rooted the idea is in your own struggles. Were there other methods you used your own life to flesh out the story and the characters?
The names of the characters Seong Gi-hun (Squid Games lead, played by Lee Jung-jae), Cho Sang-woo (the lead's childhood friend who left the neighborhood to study at the acclaimed Seoul National University, performed by Park Hae-soo), and Il-nam (The elderly competitor atthe heart of this story, conducted by O Yeong-ju), are all my friends. Cho Sang-woo is a childhood friend of mine, whom I used to play with in the alleyways. Hwang Jun-ho (the police officer, played by Wi Ha-jun, who sneaks into Squid Game to search for his brother) and Hung In-Ho, the missing brother, aka The Front Man, play by Korean superstar Lee Byung-un, are two of the names of real people from my life. Hwang Jun-ho is my friend, and Hung In-Ho, like in the movie, is his actual older brother.
I soaked up Gi-hun and Sang-woos characters quite a bit. After the failure of my film, I had a period when I wasnt able to make any money and was supported financially by my mother. There was also a time when I was going to the horse races with the goal of winning tens of thousands of dollars although I didnt steal from my mother as Gi-hun does. His character also includes some hints of my uncle, who used to be a real trouble for my grandmother. I grew up in Ssangmun-dong, [the lower-income area of Seouls Dobong-gu district], and my family was poor when I was young. My grandmother used to go out to the market and run a little street stall as if she were Sang-woos mother in the show. And then, just like Sang-woo, I attended Seoul National University, the most prestigious university in Korea, and I was subject to a lot of high expectations from my family, as well as resentment from those around me.
So yeah, my grandmother, mother, myself, friends, and the stories of my neighborhood are all in Squid Game.
Have you talked to your family and old friends about the fact that their names and their world are now part of this global phenomenon since the shows huge success? Whats their reaction?
Yeah, they kept calling me like, Oh my God, you used my name! (Laughs.) Hwang Jun-ho responded, You even used my brothers name! His older brother is in the States and he called him suddenly after seeing the show. Like the two main characters, they werent really talking to each other that often, and his brother wasn t coming home to visit his mother. So, that is why I intentionally used those two names. To get In-ho to finally call his brother and apologize for being out of touch was like an inside joke between me and my friends. And it worked, it actually happened! When he called, In-ho apologized to his brother for being out of contact for so long.
Thats fantastic. What a great result. Whats your take on the reason why Squid Game has grown so popular all around the world?
Well, when I began making Squid Game, I actually targeted a global audience. The childrens games that are featured in the show are those that will invoke nostalgia from adults who had them as a child, but theyre also games which are really simple to grasp. So anyone watching, from anywhere in the world, can understand the rules of the games easily. Since the games are so easy, the viewers dont have to focus on understanding the rules. They may instead focus on the inner feelings and the relationships between the characters more, and then they may be more immersed in the whole experience, cheering for and empathizing with the protagonists.
And personally, I wanted to create a story that is very entertaining something that's really entertaining to watch. I mean, it may be ironic for me to say that because there are some horrifying events in the story, but I wanted to create a story that will be immersive. And I wanted the viewers who watch Squid Game to start asking themselves. How am I living my life? Who am I among these characters, and what kind of world am i in? I wanted to ask these questions. I want you to think, What kind of story is this? This is all too surreal. But as you watch more, you will start to become attached to the characters and begin cheering for some of them and hate others. And then, youll have the experience of connecting it all to the real world were living in. In that way, youll be able to draw some of the themes from the series.
Yeah, what about that? Do you think the way this particular episode has spread so quickly, globally, has anything to do with the current state of the world?
We're in, in fact, living in a very unfair and economically choppy world these days. Especially after the epidemic. More inequality, more competition, and more people are being forced to the limit of their livelihoods, I mean. I believe that more than 90 percent of people around the world will be able to connect and understand the plight of the characters depicted in the series. Thats probably why the series was such a huge success around the world, and thatll be evident in the next episode.
Squid Games premise often implies a very dark view of human nature and how our capitalist societies are structured. There are also hints of optimism and more positive reassurances about human nature. The story seems to revolve around the tension between these two fundamental world views. Do you view yourself as an optimist in the end?
Thats a difficult question to answer. Personally, Im not an optimist, and people around me tell me that I am more of a cynic. Its true that the world of Squid Game is depicted in a dark, cynical, and cold-eyed light.
Nevertheless, I believe that we can't continue to live without trust in other people unless you choose to do bad things and follow a dark path. This is very well depicted in the lines of Gi-hun. Right before the nighttime battle, he is approaching Sae-byeok (the North Korean defector played by breakout star Jung Ho-yeon) to join his team. Sae-byeok explains, I dont trust people. But Gi-hun states, You dont trust people because you can; you trust them because they must that is, we don't have anything else to depend on. In reality, those lines from Gi-hun are in full agreement with my feelings. Many of us are in situations where we cannot trust other people fully. I mean, I've been in that situation quite a bit. But even though that is the case, if you dont trust others and unless you have faith in the humanity that exists inside you, there is no explanation for how you are going to live.
Even though the overall picture in the world is somewhat grim, even though some people will betray you, and even if its quite difficult for you to have confidence in anyone, you mustnt forget that the last glint of hope that is coming out of Pandora box. These were my thoughts. Gi-hun is approaching the sleeping Sang-woo with a knife in his hand and preparing to stab him. Gi-hun was about to lose the last trace of humanity left inside him. Sae-byeok stops him, saying, Youre not that person. Sae-byeok gave Gi-hun this gift, by reminding him of his humanity.
Squid Game was a Japanese game developed by many Korean studios over the years, and you had to wait ten years to get it out there. So, I have to wonder what it has been like for you personally to see your long-running series suddenly become a global, blockbuster phenomenon, with all the media attention that comes with it.
One thing Id like to clarify quickly is that there seems to be a common misconception that I wasnt doing anything else and just focused on Squid Game for about ten years, which somehow made us reputable. But that wasnt necessarily the case. When it didnt work out for me to secure the capital for the initial feature film I was working on, I put Squid Game aside. I then went on to create three more films, and all of them were successful. So, I mean, its not that I didnt do anything else in between and then had this sudden mega-hit. Its been misinterpreted that way in some places, so I just wanted to clarify that.
I think this was written at a time when I was really struggling I'd put it at my lowest point in my life. And everything in Squid Game was written back then. So when I opened the files again to rework it, and read through all of the scripts and emails that I exchanged with all the people around me back then, I actually had a moment where I broke down and cried by myself. There were all of those emails where I was asking people to read the script, asking around trying to get investment, and going through a lot of personal pain. The script itself was rich with dozens of hard memories, but then there were also all those email messages where people asked to see the manuscript, seeking around looking for investment opportunities, as well as going into countless personal difficulties.
A lot of hardship is ingrained in this show, but it quickly became a worldwide sensation. There have been a lot of different layers of feelings. Of course, Im thrilled about the success. And Im dumbfounded that this might actually happen to a director like me. But then, I'm reminded of the people that I wasn't able to pay attention to or spend time with as much as I wanted to in the past. I had a girlfriend back then whom I wasn't able to do very good things for, and we parted ways shortly after I finished the original Squid Game script. So yeah, its been a really interesting experience for me, emotionally and mentally, since the success of Squid Game.
The first season of Squid Game seems to be coming to a close in incredibly open-ended fashion, with plenty of potential for further development. What are some of the threads youd like to revisit and explore further if there is to be a season two?
Its true that season one ended in an open-ended fashion, but I thought that this could be a good ending for the whole story. Gi-hun resigns from the flight to the States and refuses to board the plane for the first time. And that was, in fact, my way of communicating the message that you should not be dragged along by the competitive flow of society, but that it is time to start thinking about who has created the whole system, and if there is a chance for you to turn around and face it. So its not necessarily Gi-hun returning to get revenge. It could be thought of as him making eye contact with what is really going on in the larger picture. So I thought that might be a good, straightforward-but-ambiguous way to end the story for Gi-hun. However, there are a few more stories in the series that haven't been addressed. For example, the story of the police officer and the tale of his brother, The Front Man. So if I am to begin season two, Id like to explore that storyline what is going on between those two brothers? And then I could go into the story of that recruiter in the suit who plays ddakji with Gi-hun in episode one and gives him the card. And, of course, we could go with Gi-huns story as he turns back, and explore more about how a game designer is going to deal with his rivalry with the game developers. So, I dont know yet, but Ill just say that there are a lot of potential for season two storylines.
You created, written, and directed every episode of Squid Game yourself. Thats an enormous solo undertaking, which isnt uncommon in high-end TV today. I imagine its quite daunting to consider doing it all over again, especially now that the world is watching.
It was a nine-episode series, and I was the only one writing the scripts and directing the whole thing, so it was an extremely physically, mentally, emotionally challenging task. The story doesnt have the simplest structure, so as we went along, new ideas came to me, or I would spot shortcomings that I felt needed to be corrected, and so I was, in fact, revising the script as I worked on the entire series. So thats a big reason why I had incredibly much stress, which resulted in me losing six teeth during production, as Ive mentioned in some other interviews.
And youre right, the pressure on me is huge now, with such a huge audience waiting for reruns. Because of all this pressure, I havent decided whether or not to continue. Because so many people enjoyed season one and are expecting good things for season two, there are people all over the world voicing their opinions on where the show should go. I could actually draw ideas from fans all around the world to create the next season. I think thats what I'm dealing with right now that I shouldn't just look at it as a lot of pressure, but think of all of this love and support Im receiving as an immense box of inspiration that will serve me well for season two.
You mentioned earlier that when you were broke and blighted out ten years ago, reading Battle Royale manga in cafes, you thought that if a real-life death game existed with hefty cash prizes, that you would like to play it as opportune escape from your troubles. If Squid Game existed, would you call the number on the card and sign up?
(Laughs.) I would take it seriously if I were Il-nam, the old man with the brain tumor who has only a year or two to live.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.