‘All of Us Are Dead’ and Other Stories: How ‘Squid Game’ Made K-dramas Mainstream
Squid Game’s burgeoning popularity underlines the spreading influence of K-dramas around the world
Squid Game, a South Korean thriller, has become Netflix’s most popular series to date, attracting millions of fans since its debut. In terms of views, it has outperformed its counterparts to become the streaming giant’s biggest hit. The show is set in modern-day Seoul where debt-ridden contestants bid for survival and prize money of USD 45 million through a series of traditional Korean children’s games with a grim twist.
The show’s ever-increasing success is catalyzed by Korea’s recent pop culture invasion which includes superstars BTS, the country’s colorful food culture and the existing global love for K-dramas which began before K-pop took off. However, while K-dramas were thrumming as a solid sub-category of Korean pop culture for years, they have now taken front stage on the global mainstream entertainment stage with an identity of their own. What changed? Sohini Chakraborty, Sub-Editor of The Telegraph theorizes, “For a long time there was this pre-dominant idea that all K-dramas follow a certain feel-good script. So many would insist — and these were fans of Korean cinema, especially directors like Park Chanwook or Bong Joonho or Lee Changdong — that the industry lacked variety. Squid Game proved that K-dramas can be so much more and won over skeptics like never before. There is potential for K-dramas to reach a wider audience if it continues to experiment with scripts. If that happens, it would be possible to build a dedicated international viewership of Korean dramas.”
With Covid-19 resulting in social distancing, K-dramas provided the required escapism leading to a meteoric rise in its fandom, spurred by web streaming services like Viki, Viu, DramaFever, and Netflix’ continuous acquisition of South Korean content. Indian actor Anwesha Purakayastha, who plays ‘Ali Abdul’’s (portrayed by Indian actor Anupam Tripathi) wife in Squid Game explains, “The K-drama section on Netflix is amazing. Although it had been there for quite a while, I guess after Squid Game it has drawn viewers to its aisle and opened them to different kinds of shows with, I must say some amazing cinematography and interesting plots” It was Purakayastha’s first time on a series–she is a doctoral student in the chemical engineering department of Dongguk University, Seoul–and she explains that the success of the show had a lot to do with the way the production was handled, especially thanks to Squid Game’s director and creator, Hwang Donghyuk. “The Korean film industry has a lot to offer in terms of drama, film, theatre, music and perhaps, much more than I’m aware of. The production here is no joke. Everything and everyone is punctual and very well-organized.” “I had been very nervous during my screen tests and the day of the shoot. My inexperience showed and I fumbled here and there, but it was [Hwang] who pulled me through. His guidance helped the character emerge and bring the right emotions out, and polished it as per his vision for the final product. It makes me happy and will always be grateful to be a part of such an amazing and impactful project.”
So, with the success of Squid Game, K-dramas rose to a state of global addiction. “It is always such a delight to see new K-dramas topping on the Netflix charts in my home country, such as Hometown Cha Cha Cha and the very recent Our Beloved Summer,” says Purakayastha.
When I watched the show I felt that if you judge it without understanding why the characters’ entered the game in the first place, you haven’t watched it closely enough. The secret to the success of Squid Game is perhaps its relatable, and realistic subject matter that resonates with the global audience. For U.S.-based, investment banking associate, Imon Banerjee, it was a reflection of the capitalist society we exist in. “With the daily dose of Bidgerton, Ozark, Stranger Things taking us into Victorian England to rural Missouri to the fantasy lands of Hawkins, Indiana we were thrilled. Till Squid Game came along,” he says. “A raw, gory, captivating K-drama that can only be understood through subtitles (unless you know Korean) made us think about society and ponder deeper into ourselves. The multifaceted nature of each character their flaws and greatness alike made us think of the good and evil in ourselves. The class struggles and the elitism of society as depicted in a fictional land was not that different from reality. It was a thrilling experience to watch with twists and turns till the very end. Squid Game has put K-dramas on the world map and I cannot wait to watch what comes next.”
So, what’s next? With a second season of Squid Game on the way, is there any other K-drama to look forward to at the moment? Well, I’d say yes. Netflix’s new Korean drama, All of Us Are Dead, is already being tagged as the ‘new Squid Game‘ after ascending to the Number One spot on the platform. Following a zombie outbreak, the webtoon-based show follows students who are stuck inside their school. In just a day of its official release on January 28th, the show became the fourth Korean series to top the Netflix charts worldwide.
The question now is why this series has risen to the top as compared to other K-dramas, such as Hellbound, The Silent Sea of equal caliber, or Happiness from last year, that depicted a similar zombie apocalypse. Why is All Of Us Are Dead being tagged as another Squid Game? Because of the similarities between the two, I believe. Both deal with survival in the face of a macabre backdrop. The students in the zombie series must save themselves and escape the zombies or become one, whereas the participants in the Squid Game must save themselves or get eliminated (die). The success of the not-so-dystopian Squid Game has paved the way for more not-so-dystopian content. The relatability strikes harder with the variety of characters and stories these shows present and that’s one of the key reasons why All Of Us Are Dead is being compared to other popular dramas such as Alice in Borderland, Sweet Home, or the blockbuster hit film Train To Busan.