The rise of Korean neo-realism

October 10, 2021

Squid Games is the new Korean phenomenon sweeping Netflix with impressive themes and cinematography

The rise of Korean neo-realism

In 1720, a ship landed off the coast of Marseilles. Twenty days later, the Oriental virus had wiped out the hamlet of Caligari, Sardinia. Some days before its arrival at the port, the viceroy of Sardinia had a fever dream – his body showed signs of the plague and his tiny state was being eaten away by the expanse of his own bed. The most recent plague in human history, united and unprecedented in its total wipeout of financial and physical resources, also gave the screen some innovative ideas – some bordering on cliche and some breaking out of all cliches, like Bo Burnham: Inside (dir. Bo Burnham, 2021), and Upload (dir. Greg Daniels, 2020). Whatever the domain, the pandemic really shone on screen. Squid Game (written, created, and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk) illustrates this rule yet again. The epidemic effect produced in cinema and on Netflix has resulted in a host of subversive productions; because what is a plague, if not a gradual breakdown of mass into carbon. If you are wondering, the Governor did wake up from his dream and declared war on the plague. Autocrats in those days were not ones to do things by halves. He rallied the general public, he forced his orders onto them, they of course were sceptical of an order commissioned out of a dream. But superficial orders mean little when you are faced with the fear of your life, and the necessity of your hunger. The ship landed and docked. That’s where the Archive ends. The plague had already started.

Squid Game asks a similar question with a minor twist (remember, subversion is all the rage these days), and the question is this: Did the ship bring the plague, or was the plague already there, inside the residents of Sardinia, and the cargo just granted it a new lease on life, and pushed it into a renewed state of activity? The answer is not too clear – I mean, is it ever? Were it so, we wouldn’t be wasting time stating the obvious. Squid Game is all about paradoxes – it hates them, but it also creates them. It hates false appearances (the headman killing the cheating contestant), but it offers them to you. It hates theatricality, but it loves it too. It doesn’t like greed, but it creates it.

This is where Korean neorealism is born. With Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, one saw the characters savour both the bitterness and the pleasure of a hatred-filled life. In the latter, Jong-Soo burns with passion for Hae-mi. Characters in both these features burn with a passion to find problems where there are none. They find them, and then deal with them without losing their passion for life. Both films had a sense of comedy, a feeling for the joyful, because they had a feeling of peculiarity. The ideas presented in dystopian fiction no longer seem strange. Some of us have felt the unmistakable shadowy marks of loss more thoroughly than others, but all of us have felt it. In Squid Game’s violently pink and carefully contrasted lighting, we see the silhouette of this loss take shape, walk a few steps, then stop, and utter the muted voice of that truth seldom told: Who you are, and what you are, makes you. We are all born losers, because none of us operate with our own agency. The subject of the series is the transition of humanity into this truth, it lies less in the unexpected and more in the probability of something happening. In this age of data science and revolutions, and geological data sets, an index for poverty has diminished subjective experience for the easily classifiable. There is no suspense, then, only the truth. Does that make Squid Game a mirror of society? ‘Mirrors’, for me, calls back Black Mirror and Bandersnatch, the narrative tapestry that layered shot over transition into composition to make a TV series on TV itself.

But unlike Black Mirror or Parasite, the 456 characters who take the stage in Game are not content to be playing the game. They are there to win, and ruthlessly so. The stakes are high. They are not gambling for the desire to win but for the necessity to win. This reality is not lost on us – imaginary bets are made, strategic compromises are reached, not for their own amusement or because they enjoy the calculation, but because it is the way of the world. Everyone is expendable. Even the most unremarkable characters invariably enrich the plot, just as the touch of impressionist painters revitalised the paintings of years gone. In order to understand the universe, we must look towards the material and physical world. In one of the characters, we see the conflict of migration to make life better. Aspiring towards advertisements, we realise that Gi-hun has a daughter and a mother – both are not looking at a jewelry exhibit but at those colourful little pills in a pharmacy’s window. A reaction shot emphasises the difference between the advertisements on the billboards and a man window-shopping for medicines for his sick mother. Our unassuming character, Gi-hun, is framed in a long close-up. Pondering, thinking, living, being. Because it is a way of being. Each close-up – and there are too many to mention here in a 9-episode long series with each character truly a part of the whole – but their searching attention is focused on the passing of time and wealth from generation to generation. The beauty of this collective face – of a pan-Korean national consciousness – is extraordinary, because it is interminable and inevitable. We have been staring it in the face for ages. It is the antithesis of Plato’s young Alcibiades in The Banquet. Its sole criterion for being is the absence of the exact truth.

If that sounds too abstract to you, let me ask you: would you rather know the truth or prefer to live in bliss without it? Abdul Ali might be the only aberration in this simple equation here: his ‘naïveté’ is too out of place in this narrative, and marks his death from Gi-hun. Both Gi-hun and Ali are morally bound to each other. At the scene’s conclusion I really felt like I was watching Cain and Abel make a choice. The set design is perfectly chess-like, with the appearance of an expansive imagination, a kaleidoscope of abstract designs, and subtle surrealism. It is suspect because it never really opens up. The top-down shots, the portrait captures of the soldiers and the blurred backgrounds all form an extravagant cinematography of suffocation that I don’t think I have seen in this way before. Its realist notation is never salty, never gratuitous, and I think this is where it shines. Because look around you, sitting in an open space in Lahore’s Jam-i-Shirin Park, and you will see that even nature isn’t free and beyond it there are chains of road networks holding this part to a close. In Squid Game, which aims to reproduce the life of these vibrantly capitalistic and democratic societies, the tragedy is displayed all too well. The terror in Squid Game thus, arises because the ordinary is the phantom, the everyday is the culprit – it’s all around us, it’s what we take for common-sense, and there’s no escape from it. The bare and non-specific set also allows for room for exploration – innocence, cruelty, brutality, all is on display here against the stark background. In other words, there’s no place to hide, no place for solitude in this world.

But beyond being a mere moral lesson, which all lessons are to an extent, it is also a lesson in stage atmosphere. The assemblage of several close-ups worth of material in a single shot, split-screen editing paints a picture of poverty, misery, destitution, lust and total humanity with a more forceful face than had it been done individually. He did it precisely and deliberately to track the moments that a character is saved, and another is condemned. When you do that with technique, the experience of consent and coercion, lust and shame, is all linked – the mark of shame of admitting your salvation while depriving another the chance for some of the same salvation, in this lifetime at least. The lull which follows in some of the scenes also emphasises that mark of shame – indelibly seared in each pause or drag. It allows us to see the moral vacuum for its emptiness. This might also be why at times, the series seems formulaic, bare, using the most elementary of techniques. Perhaps it is supreme affectation, or perhaps it is the makers offering evidence of their unpretentiousness. As the adventures contained herein are live, that’s a difficult task. Too much pretense and the spectator may feel removed from the action.

Undoubtedly, there will be more series that eventually derive from the same sources as Squid Game proudly follows from, but they might be better fitted to display reality or philosophy or the novel or the commonplace or the basic data of experience than the most complicated algorithms or the tallest mainframes. The camera, in one freak-sweep movement, encompasses all, even the audience. The question it leaves us with is whether we are slipping away in capitalism, slowly losing that spark of energy we call humanity, or whether cinema is the new, natural, occult equivalent of that humanistic dogma we once shared. I am fielding for the latter, and I think that Squid Game is too.

The writer is a student of History and Comparative Literature at LUMS

The rise of Korean neo-realism