Hwang Dong-hyuk is laughing at me from his office in Seoul. I’ve just asked the creator of Squid Game, Netflix’s smash hit show, if its astonishing success has made him rich. In the dystopian survival drama, a mysterious organisation challenges 456 players from all walks of life —each deeply in debt— to play a series of children’s games. Win and they go home with 4.6bn won (around £28m). Lose and they get a bullet in the head Perhaps Hwang is now as rich as the contestant who wins the top prize? “I’m not that rich,” he says. “But I do have enough. I have enough to put food on the table. And it’s not like Netflix is paying me a bonus. Netflix paid me according to the original contract.” That seems unfair. After all, the fifty-year-old South Korean film-maker has made hundreds of millions for his paymasters. According to leaked documents, the nine episodes run cost £15.5m to produce, which works out at £1.75m per instalment. Its return on that has been extraordinary. The series —which Netflix estimates has been watched by 142m households and boosted its subscriber figures by 4.4m— is thought to be worth £650m to the streaming service.
Perhaps Hwang should have negotiated a performance-related clause, particularly as creating, writing and directing it caused him so much stress that he lost six teeth in the process. “It was physically, mentally and emotionally draining. I kept having new ideas and revising the episodes as we were filming so the amount of work multiplied.”
The idea for Squid Game came out of Hwang’s own family situation in 2009, after the global financial crisis that hit his homeland hard. “I was financially straitened because my mother retired from the company she was working for. There was a film I was working on but we failed to get finance. So I couldn’t work for about a year. We had to take out loans —my mother, myself and my grandmother.”
Are you making a profound point about capitalism? “It’s not profound! It’s very simple! I do believe that the overall global economic order is unequal and that around 90 per cent of the people believe that it’s unfair. During the pandemic, poorer countries can’t get their people vaccinated. They’re contracting viruses on the streets and even dying. So I did try to convey a message about modern capitalism. As I said, it’s not profound.”
But isn’t there a contradiction in that, without money from an international corporation, i.e Netflix, your critique of global capitalism would never have been seen? Hwang laughs at me again and says: “Oh, the Guardian, asking profound questions! Well, Netflix is a global corporation but I don’t think it is aggravating inequalities. I don’t think there is a contradiction. When I was working on the project, the goal was to rank number 1 on the Netflix US chart for at least a day. But it ended up being much more successful, the most watched show on Netflix ever.
It’s very surprising. It shows that the global audience is resonating with the message I wanted to reflect.”
But Squid Game is hardly just a snapshot of his South Korea. “I wanted to create something that would resonate not just for Korean people but globally. This was my dream.” In this life and death struggle, social norms are torn away and the contestants are trapped in a war of all against all, in which human life is nasty, brutish and short. “We are living in a Squid Game world,” says Hwang, but he says not everybody in his drama is selfishly looking after number one, climbing over losers’ faces to win the money.
Some viewers have found the denouement —in which the winner makes two surprise decisions to do with family and prize money— exasperating. But surely there is another reason for that ending: it’s teed up nicely for a sequel, with the winner able to take on the diabolical secret organisation that runs Squid Game.”