Squid Game made a new record ranking #1 all in the 83 countries where Netflix is accessible in fifteen days after released in September 17, 2021. According to Flixpatrol, a global OTT contents analytics site, Squid Game is making a new record as a global syndrome ranking #1 Netflix top 10 TV program for 41 days in a row by the date, November 2, 2021. Squid Game is a drama dealing with a brutal survival game played for the prize of ₩45.6 billion. The main story is like Korean version of The Truman Show and is a creation of combining life-risking gambling with Korean traditional games, full of childish innocence, such as ‘Ddakji’, ‘Why Did You Come to My House’ and ‘Marble Play’. But it is not so simple to classify Squid Game into a typical death game genre, because the faces and voices of people are so dim there in the playground, at Dalgona making or in an alley at twilight, a setting so real as to be queer.
The Squid Game participants in urgent need of money participate in the game with their lives on mortgage but the competitors they face at the places of memories are all common unfortunate people who have lived as someone’s husband, wife, son, daughter or sister: a defector from North Korea who joined a crime risking her life to save her mother in North Korea; a foreign laborer who ran away beating his boss after suffering from unpaid wages and habitual violence; an old man pronounced incurable; an elite fund manager participating in the game after attempting suicide owing ₩6 billion; a girl convict who killed his father because he had sexually abused her and killed her mother. And there is another man who is the most unrealistic and meddlesome among those gloomy combination of lives: it is Lee Jung-jae who played the protagonist Seong Gi-hun.
Seong Gi-hun Lee Jung-jae played in Squid Game was fired by restructuring in his company he had entered on graduating a high school and failed in managing a chicken restaurant and a snack bar. After the failure he signed on for giving up his body because of the debts swelled like a snow ball, but he is an impossible man who at a horse race spent all the money his mother had earned working at a market. Nevertheless, Gi-hun’s character in this series is not always a brutal villain. Though he has nothing, he has humanity to care for the weak at least. He apologizes to Saebyeok bumping into her, picking up her coffee cup and sticking a straw into it even in an urgent situation of being chased by a money broker; when Il-nam, the oldest participant, pisses his pants and drops tears with shame, he puts off his track jacket and wraps his waist with it; at the final duel Gi-hun, on the verge of winning, holds out his hand to his neighborhood friend saying, “Let’s give up all and go home together.” And seeing Gi-hun saying to Saebyeok who is full of distrust to men, “In fact we do not trust men because men are trustworthy. We trust men because there is none to depend upon,” we may have a glimmer of hope for a happy ending though knowing they are in a life-risking survival game, and it is due to Lee Jung-jae’s ‘bottom sensibility’ found out here and there in the story. He steps out for a demonstration against restructuring and loses his comrade, after the business failure divorces, and searches for a reason to live in a harsh reality of handing over even his body to a money broker; his struggle to stay alive makes his real expressive faces, tears and screaming and they are sometimes mentioned as a reason why Squid Game is called K-Shinpa(soap drama). Thanks to Gi-hun who survives keeping fluttering on the dried floor of brutal game, Lee Jung-jae, having debuted 28 years ago, became a global star drawing worldwide attentions.
Lee Jung-jae debuted in an SBS drama Dinosaur Teacher in 1993. The first drama bringing him a unique character and popularity was Sandglass(SBS, 1995). Lee Jung-jae in this drama, plays a taciturn bodyguard Baek Jae-hee and even loses his life for a heroine Youn Hye-rin he loves. His acting actually started to bloom when The Thieves and New World made a hit in a row. And for ten years after, Lee Jung-jae mainly played a man of power or a tool of power and challenged various characters. He played an eerie villain in The Face Reader and Assassination, and in Deliver Us from Evil he created an image of ruthless killer with bloodthirsty desire for power. On the other hand, he was a mean rich man settling everything with money in The Housemaid for which enthusiastically performed with Jeon Do-yeon and appeared as a poor pastor disclosing the truth of pseudo-Christianity in Sabaha. And he succeeded in transforming himself into the King of Hell(Yumradaewang), dignified and vivid character in Along with the Gods, one of the mega hit movies in Korea(movies more than 10 million audience watched) and he gained a nickname like ‘character collector’ or ‘character artisan’.
Squid Game is Lee Jung-jae’s first co-work with Netflix. For Lee Jung-jae who mainly has played vicious and strong roles till now, Squid Game is like a present, because first he added to his list a character which is ‘realistic’, ‘weak without power’ and has no ‘glaring eyes’. He added new sensibility and narratives to his filmography full of only power and desire, lust and violence. And second, it is because he has started SNS for the first time since the debut. In 2 weeks after Lee Jung-jae opened SNS account over 4 million have followed him and he began to communicate with fans showing how he lives and works. The fans have seen actor Lee Jung-jae through a traditional media such as cinema or TV, and it is good to meet his sub-character Seong Gi-hun, born in Squid Game, because the public may meet him as a common neighbor with a familiar uncle’s face around us. I expect to see his walks of life wondering where compassion for mankind and fragrance of friendship Seong Gi-hun has as the most unfortunate, meek, poor and impossible man in the world, would take actor Lee Jung-jae.
Shin Jung-a is a culture contents critic, scriptwriter, professor of International Culture & Arts Management Dep. in Hankook University of Foreign Studies, chairman of planning committee in Korea Culture Contents Critics Association(KCCCA), and juror of Jeonju International Short Film Festival.
Translated by Park Eun-sun
* 《Cultura》 2021 December (Vol. 90) *