Drama series themed around survival games they are not new. But when the convincing Netflix Serie Squid was conceived, the show’s writer / director Hwang Dong-hyuk wanted to add a Korean flavor to the mix.
Hwang told South Korea Cinema21 magazine that was inspired to graft elements of a survival drama onto a Korean stage and create “a new survival genre” with Squid, who sees 456 cash-strapped people fight each other to the death in a series of childish games for the chance to pocket a beautiful cash prize.
Programmed to be Netflix’s biggest show to date, Squid It has paralyzed audiences around the world, topping the streamer’s global rankings for weeks.
But its English translation inadvertently removes some of the Korean elements that director Hwang had woven into the plot of the characters and the story.
So in some respects, the English version doesn’t do justice to the Korean script’s full texture and colors.
Here, we look at some of the Korean nuances and references in Squid that may have been lost or left behind in translation.
1. Korean names
The Korean game title Red Light, Green Light has a completely different meaning than the western version. In Korean, his name translates as “the mugunghwa flower has blossomed.” Mugunghwa (known as the “rose of Sharon” in English) is the national flower of South Korea, so the Korean identity of the game has been stripped from the title.
In other noteworthy names, full name of player No. 067—Kang Sae-byeok (played by HoYeon Jung) – literally translates to “dawn of the river.” The delicate and peaceful notion of her name perhaps reflects the vulnerable core of Sae-byeok’s fearless character.
Another Korean name worth noting is Han Mi-nyeo (contestant No. 212, played by Kim Joo-ryoung, who is also known from the film. Memories of murder by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho). The noisy, animated character’s name literally translates to “a beautiful woman” or simply “beauty.”
His name is perhaps a play on his seductive ways, as throughout the series, the highly calculating character is willing to do whatever it takes to join those he considers to be the strongest players.
2. Player No. 067 accent
Viewers may not have caught the distinctive accent of Sae-byeok (who is a defector from North Korea), which he seems to mask when he’s among the other players.
We get a glimpse of his North Korean accent (which is different from the various accents heard in South Korea) when he talks to his younger brother in episode 2 (titled “Hell”). The accent is also heard when he talks to the North Korean runner who organizes the recovery of his mother from the North.
It’s an interesting pause to think that Sae-byeok, who shows a lack of trust towards everyone from the beginning of the games, felt the need to hide his native accent among the South Korean players. It certainly adds another dimension to an already fascinating multi-layered character.
It is also perhaps a symbol of the complex relationship between North and South Koreans and the constant tension between the two halves of the Korean peninsula, which are technically still at war today, with no peace treaty signed to mark the end of the War of Korea.
3. The Korean spirit
In episode 6 (titled “Gganbu”), during the Marbles game, Player No. 001 (the old man played by Oh Young-soo) points out that he and Gi-hun (player No. 456, played by Lee Jung-jae) are “gganbus”, which explains that a gganbu is “a good friend with whom you share everything.”
However, the English subtitle omitted the line where gganbus says “do not distinguish between what is yours and what is mine” when sharing, which was essentially the reason why later, spoiler alert, gives up his last marble to Gi-hun, allowing you to move. to the next round.
As he hands Gi-hun his last marble, the old man repeats that omitted phrase and adds: “Take it [the marble], it’s yours. We are gganbu, right? “
That line was a central point in the episode, but it also captures the depth of the Korean spirit of friendship and strong ties (known as “jung” in Korean).
4. Korean class divisions
As the competition develops, we see how some players have an advantage over others due to their experience. For example, the surgeon receives information about the games in exchange for extracting organs from corpses for staff members to smuggle them off the island.
Mi-nyeo sheds light on another class of people trying to survive in the game of life. When pleading with Gi-hun to join her, Mi-nyeo swears that she is an expert in outsmarting others, noting that “I never studied, but my intelligence is not a joke” and “just for fraud I have been convicted five times”.
Education has long been revered in Korean society as the only way to move up the socioeconomic ladder, dating back to the Joseon era (1392-1910), Korea’s last dynasty. Nobility status was not granted only by family lineage and you had to pass a civil service exam (which required years of study) to become an aristocrat.
Mi-nyeo’s comment highlights how education is often limited to those who have access to it. This is highly exemplified in Korean society, where the competition for a university seat is incredibly fierce. But even those who get there may not be able to pay the tuition fees.
The strong class tension was also reflected between Gi-hun and Sang-woo (player number 218, played by Park Hae-soo), who are childhood friends.
In Episode 8 (titled “Front Man”), during a heated exchange with Sang-woo, Gi-hun says, “So if I’m here because I’m so pathetic, then why Ssangmun-dong’s pride? Cho Sang-woo from SNU doing here? … rolling in this shit hole with an asshole like me? “
The SNU noted in the English subtitle refers to Seoul National University, the most prestigious university in the country (the equivalent of Harvard in the US).
But Sang-woo doesn’t come from wealth. He comes from Ssangmung-dong, the humble real-life neighborhood of Seoul where Squid director Hwang was born and raised by a single mother, like Sang-woo. The director also graduated from SNU and his grandmother also had a market position, like Sang-woo’s mother.
5. Korean nostalgia
The first children’s game the contestants actually played was not Red Light, Green Light. Was “ddakji,“a game that each contestant played with the vendor (played by Gong Yoo, the famous Korean actor from Train to Busan and various other Korean movies and dramas) when they were recruited.
This iconic Korean children’s game was the only game for which the rules were not explained. Similar to Pogs or Milk Caps but played with folded paper tiles, the object of the game is to hit your tile against another player’s tile to turn it over (the slaps seen in the series are not part of the real life game ). .
Another nod to Korean traditions that you may have overlooked was in Episode 3 (titled “The Man with the Umbrella”), where Gi-hun eats from a lunch box (known as “doshirak” in Korean). A packed lunch is an essential part of school life in South Korea and Gi-hun remembers that he used to heat his doshirak over a stove at school, so his rice would form “nurungji.”
Nurungji is a layer of crispy rice that forms at the bottom of a pot when rice is cooked on a stove. It’s a novelty snack these days as most people in Korea now use electric rice cookers and nurungji doesn’t really form in modern cookers.
Squid Game is now available to stream on Netflix.