The world seemed primed for more Korean content after Bong Joon Ho’s parasite became the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020.
Decades of fandom and know-how of K-pop, K-drama, and Korean film seethed in and out of mainstream media consciousness, but never on the level of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s series Squid Game. Upon its release in late 2021, the Netflix show became a global phenomenon, as did other examples of Korean content like Yeon Sang-ho’s infernal (also Netflix) and pachinko (Apple TV+) have attracted international attention.
squid game’The release on a widely shared global OTT platform, accompanied by almost equally simultaneous conversations on international social media, yielded unprecedented results. “Squid Game is our biggest show to date,” Netflix reported. “At its peak, it was number one in 94 countries — from Brazil and France to India and Turkey — every country in the world where Netflix has a top 10 list. Ninety-five percent of Squid Game Viewers came from outside of Korea and it’s very popular in Korea.”
Netflix noted infernal that viewing hours reached 43.5 million at launch. “It was in the top 10 in 93 countries and number one in 34 countries.”
“Obviously you believe in the potential of all your work to connect with people and you work towards it, but who could have imagined that level of response?” says Hwang, writer, director and executive producer of Squid Game. “No matter what country you travel to, what age group you meet, there is almost nobody who does not know it.”
Hwang, whose characteristics include My father (2007) and Miss grandma (2014), came up with the idea of a deadly contest for a life-changing cash prize in 2009 when he was in dire straits and visiting comic book rental shops “where I could cheaply spend time” reading series like Battle Royale and lying game.
“I was in debt, so I figured it would actually be better to be able to gamble like this, but I realized I wouldn’t get past level one with my brain and my limitations,” says Hwang. “But if they were games like the ones we played as kids, maybe even a person like me could win – and that’s where the original idea for a movie came from.”
At the time, local investors told him Squid Game was “too unrealistic” and expressed concern about the level of violence that would earn the film a 19+ rating in Korea, limiting its box office potential. It was almost 10 years later that Netflix came to Korea and produced popular local-language series like the political-era zombie thriller kingdomthat Hwang decided to stream the project because he felt the characters and story might be better served in episodic form.
“It seemed to me that it might have more potential as a series aimed at global viewers who might be more open-minded and used to genres,” he says. “It’s a story about haves and have-nots who risk their lives to compete for vast fortunes, and the polarization and inequality that are a common trend in the world make it relatable in every country.
“The characters were also recognizable as people that you could relate to and cheer for or be angry with,” Hwang continues. “The simple symbols I used on the show — circles, triangles and squares, the colors, the Younghee [robot] The doll and clothing were all eye-catching visuals that transcended cultures and languages, and could spark curiosity even in children.”
Hwang notes that Korean creators have been honing and showing their film and series skills internationally for decades, but the impact of simultaneous OTT distribution has been a game changer.
“Maybe squid gamWe were front runners, but more and more works from around the world are attracting people because they know that language doesn’t have to be a problem to enjoy them,” he says.
infernal Creator and showrunner Yeon agrees, noting that he’s gained international acclaim with his zombie thriller train to Busan, which premiered at the Midnight Screenings in Cannes in 2016 and grossed $140 million worldwide. But the immediate effect of infernal was different.
“It has a fun structure, but it’s not exactly relaxing,” says Yeon, reflecting on how the series became so successful. “There’s a lot to think about, and that seems to have worked well not only in Asia, but to my astonishment in Europe as well.”
infernal started with Yeon’s animated short film The hell, which he and his friend, illustrator Choi Gyu-Seok, expanded to create a “webtoon” — a Korean internet comic series — for Korean portal site Naver. In it, otherworldly beings judge and attack people and send them to hell, resulting in a religious group that operates on the idea of divine justice but also has a violent side unit.
“It’s about people who blindly believe in ideologies or can’t live without a big purpose,” says Yeon. “We all think about our raison d’être, and in a way, raison d’être for some people might be ideologies or religion or professional ethics for others or, for people who make films, filmmaking. But are these things we believe in manipulated?
“In the case of Korea, it went through dictatorships and democratization, and people around the world went through Cold War ideologies,” he adds. “Nowadays we are also concerned with the question of what is more politically correct. In the midst of this kind of chaos, I wanted to resolve some frustrations through this story of people dedicating their lives to interpreting a vast supernatural phenomenon.”
Yeon believes that the success of recent Korean films and series like his comes with “a certain amount of luck.” parasite and Squid Gamebut also goes back to titles like the gangster film by Lee Chang-dong Green Fish (1997) and Im Kwon-taeks Cannes award-winning historical play Chihwaseon (2002) and two turning points from 2003: Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller old boy and Bong’s detective thriller memories of murder.
“old boy was shocking, not only in terms of content, but also how well done it was and how much storytelling we hadn’t seen in Korean films before,” says Yeon. “memories of murder came out in the same year. They had a profound impact. Anyone who started working around this time and is still active today [in Korea] would be lying if they said [these films] didn’t affect them.”
Yeon also points to the global popularity of Hong Kong noir films – “John Woo and Chow Yun Fat had a major impact on the West” – as well as “Japanimation” as evidence that “Asian content has always attracted global attention and influence had “.
Korean artists and creators like Hwang and Yeon are fundamentally artists and creators less interested in the international politics of “soft power” through cultural influence and more interested in sharing ideas and creativity.
As Hwang notes, “Culture is about exchange, not one-way export. Just as American films and series influenced me, Korean content can influence people in other countries and inspire them to create their own content that will come back to us, and so on. So this is an opportunity for the world to understand the world.”
Yeon describes himself as “more geek” than anything and is excited to be in talks to do his own adaptation of a Japanese manga series of which he is a longtime fan, while also working on several projects including infernal‘s second season as a webtoon before its live-action version.
Hwang is equally busy with projects including KO club (aka Killing Old Men Club) based on a novel by Umberto Eco and the second season of Squid Game – Dates not announced yet, but for a landing in a circle.
“I don’t want to keep the fans waiting too long,” he says.