[SPOILERS AHEAD! Please proceed with caution if you have yet to watch Squid Game.]
“People living on the edge play a mysterious survival game. In Squid Game, what kind of decision will you make?”
When Korean survival drama Squid Game was released in September 2021, it attracted eyeballs in more than 142 million households, becoming the top-viewed program in 94 countries around the world during its first four weeks. Now, barely half a year in, Squid Game is Netflix’s most-watched series, receiving critical acclaim and international attention for its unique premise.
Drawing its title from a popular Korean children’s game, Squid Game revolves around 456 debt-ridden individuals who risk their lives for the chance to win a cash prize worth 45.6 billion won (approximately $38.7 million USD), should they be the last one standing. In each round, they are required to participate in children’s games, but it comes with a catch – if you break the rules or if you lose, you die.
Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game spent more than a decade in the making until Netflix took an interest in 2019 as part of their drive to expand their foreign programming portfolio. Starring industry veterans like Lee Jung-jae, Lee Byung-hun, and Wi Ha-joon, the drama has also been lauded for its diversity, casting Indian actor Anupam Tripathi as the crowd favourite Ali and Filipino actor Christian Lagahit as Player 276.
If you ask us, Squid Game’s success stems from the various ways this 9-episode drama can be appreciated, whether for its stellar cast and sharp social commentary, or even its amazing set design and equally unforgettable soundtrack. Sound of Life takes you on a “behind-the-scenes” tour of what makes Squid Game truly unique.
CREATING AN IMMERSIVE ENVIRONMENT ON SET
Many of the gaming arenas you see in Squid Games were built from scratch, with CGI only being used to complete the visual outcome. From the larger-than-life creepy doll whose head swivels 180 degrees, to the adult-sized playground in the dalgona game, director Hwang says he tried to simulate a more realistic atmosphere so that these sets give an additional sense of reality to the actors’ performances.
One of the most iconic scenes is the glass bridge, where players tumble to their death if the glass panel they land on cannot withstand their weight. In real life, the actual glass bridge set was built 1.5 metres off the ground, with real tempered-glass panels. Director Hwang says that to the actors, it felt like they were jumping off a high bridge, instilling a natural sense of realism into their behaviour as their bodies responded out of fear.
Theatrics are also taken into account when planning this particular scene’s set design. “Unlike the other games, this game is watched by the audience, as if it were an aerial performance at a circus,” explains art director and production designer Chae Kyoung-sun. “The set was designed to look like a circus tent, surrounded with layers of curtains in a vivid green and purple colour palette. The bright lighting is also reminiscent of those used at amusement parks.”
CONFUSION BETWEEN REALITY AND FICTION
An underlying theme that runs across all the games in Squid Game is the “uncanny valley” feeling that strikes you when you least expect it. In the first game, the creepy pigtailed robot stands in front of a tree, which does not have any leaves. This is the first warning sign given to the players: everything in the arena is fake and artificial, except their impending death. After the game ends, the roof closes, but not before a flock of birds fly away into the distance, further driving home the horrific realisation that they, as unwilling contestants, have no way out.
According to Chae, the set for the marble game took a long time to complete. Based on the theme of “gganbu”, which means close and trusted friends, players are brought into a village-like setting, meant to evoke memories as they walk past houses that look like their childhood homes. The line between fiction and reality is further blurred by a fake sunset, together with many other props like real weeds and sand, as well as actual door handles from the 1970s. “We arranged two-dimensional sets like the ones you see in theatre plays, and put them together to make a three-dimensional set. So when players open a door, they would be met face-to-face with a wall, putting them in a repetitive situation with nowhere to escape to.”
WHEN PINK MEETS GREEN
One of the most recognisable features of Squid Game’s characters is the contrast between its players and staff. Dressed in retro inspired green-and-white tracksuits, players are only identifiable by their respective numbers. On the other hand, the weapon-wielding guards are all uniformly decked out in pink jumpsuits, complete with masks that conceal their identities, not just from the players, but also from each other.
In an interview with Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily, Chae talks about the colour contrast: “We chose a popular green shade based on the sportswear school children wore on field days during the 1970s. Pink became one of the main colours because it is frequently used in fairy tales. I’ve never mentioned this before, but if you notice, the hallways of the masked guards’ dorms are painted green, while most of the stairways in the maze, which players walk past every time there is a new game, are pink. This symbolises that the masked guards are only doing their job when they monitor and eliminate players. The colour scheme serves as a clear division between their workplace (the staircases) and personal space (the dorms).”
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
Speaking to Variety, Chae notes the repeated reference of stairs and ladders in Squid Game. “I particularly remember two illustrations that served as major inspiration when I was designing the spaces – one of them was of a child, sitting next to tall wall. Next to the child, there is a ladder leaning against the wall, and the child is making a fire with some wood taken from the ladder while looking up the wall. Even when making a single prop or deciding on a finishing material for a certain set, I almost obsessively put in intentions behind them so that they can contribute to the wider themes.”
In the large players’ dormitory space, beds are stacked along the walls like goods in a warehouse, symbolising the value (or lack thereof) of the people who sleep there. “Rather than treating them like people, Chae suggested the contestants be presented like objects, piled on warehouse shelves,” Hwang said of the concept.
According to Chae, the design was based on “people who have been abandoned on the road”, which is reflected in the raised platform in the middle, forming a tunnel-like entrance. Since modern society is all about a constant competition of climbing ladders, the idea was also portrayed in the bed design, which features a lot of barebones scaffolding that looked like they could collapse anytime, signifying the hopelessness of not being able to move upwards.
Breaking existing assumptions that death games often take place in terrifying spaces, Hwang and Chae decided to take a different route for Squid Game. Viewers will be sure to remember the surrealist, maze-like staircase which players travel up and down to get to each gaming arena, accompanied by the gentle lilt of “The Blue Danube”. Based on artist MC Escher’s engravings, this colourful set was chosen to contrast the premise and outcome of these childhood games. Chae says that their first goal was to create a childlike and fairy tale-esque atmosphere – not so much to intentionally insert disturbing or creepy details, but rather, adding unexpected touches that people would not expect to see in a thriller, like bright, happy colours and gift-wrapped coffins.
ADDING THE FINISHING MUSICAL TOUCHES
Apart from its highly-recognisable recorder bit in “Way Back Then” from the original soundtrack composed by Jung Jae-il (who also did the music for Parasite), Park Min-joo and 23, Squid Game cleverly uses classical music to further drive home the “chaos-confusion” theme.
The main character Seong Gi-hun first finds himself on the island with Haydn’s “Trumpet Concerto” playing in the background. As his last symphony in his later years, Joseph Haydn dedicated this piece to a close friend after writing in in 1796. Before it became a classical music standard, this lively, upbeat trumpet solo lay neglected for more than 100 years, having been composed for an instrument that was not popular at that time, especially among period-instrument specialists. It was only sometime in the 1930s that the concerto sprang back to life after valve trumpets became a standard in orchestras during the late 1800s.
This is soon followed by “The Blue Danube” as the signal for all players to proceed into the maze-like staircase before each deadly game. Composed by Johann Strauss in 1867, this is considered one of the most popular pieces of music in the classical repertoire. Even the master himself, Johannes Brahms, was said to be a fan – after being asked for an autograph by Strauss’ stepdaughter Alice, Brahms wrote down the first bars of “The Blue Danube”, together with the quote, “Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms”.
Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” can be heard in episode four when the group of exhausted players line up to collect their meals after surviving the dalgona candy challenge. Intended as a tribute to Mozart, “Serenade for Strings” was a marked difference from the Russian composer’s “1812 Overture”, which was far more powerful and patriotic. In Squid Game, the soft, flowing melody poses a stark contrast to the scene, where the stronger players are scheming to eliminate the weaker competition by getting rid of them in their sleep.
Although not a classical tune, “Fly Me to the Moon” deserves a special credit here; filling the speakers as a silent montage of the first game, “Red Light, Green Light”, comes into full display. Bodies twist in agony, seeming to dance along to the romantic jazz melody, while the mysterious masked figure looks on from the comfort of his luxurious abode. Performed by Shin Joo-won, one cannot help but notice the jarring contrast: as she sings, “In other words, I love you”, players meet their bloody demise in this short-lived game.
In an interview with Pop Sugar, Shin highlights her feelings after watching Squid Game, which sums up our thoughts pretty aptly: “Watching the show, I could totally empathise with the people who joined the game, and I could easily relate to the hard reality of a very competitive society.” There’s no denying that behind its entertainment value, the social issues portrayed in Squid Game hit a little close to home, especially for individuals who are struggling to find a foothold in the society of today.
Cover Credit: JYPIX /Alamy
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.