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How “Squid Game,” a Korean drama from Netflix, became a global hit

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A screenshot from the "Squid Game" trailer.

The trailer of "Squid Game," a dystopian drama that one media analyst calls "a story of people who are desperate financially and psychologically.” Netflix

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People fall into one of two TV camps right now: You’ve either watched “Squid Game” or you haven’t.

The dystopian South Korean drama is reportedly on track to become Netflix’s biggest show yet, and it’s been streaming for less than a month.

So, why does this particular show — and increasingly, Korean film and television — resonate with U.S. viewers?

In “Squid Game,” hundreds of people with huge sums of debt are invited to compete for an even bigger cash prize. What they soon find out is the only way to win — and survive — is to play games like red light, green light.

“The game we played as kids?” a character asks naively. Not exactly. This version has a much darker ending.

Suk-Young Kim, who researches East Asian culture at the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles, credits the show’s success to its unique storytelling and high production values — and its exploration of social class.

“It’s a story of people who are desperate financially and psychologically,” she said. “And it’s something that we can all relate to, especially having gone through this extended period of pandemic.”

Though the themes are universal, Kim said much about the show is characteristically Korean, like narratives exploring the idea of individual interest versus community.

And there’s Korean nostalgia. One scene involves a game with dalgona, a honeycomb candy.

“I think we’re going to see more and more shows sort of show up with the sort of cultural ties they have,” said Neil Macker, a media analyst at Morningstar.

U.S. audiences are increasingly interested in foreign films, instead of films from abroad remade into digestible American hits, he said. That’s great for Netflix — two birds, one stone.

“Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon are all fighting for subscribers worldwide,” Macker said.

So far, Netflix has made 80 Korean shows and films. Disney+ launches in South Korea next month.

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