When Netflix released the first episode of the South Korean show Squid Game on September 17th, director Hwang Dong-hyuk did not have huge expectations for its success. It was a surprise for many to find out that his pitch for the show had been repeatedly rejected by multiple studios in the past decade for too much extreme violence for viewers; it got to the point where Hwang had to sell his belongings and hold off on writing any more of the script. However, when Netflix decided to start producing his series two years ago, his perseverance proved to be fruitful: in just 10 short days after its premiere, Squid Game rocketed to #1 on Netflix in over 90 countries, with an astounding 95% of its viewers watching from outside South Korea. One month later, it officially became Netflix’s most-watched show of all time. Through Hwang’s filmmaking of Squid Game and the show’s eerily beautiful effects, the ‘New Korean Cinema,’ characterized by the strong and energizing filmmaking of the 2000s, is emerging. The ‘New Korean Cinema’ is turning away from the more ideal and light-hearted entertainment of K-dramas to something more rugged and intense like Parasite and Squid Game, signifying a deeper meaning.
Squid Game follows 455 contestants suffering from financial struggles who agree to participate in a variety of childhood Korean games for the chance to win a cash prize of 45.6 billion won. However, in a morbid twist, they soon discover that elimination means nothing other than death. The show critiques the economic disparity of income inequality and unemployment in South Korea, a topic applicable to many viewers globally. Not only that but the simplicity of the set design including the bold colors of the character’s costumes and the simple shapes used on their face coverings makes the show a low effort to watch despite the heavy violence.
Through the massive success of the show, actress Hoyeon Jung, who plays the leading role of Kang Sae-byeok, is a remarkable example of the rising popularity of Korean actors today. Jung is gaining a significant rise to stardom as proven by the over 19 million followers she gained on Instagram, thus propelling her to the #1 most followed Korean actress on the platform. She worked as a supermodel before becoming an actress, with Squid Game being her first-ever acting audition and role. What is particularly interesting is that although Sae-byeok, is a character who only speaks Korean, with the show finding its roots in South Korean culture, these 19 million followers are comprised of fans from all over the world. Jung’s rise to stardom is comparable to the other famous Korean actors like Minari’s Yuh-Jung Youn, and It’s Okay to Not Be Okay’s Soo-hyun Kim, who similarly rose to fame through Korean media popularly introduced around the world. This is evidence of how language and culture barriers are breaking down in real-time as media becomes more inclusive and diverse. In other words, we are witnessing the globalization of media.
Before Hoyeon Jung, many in the past have worked to pave the way for Asian representation in an entertainment industry highly saturated by Western influences. For example, Hong Kong-American actor Bruce Lee played a principal part in popularizing martial arts movies in the 1970s. Other notable names such as Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, and Donnie Yen have also contributed towards bringing Asian forms of art to the forefront. Over time, their efforts have shifted the industry and made it possible for recent works such as Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite, and Squid Game to gain large amounts of popularity among non-Asian audiences.
Today, social media plays an influential role in Asian entertainment’s accessibility for viewers around the world. As more people develop an interest in Asian media, social media algorithms are encouraged to recommend similar types of content to their users. Before the internet, Hollywood created movies and TV shows based on a small group of people who, through their limited perspective, decided for themselves what type of content they believed their audience would like. This includes films such as The Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas, and Magnum P.I. However, producers can now use social media and its algorithm to study the interests of a larger and more diverse audience and reach them much more easily. As such, film studios recognize the globalization of media and make many efforts to minimize language and culture barriers as much as possible. For instance, Netflix offers Squid Game dubbed or with subtitles, both in a wide variety of languages. This effectively preserves the Korean culture underlying Squid Game while at the same time allowing every viewer to understand the show with high accuracy, thus achieving accessibility to a large audience. As Parasite’s director Bong Joon-ho said, “Once you overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Through the shift towards receptiveness and availability of subtitled films, globally, people can begin to appreciate more international entertainment.
Recently, Netflix announced that it plans on investing nearly $500 million in expanding its slate of original South Korean content. It comes without saying that globalization will continue to have a significant impact on how media is created and consumed around the world. Media already has a significant influence on how people understand the world around them; it is thus essential that it clearly reflects the different populations and cultures that coexist in our incredibly diverse world.