Squid Game, Parasite, and the Increasing Restlessness of Neoliberalism

Cherise Kim, Editor-in-Chief

The so-called “Korean wave” of South Korean cultural exports, which has taken the world by storm in recent years, is typically associated with glittering stagelights of K-pop singers, the melodrama of internet-viral Korean television shows, and millions upon millions of intensely loyal fans. However, beneath the supersaturated neon sheen of pop music or television lurks another dimension to the media coming out of South Korea. Globally prominent pieces of South Korean media represent a growing discontent with the conditions which have been created and engendered by global neoliberalism. 

South Korea represents a particularly salient microcosm of these conditions, owing to its historical context as a strategic incubator for American capitalist development and the implications of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis on its 21st-century socioeconomic landscape. Nowhere has this phenomenon been seen more clearly than in two of the most prominent pieces of cultural media to come from South Korea in recent years: Academy Award Best-Picture winner Parasite (2019) and Netflix’s most recent television phenomenon, Squid Game. 

Parasite, written and directed by Bong Joon Ho, tells the story of the impoverished Kim family, who gradually scheme their way into the home of the wealthy Park family. Their plot quickly goes awry, however, when the Kim family discovers the husband of the former housekeeper living in the basement and must conceal the secret from the oblivious Park family. 

Squid Game, written and directed by Hwang Dong Hyuk, is a survival story where debt-ridden contestants play versions of Korean children’s games in hopes of winning cash to rid themselves of their financial struggles. There are, however, deadly consequences for losing — those who do not achieve the game’s objective are promptly executed by faceless, gun-wielding security guards. 

Both stories depict their working-class protagonists, forced to battle amongst themselves or against other working-class characters on the slim chance of financial survival. This all happens whilst the wealthy characters — the Park family in Parasite and the faceless “VIP” spectators in Squid Game — either remain oblivious to their suffering or watch gleefully and place bets as to which player might remain after they have weeded each other out.

Both of these works, created with blatantly political storytelling in mind, can be interpreted as allegories for the pitfalls of capitalism in South Korea. Bong is known for incorporating political themes, particularly surrounding class inequality, in his works. His 2013 film Snowpiercer tackled the prospect of a dystopian future where the vestiges of humanity struggle to survive in a world permanently marred by climate change; even in this world, Bong tells this story through the lens of class stratification. In an interview with The Guardian, Hwang discussed his motivations behind creating the show, which included how his family was impacted by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Faced with dire financial circumstances, his family was forced to take out loans to survive. 

Hwang’s story is not an uncommon one in a country where household debt to disposable income ratios are climbing steadily. Many viewers and critics have noted the show’s realistic depiction of the financial desperation many South Koreans face; “economic hardship” has been oft-cited as the number-one cause of suicide in the country. The crisis of debt is not one to be ignored, either. The OECD reports that South Korea’s household debt to disposable income ratio is now 191%, the seventh-largest of its member countries. 

The political and economic minutiae behind the circumstances of the characters written by both Bong and Hwang, as well as the stories they create, may be specific to South Korea, but the messaging has universal appeal: the conditions which neoliberal capitalism has created are unsustainable. Ever-growing wealth gaps, debts insurmountable for most average workers, and stagnation in wage growth across many countries have clearly not gone unnoticed by those they affect. And the fact that both of these works take place in the present day is a particularly noteworthy aspect; modern-day socioeconomic conditions in South Korea have been heavily shaped by the economic restructuring following the loan given by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. In order to receive the loan and alleviate the severe economic downturn wrought by the crisis, the IMF stipulated that the South Korean government restructure its economy. Previously, the economy was heavily state-led; the government exercised widespread control over key industries and was able to enact protectionist economic policies such as tariffs when needed. The IMF loan, however, came with the condition that the economy had to be liberalized to create a friendlier trade environment for nations such as the United States and European Union countries who wanted access to South Korean markets.

The money from the loan was used to repay foreign lenders who had left the area en masse at the onset of the crisis, rendering these lenders off the hook for poor investments and loan repayments and shifting the burden of these instead to South Korean taxpayers. The IMF also insisted on limiting economic growth and cutting government spending in alignment with both the IMF’s ethos of reduced expenditure as the catalyst for economic recovery and the wave of neoliberal economic reforms taking place globally. However, they did not permit tax cuts proportional to these downsizing and liberalization measures, creating a perfect storm for recession and rising unemployment. The effect of this has been steadily increasing unemployment and underemployment, particularly among young people, and a growing wealth gap. The OECD measures South Korea as the country with both the second-highest poverty rate and the second-highest level of income inequality. For both metrics, they are only behind the United States.

Both Parasite and Squid Game represent microcosms of how these macro-level international policy decisions — decisions to adjust interest rates or cut spending by a certain percentage, made thousands of miles away from the country whose fate lies on the table — have real and tangible effects on the everyday lives of the citizenry. These effects are most severely felt by those who are already disadvantaged before the policies have even begun to be conceptualized: the working class.  And these messages are not being ignored. At the 2020 Academy Awards, Parasite made cinema history as it became the first non-English language film to win the coveted Best Picture award, as well as the first South Korean film to receive Academy Award recognition. It also won the top prize of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, among a litany of other international distinctions. Squid Game has currently overtaken 2020’s Bridgerton as Netflix’s number one most watched show of all time on their platform. Despite being in Korean and therefore leaving non Korean-speaking audiences to rely on dubbed-over audio or subtitles, it has become a pop culture phenomenon amongst viewers globally. Perhaps there is a reason for this — the messages of disillusionment with the conditions of 21st-century neoliberal capitalism might just resonate with all who live under these conditions. What these pieces of media illustrate to viewers is not just a neatly packaged, meticulously scripted, color-corrected panorama of broader societal issues. They illustrate the personal experiences of those for whom these issues are a lived reality. They are not merely a set of black-and-white statistics on a screen or a scholarly article about the effects of certain economic policies — they allow viewers to empathize and experience the emotions of these effects firsthand. This is what makes them so powerful as vessels for political messaging.

[1]  “Squid Game’s Creator: ‘I’m Not That Rich. It’s Not like Netflix Paid Me a Bonus’.” The Guardian. October 26, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/oct/26/squid-games-creator-rich-netflix-bonus-hwang-dong-hyuk.

[2]  Winter, Author: Emery. “Yes, South Korea’s Debt Crisis as Depicted in Squid Game Is Real and Contributes to a High Suicide Rate.” 10tv.com. October 25, 2021. https://www.10tv.com/article/news/verify/pop-culture/squid-game-south-korea-debt-crisis-real-economic-hardships-top-reason-suicide/536-04144c70-aaa9-429e-9455-8449166064bd.

[3]  “Household Accounts – Household Debt – OECD Data.” TheOECD. https://data.oecd.org/hha/household-debt.htm.

[4]  “Korean Crisis and Recovery.” International Monetary Fund. https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/nft/seminar/2002/korean/.

[5] Black, Susan & Black, Terry. “The Korean Financial Crisis – Causes, Effects and Solutions” in Policy: A Journal of Public Policy and Ideas. Autumn 1999. 

[6]  Yon-se, Kim. “[News Focus] Korea Has 2nd-highest Income Gap in OECD.” The Korea Herald. August 02, 2020. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20200802000122.

[7] “Rising Employment Overshadowed by Unprecedented Wage Stagnation.” OECD. https://www.oecd.org/newsroom/rising-employment-overshadowed-by-unprecedented-wage-stagnation.htm.

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