Squid Game: survive or die, then binge these
Finished Netflix’s South Korean megahit, or has it finished you? Either way, here are the best East Asian dramas to watch next.
How far would you go to clear your debts? There are 456 contestants and six games to play in six days. Win all six and go home with a piggy bank full of cash. Lose one, and you’re dead.
Since premiering on 17th September, Netflix’s South Korean survival drama dystopia Squid Game has taken the world by storm. It’s become the platform’s number one show in 90 different countries, not to mention a TikTok sensation. It’s been so successful, in fact, that Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos recently admitted that the series was on track to be the most popular Netflix show ever, surpassing even Bridgerton.
The show’s runaway success is a surprise that even the Netflix bigwigs hadn’t expected. After all, the premise – in which a group of everyday losers are forced to compete in a perverted game show where the penalty for failure is death (or disgrace) – has been seen everywhere from The Hunger Games to Black Mirror. So why has Squid Game performed so well?
Pricey production values, deft writing and an infallible cast that breathe life and personality into an ensemble of relatable characters are some of the core facets that make this South Korean sensation bounce right off the screen. The fact that the series is lead by Grand Bell award-winning actor Lee Jung-jae (whose roles include “the Korean Godfather”, New World, and 2020 smash thriller Deliver Us From Evil), and features an intelligent and creative score from Parasite composer Jung Jae-il, only bolsters the production.
But with only nine binge-able episodes, fans are already wondering how to fill the void left in Squid Game’s wake. Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk has already admitted that this long-gestated project was an arduous task to complete. He’s also indicated his desire to return to feature film-making before dipping his toes into another series.
All is not lost, though. Squid Game’s high quality is endemic of a newfound ascendancy of South Korean Netflix productions – and there are further gems available to watch now and in the near future. Moreover, a range of thematically adjacent series from elsewhere in the East are lying in plain sight on streaming platforms today. Here’s where to head next when the Squid Game credits roll.
Battle Royale / Takeshi’s Castle
Squid Game’s debt to the dystopian classic Battle Royale is worn proudly on its sleeve. This notorious film arrived in the UK 20 years ago last month in the wake of a national outcry in its native Japan leading to it being the subject of parliamentary debate. Like a brutal Y2K Lord of the Flies, Battle Royale depicted a near-future government pitting a class of children against each other in a fight to the death. Of course, there could only be one victor.
Squid Game features countless references to this modern classic from the get-go. Just like in Battle Royale, Squid Game’s contestants are gassed on a bus, only to wake up in a warehouse on a mysterious island. They’re dressed in identical uniforms and referred to by number. The music of Johan Strauss plays over a loudspeaker when games begin. And a powerful overseer watches from safety as the competitors are killed.
In Battle Royale, that overseer was played by one of the country’s most recognisable television personalities, Takeshi Kitano (a renowned actor-director in his own right), assumedly a nod to his presence on a wealth of barmy Japanese game shows at the time.
The most famous of these in the West is undoubtedly Takeshi’s Castle, the bonkers pratfall contest wherein members of the public must compete against one another in a series of bizarre challenges, obstacle courses and games of chance. The odds of success would often be stacked heavily against the contenders. Much hilarity ensued.
Western copycat productions like Total Wipeout would come later – but the original, for all its surreal mayhem and absurdity, remains the best. For a real-life Squid Game (minus the deaths) you can find episodes of the recently-revived series (now narrated by Jonathan Ross) on Now TV. Check out the 125,000-followers-strong “No Context Takeshi’s Castle” Twitter page, meanwhile, for clips that go all the way back to the series’ premiere in 1986.
Alice in Borderland
It was only a year ago that Japan delivered its own dystopian survival drama series to Netflix – and the parallels to Squid Game are uncanny.
In Alice In Borderland, a group of friends become stranded in an alternate-universe Tokyo after emerging from a public restroom to find the city deserted. Here, they are free to do whatever they like… with one major catch: that freedom is dictated by the number of days remaining on their “visa”. If that time runs out, a giant laser zaps them from the sky, killing them.
How does one extend the time on their visa? By participating in a series of deadly games, of course!
The vividness of the Tokyo setting is one of the more visible factors that distinguishes Alice in Borderland from Squid Game, while the production’s basis in a popular manga serial also gives the Japanese production more of a comic book feel. Meanwhile, a focus on complex puzzles and challenges (as opposed to Squid Game’s easily-comprehensible children’s games, which shift the emphasis more heavily onto character development and narrative) makes for great set-pieces – and some devastating blows.
Episode one of Squid Game featured a cameo from a major South Korean film star. Gong Yoo plays the mysterious salesman at the metro station who invites Lee Jung-jae’s deadbeat lead to play ddakji (a game played using red and blue envelopes) for the chance to win money.
Shortly after, the dubious character reveals himself to be a recruiter for the deadly competition at the heart of the series – setting the entire narrative in motion.
Yoo’s probably best known in the West for playing the lead in 2016 crossover hit Train to Busan, the hi-octane zombie apocalypse thriller set almost entirely on board a moving train. The film’s success (it grossed nearly $100m worldwide) helped to fuel a boom in South Korean zombie films in the years that followed. And that trend is ongoing. Train to Busan sequel Peninsula and Netflix feature #Alive both premiered in 2020, and undead outbreak series Sweet Home reached number three in Netflix’s Top 10 in the USA upon release in December the same year.
Now Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho is about to debut the first three episodes of his first Netflix series, Hellbound. A horror-thriller about people who are foretold the date and time of their death, and subsequently dragged to the depths of hell by supernatural entities, it marries social commentary with “a dread-inducing story that shows humanity at its most craven”, according to the South China Morning Post.
Scant tickets remain for the series’ UK premiere screenings at the BFI London Film Festival in October (the first of two showings has already sold out), but the full series lands on Netflix on 19th November.
It was barely two years ago that Netflix launched their first original series from South Korea, Kingdom. Compared favourably to Game of Thrones, the series fuses Joseon-era period drama with intricate politics, mysterious plagues and deadly sword conflicts in what remains one of the most impressive new productions to emerge from Hallyuwood in any video format in recent years.
As a springboard for South Korea’s entire Netflix presence, Kingdom provides a rock-solid base from which to explore the wider canon of Korean television media – and it’s packed with the spectacular production values and intricate storytelling that the country has become known for. Renowned actress Bae Doona (star of Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy precursor Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) is a vital anchor at the centre of the cast, alongside a range of dynamic acting talents who turn in some spectacular performances.
Two series’ and a feature-length spin-off can be found on Netflix now, with a second feature-length episode due in 2023.
One of the most interesting facets of Squid Game is how it illuminates South Korean culture in a way that’s easily digestible for Western viewers – and that’s not just a reference to the sumptuous egg-and-rice lunchbox the contestants snack on in episode four.
The insertion of Korean children’s games like ddakji, the Dalgona candy bbopgi challenge and the eponymous ojingeo (squid) game into the narrative provides a nuanced insight into aspects of young South Korean life not widely understood in the West. It’s something that’s even recognised within the narrative, such as when Lee Jung-jae’s lead questions why Anupam Tripathi’s Pakistani migrant worker isn’t familiar with games like gonggi, Don Katsu or Biseokchigi.
While unique from Squid Game in terms of style and form, Filipino animated series Trese is similarly interesting in the way that it incorporates aspects of Eastern culture into a narrative familiar to Western viewers. A supernatural detective serial based on a cult Filipino graphic novel, it fuses the dark and vivid underworld of Metro Manila with X‑Files-esque mysteries concerning political corruption and folkloric creatures like sewer imps and duwendes.
It’s another example of an East Asian production that has become something of a smash on Netflix. Within three days of premiering on 13th June this year, Trese, the first Filipino animated series on the platform, entered Netflix’s Top Ten TV shows list in 19 different countries.