September 2022: Lee Jung-jae receives the prize for best actor in a drama series at the Emmy Awards, becoming the first comedian of Asian origin to win this distinction. He was notably in competition with Jeremy Strong, star of Succession. “We made history together and I really hope that Squid Game won’t be the last Korean series to win the Emmy Awards,” says filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, crowned with the Best Director Award. Squid Game not less than six awards during the ceremony.
Broadcast on September 17, 2021 on Netflix, the South Korean series is the fiction which, in barely ten days, has been the most viewed on the platform. From the Netherlands to Saudi Arabia, fans had fun replicating the game in real life – without putting their lives on the line, of course. More than just a commercial success, Squid Game is the first non-English series to win, even before the famous Emmy Awards, three trophies at the prestigious Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG), which reward the best actresses and actors in the casting of series and films.
However, nothing predestined this project to such success. Let’s go back to 2009, in South Korea. Hwang Dong-hyuk unsuccessfully tries to sell the script for a feature film titled Squid Game to several production companies. The economic crisis is raging around the world and the director is in debt. He struggles to find funding for his idea. It must be said that the plot is particularly crazy: hundreds of broke people compete to death in games like “One, two, three, sun” in the hope of winning the sum of 32 million euros. “The producers found the story too absurd,” recalls the filmmaker. Too absurd, and far too violent. Over the next decade, Hwang Dong-hyuk directed three critically acclaimed films – Silenced, Miss Granny and The Fortress – and does not despair of realizing his crazy project. “What was unrealistic in 2009 was no longer so in 2018,” he says. In other words: inequality then grows ever wider, Donald Trump is President of the United States, and this story of deadly competition orchestrated by plutocrats suddenly doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did. The filmmaker then takes out his script to present it to Netflix, which has just landed on the Asian market. Agreement concluded. The film is turned into a series.
Red jumpsuit and black mask
Korean productions have therapeutic virtues on me: they act like a powerful medicine that gives me strong emotions. But Squid Game took me even further. I devoured all nine episodes in twenty-four hours, taking only breaks to sleep or work. I forgot to eat, sometimes even to breathe.
From the opening sequence, the story takes in the guts: the main character, Seon Gi-hun, goes to a racetrack to make bets there, the first of a long series of ill-considered decisions. “When people play, says the director, they drop the mask, they reveal their purest emotions. » The candidates recruited to compete in the arenas of Squid Game all have one thing in common: they desperately need the money. Seon Gi-hun is an unemployed gambling addict unable to support his aging mother. His childhood friend, Sang-woo, is an investment banker on the run after squandering his clients’ money on risky investments. Finally, Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector, tries to repatriate her family who stayed on the other side of the border.
HoYeon Jung, the young woman who plays Sae-byeok, won Best Actress at the SAGs for what was then her first screen role. During our interview, this ex-model explains to me that Hwang Dong-hyuk lingered on the smallest nuances of his performance, on the slightest syllable of his dialogues. The day before filming, the director would often hand out revised scripts to the actors, apologizing for the tight timing and the amount of changes to take in. “It was proof that he was constantly looking for the best way to represent his characters,” she admits. Park Hae-soo, the actor playing Sang-woo, evokes this pivotal moment when, before dying, his character reaches out to his old friend, Seon Gi-hun. “It was not in the scenario, entrusts the actor. It was a last minute adjustment, probably to show that there was still a bit of humanity left in my character. »
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