‘Squid Game’ vs ‘Hospital Playlist’

Win or die: Contestants vying to win the Dalgona candy challenge in a scene from ‘Squid Game’. The globally popular Netflix show depicts hundreds of financially distressed characters competing in deadly children’s games for a chance to escape severe debt. — AP

ON Sunday, after putting it off for a month, I finally watched Netflix’s uber-hit Korean drama, Squid Game.As my long-time readers know, I am a huge K-entertainment fan, especially its dramas and films. Many have superb production values, great plots and amazing actors.

So when Squid Game was released on Netflix, I automatically checked out the trailer and synopsis. Both left me rather cold.

That’s because I have little appetite for what Financial Times editor-at-large Robert Shrimsley aptly describes as “hyperviolent dystopian TV shows in which the driving narrative is essentially about which one of the characters you like dies badly this week”.

In contrast, I am totally in love with another K-drama also on Netflix called Hospital Playlist. The huge difference is that this show, although a bit bloody since it is a medical series, is completely devoid of violence and villains.

Both seasons of Hospital Playlist are hugely popular but it can’t touch the global mania and reams of commentary and analyses Squid Game has generated.

Undoubtedly, Squid Game is the “show of the moment”, as Shrimsley puts it in his sardonic Oct 15 opinion piece.

Despite feeling the pressure to watch it so that he could be part of “the conversation” as “socialising is back in full swing” in Britain, he caught only one episode.

He decided he didn’t want to waste his time on “a snuff series (that) takes on the veneer of an emotional class critique of economic plight within capitalist society but with added throat slashing”.

Unlike him, despite my initial revulsion, I binge-watched all nine episodes because once I started, I couldn’t stop, further inflating the 111 million Netflix subscribers who have viewed it since the series made its debut on Sept 17.

It is No.1 on the platform’s Top 10 lists in 94 countries and it’s the first Korean series to reach No.1 in the United States. And that, as we know, is a Very Big Deal in the entertainment industry. So kudos to South Korea’s brilliantly talented storytellers.

Squid Game is about 456 down-on-their luck and heavily in debt ordinary people who are lured into taking part in six traditional children’s games to win a jaw-dropping prize of 45 billion won (RM158mil). They are shown rules that seem innocuous: a participant gets “eliminated” if he opts out or fails in any of the games. But elimination here means extermination by gunshot or a death fall.

Unlike dramas released on Korean TV networks in which graphic scenes involving dead bodies and sharp objects are usually blurred out, Squid Game on Netflix shows all the blood, gore and more to the max.

The contestants are forced into a brutal life-and-death struggle that brings out the worst behaviours in human beings desperate to survive.

Many have tried to analyse Squid Game’s stupendous global popularity. Christian Barker, writing for channelnewsasia.com, thinks the timing of its release at the height of Covid-19 fatigue is a pivotal factor.

“Maybe we see our omnipresent Covid-related worries about what tomorrow will bring reflected in the idea that players in Squid Game have no clue what game they will play next or what fate will befall them,” he writes.

But Barker also thinks the success is due to (writer-director) Hwang Dong-hyuk’s ability to tap into “a more powerful, timeless narrative with a flawed hero at its core”. Indeed, Hwang created enough interesting and diverse characters from among the 456 contestants for us viewers to root for as well as to thoroughly hate.

I think there is a basis for the powerful and timeless narrative factor but to me, Squid Game’s massive popularity could be because it touched human beings’ innate bloodthirsty fascination with savage entertainment.

Modern civilisation may have blunted or disguised that bloodlust but the damning evidence is there in history, going back to Roman times.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, in her livescience.com article titled “Could You Stomach the Horrors of ‘Halftime’ in Ancient Rome?”, gives a shocking account of “the blood- spattered halftime show” during the Roman Games (265BC-681AD). The show was known as amnatio ad bestias, meaning “condemnation by beasts”, and run by men known as the bestiarii.

To keep the Roman crowds happy and engaged by bloodshed, the bestiarii consistently invented new ways to kill.

“They devised elaborate contraptions and platforms to give prisoners the illusion they could save themselves – only to have the structures collapse at the worst possible moments, dropping the condemned into a waiting pack of starved animals.

“Prisoners were tied to boxes, lashed to stakes, wheeled out on dollies and nailed to crosses, and then, prior to the animals’ release, the action was paused so that bets could be made in the crowd about which of the helpless men would be devoured first,” writes Aptowicz.

In Squid Game, however, the murderous games are not for public consumption but for a very small group of what the mysterious game organiser refers to as “VIPs” – detestable super rich men who willingly pay for the amusement and callously bet on the possible winners.It is we Netflix viewers who inadvertently become the Romans watching the spectacle, drawn by the macabre fascination of seeing how the simple children’s games would be twisted into tests that kill the adult participants who fail.

If, according to Aptowicz, Romans felt “satisfaction and relief” watching someone considered lower than themselves be thrown to the beasts, for Netflix viewers, it seems to be a mix of helpless attachment for the good guys and viciously wanting death for the nasty scum-of-the-earth characters. That, at least, was how I felt.

Hospital Playlist, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. As mentioned, there are no villains and violence. Instead, it is totally feel-good, depicting five caring doctors and their colleagues working in a Seoul medical centre.

This, to me, was the balm I needed during the pandemic. Of course it is far-fetched that such super compassionate, altruistic doctors who seem almost god-like in how they save lives can exist.

But I didn’t care. I could suspend my disbelief as I lapped up every bit of the strong camaraderie among the five doctors, the adorable side characters, the humour, the wit and the great musical performances. (You know what I mean if you have watched the series. If not, what are you waiting for?)

Not only that, there are also heart-wrenching moments involving patients’ medical conditions that made me cry buckets. These included scenes on organ donation that were done with deeply affecting respect and care for the donor and the grieving family. The episode was so effective that there was a 11-fold increase in organ donors in South Korea.

In contrast, the butcher-like scenes of organ harvesting in Squid Game – which is a ghastly subplot – sickened me. But I didn’t shed a single tear, not even at the gut- wrenching moments when likeable characters were killed off.

When I finished the series – which ended with a cliffhanger by the way, leading to great hopes for a second season – I felt numb and relieved that it was over. Admittedly, I am curious about the possibilities in key characters, especially the young police officer, and I would watch a second season.

But if I had to choose what I would re-watch, Squid Game or Hospital Playlist, the latter wins hands down. The grip the pandemic has had over the world may be loosening, but there remains much uncertainty ahead.

It is still a bleak time for many who lost loved ones, jobs, savings and perhaps even homes. While I remain in the safe bubble of a retiree, I cannot entirely escape the pressure and worry people like my adult children and young relatives face. So I seek to be distracted in a happy way, losing myself in make-believe that shows me a better world and people.

Having said that, as a retired journalist, I think there is a very simple reason why Squid Game wowed the world more than Hospital Playlist.

It’s something newsroom editors know very well: Bad news sells because sensational articles on scandals, murder and rape are always top read. That, sadly, is just human nature, isn’t it?

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Netflix , Korean drama , Squid Game


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