‘Lula’s Game’ Strikes Nerves in Debt-Railed South Korea

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Seong gets beaten by gangster creditors into signing off his organs as collateral, but then receives a mysterious offer to play in a series of six traditional Korean children’s games for a shot at winning $38 million. The South Korea-produced show pits Seong against hundreds of other financially distressed players in a hyper-violent competition for the ultimate prize, with losers being killed at every round.

The show has captivated global audiences since its September debut on its way to becoming Netflix’s biggest hit ever. It has struck raw nerves at home, where there’s growing discontent over soaring personal debt, decaying job markets and stark income inequalities worsened by financial crises in the past two decades. In the dystopian horrors of “Squid Game,” Lee sees a reflection of himself in the show’s protagonist Seong Gi-hun, a laid-off autoworker coping with a broken family and struggling with constant business failures and gambling problems. BusinessWhite House: LA port going 24/7 to ease shipping backlogChina exports up 28% in September; surplus with US grows Logjam at UK’s busiest port adds to Christmas delivery fearsEnergy agency urges bigger global push to cut emissions

It is raising disturbing questions about the future of one of Asia’s wealthiest economies, where people who once crowed about the “Miracle of the Han River” now moan about “Hell Joseon,” a sarcastic reference to a hierarchical kingdom that ruled Korea before the 20th century. “Some scenes were very hard to watch,” said Lee, a worker at South Korea’s Ssangyong Motors who struggled with financial difficulties and depression after the carmaker laid him and 2,600 other employees off while filing for bankruptcy protection in 2009.

After years of protests, court battles and government intervention, Lee and hundreds of other Ssangyong workers returned to work in recent years. But not before a spate of suicides among co-workers and family members who were plunged into financial misery. “In ‘Squid Game,’ you see characters scrambling to survive after being laid off at work, struggling to operate fried chicken diners or working as ‘daeri’ drivers,” who get paid for driving drunk people home in their own cars, Lee said. “That reminded me of my co-workers who died.” Lee said he and his colleagues struggled to find work and were backlisted by other auto companies that considered them militant labor activists.

A 2016 report by Korea University medical researchers said at least 28 laid-off Ssangyong workers or their relatives died of suicide or severe health problems, including those linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. “Squid Game” is one of many South Korean shows inspired by economic woes. Its dark tale of inequality and class has drawn comparisons with Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite,” another pandemic-era hit with stunning visuals and violence exposing the underside of South Korea’s economic success story. Netflix tweeted Wednesday that “Squid Game” has become its biggest original series launch after reaching 111 million fans.

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