Survival game-themed drama series are nothing new. But when Netflix’s fascinating show squid game was conceived, writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk wanted to add a Korean flavor to the mix.
Hwang told South Korea Cine21 magazine that he was inspired to graft elements of a survival drama into a Korean setting and create “a new kind of survival” with squid game, which sees 456 cash-strapped people compete to the death in a series of children’s games for the chance to win a handsome cash prize.
Scheduled to be Netflix’s biggest show yet, squid game transfixed audiences around the world, topping the global streamer chart for weeks.
But its English translation inadvertently removes some of the Korean elements that director Hwang had woven into the fabric of the characters and the story.
So, in some ways, the English version doesn’t do justice to the full texture and colors of the Korean script.
Here we take a look at some of the Korean nuances and references in squid game which may have been lost or forgotten during translation.
1. Korean names
The Korean title of the game Red Light, Green Light has a completely different meaning than the Western version. In Korean, its name translates as “muggunghwa flower bloomed”. Mugunghwa (known as the “Rose of Sharon” in English) is the national flower of South Korea, so the game’s Korean identity was removed from the title.
In other names worth noting, player #067’s full name – Kang Sae-byeok (played by HoYeon Jung) – literally translates to “river dawn”. The delicate and peaceful notion of his name perhaps reflects the vulnerable core of Sae-byeok’s fearless character.
Another Korean name to highlight is Han Mi-nyeo (contestant #212, played by Kim Joo-ryoung, who is also known from the film memories of murder through Parasite director Bong Joon-ho). The name of the lively and noisy character literally translates as “a beautiful woman” or simply “beauty”.
Her name is perhaps a play on her flirtatious ways, as throughout the series the highly calculating character is willing to do whatever it takes to bond with those she considers the most gamers. strong.
2. Player Accent #067
Viewers might not have noticed Sae-byeok’s (who is a North Korean defector) distinct accent, which she seems to mask when she’s among other players.
We get a glimpse of her North Korean accent (which is different from the various accents heard in South Korea) when talking with her younger brother in episode 2 (titled “Hell”). The accent is also heard when she addresses the North Korean broker who organizes the recovery of her mother from the North.
It’s an interesting pause for reflection that Sae-byeok, who shows a lack of trust in everyone from the start of the games, felt the need to hide his native accent among South Korean players. It certainly adds another dimension to an already fascinating character on many levels.
It is also perhaps symbolic of the complex relationship between North and South Koreans and the ongoing tension between the two halves of the Korean Peninsula, which are technically still at war today, without any treaty peace has ever been signed to mark the end of the Korean War.
3. The Korean Spirit
In Episode 6 (titled “Gganbu”), while playing Marbles, player #001 (the old man played by Oh Young-soo) notes that he and Gi-hun (player #456, played by Lee Jung -jae) are “gganbus”, explaining that a gganbu is “a good friend you share everything with”.
However, the English subtitle omitted the line where it says that gganbus “don’t tell the difference between what’s yours and what’s mine” when sharing, which was basically why it later – spoiler alert – loses his last marble to Gi-hun, allowing him to move to the next turn.
While handing Gi-hun his last marble, the old man repeats this omitted phrase, adding, “Take it. [the marble], this is yours. We are gganbu, aren’t we?
This line was a focal point of the episode, but also captures the depth of the Korean spirit of friendship and strong bonds (known as “jung” in Korean).
4. Divided Korean Classes
As the competition unfolds, we see how some players have an edge over others due to their background. For example, the Surgeon receives information about the games in exchange for harvesting organs from corpses for staff members to smuggle them off the island.
Mi-nyeo highlights another class of people trying to survive in the game of life. Begging Gi-hun to team up with her, Mi-nyeo swears she’s an expert at outwitting others, noting “I’ve never studied but my intelligence is no joke” and “just for cheating, I have been convicted five times”.
Education has long been revered in Korean society as the only way to climb the socio-economic ladder, dating back to the Joseon era (1392-1910), Korea’s last dynasty. Nobility status was not granted on the sole family line and one had to pass a civil service examination (which required years of study) to become an aristocrat.
Mi-nyeo’s comment highlights that education is most often limited to those who have access to it. This is very much exemplified in Korean society where the competition for a place in college is incredibly fierce. But even those who make it may not be able to afford tuition.
The strong class tension was also described between Gi-hun and Sang-woo (player #218, played by Park Hae-soo), who are childhood friends.
In Episode 8 (titled “Front Man”), during a heated exchange with Sang-woo, Gi-hun says, “So if I’m here because I’m so pathetic, then why is Ssangmun- dong, the genius Cho Sang-woo from SNU doing here?…walking around in this asshole with an idiot like me?”
The SNU noted in the English subtitle refers to Seoul National University, the country’s most prestigious university (the equivalent of Harvard in the United States).
But Sang-woo doesn’t come from wealth. He comes from Ssangmung-dong, the real humble neighborhood of Seoul where squid game director Hwang was born and raised by a single mother, like Sang-woo. The manager also graduated from SNU, and his grandmother also had a stall at the market, like Sang-woo’s mother.
5. Korean nostalgia
The first children’s game played by the contestants was actually not Red Light, Green Light. It was “ddakji,“a game each contestant played with the seller (played by Gong Yoo, the famous Korean actor of Train to Busan and several other Korean films and dramas) when they were recruited.
This iconic Korean children’s game was the only game whose rules were not explained. Similar to Pogs or Milk Caps but played with folded paper tiles, the object of the game is to slap your tile on another player’s tile to flip it over (the slap seen in the series is not part of the actual game) .
Another nod to Korean lore that may have been missed was in episode 3 (titled “The Umbrella Man”), where Gi-hun eats from a lunch box (known as ” doshirak” in Korean). A packed lunch is an essential part of school life in South Korea and Gi-hun recalls that he used to heat his doshirak on a stove at school, so his rice formed “nurungji “.
Nurungji is a layer of crispy rice that forms at the bottom of a pan when the rice is cooked on a stove. This is a novelty these days, as most Koreans now use electric rice cookers, and nurungji doesn’t really form in modern cookers.
Squid Game is available to stream on Netflix now.