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Why Squid Game's International Success Is So Worrying To Star Lee Jung-Jae

To call "Squid Game" an international sensation would be a gross understatement. Released in 2021, the Korean survival drama TV series follows a group of individuals who, in need of salvation from their financial hardships, risk their lives in a deadly competitive game that promises a substantial cash prize. The Hwang Dong-hyuk-created Netflix series became an instant phenomenon, breaking numerous records on the streamer, including drawing 111 million views within its first month (via Deadline) and often being called Netflix's most viewed show (via Top 10 Netflix). The show is even set for a second season and a reality game series.

Its success also led to the show breaking new ground during award season as well. This includes O Yeong-su becoming the first Korean-born actor to win at the Golden Globes, for which he was awarded best supporting actor for his portrayal of Oh Il-nam (via CNN). It went on to become the first non-English show to be nominated and win at the Emmys (via Variety), where it took home the gold for six categories, including best direction for Hwang Dong-hyuk and best lead actor for Lee Jung-jae's portrayal of the down-on-his-luck Seong Gi-hun (via IMDb).

The success of "Squid Game" can't be overstated enough, with many seeing the show's fast-growing popularity as the latest example of a Korean media wave, much in the same way that the K-Pop genre and the Oscar-winning "Parasite" have become worldwide mammoths (via Smithsonian Magazine). But is the hype and success all good news? According to the show's main star, Lee Jung-jae, the popularity has come at an eye-opening cost.

Lee Jung-jae is concerned that so many people resonate with the show's themes

Lee Jung-jae brought a grounded relatability to his performance as Seong Gi-hun, a financially struggling father whose gambling addiction leaves him in a continued state of desperation. Jung-jae has had a varied career over the decades, but "Squid Game" was the project that got the actor's name known globally. However, despite his gratefulness for the opportunity, the show's popularity has led to him seeing the world in a more upsetting light.

"I'm happy about it, of course, but it's bittersweet," he says in an interview with The Guardian. "Yes, it's great that audiences are consuming Korean content around the world. And they appreciate it. But if you think about the themes of 'Squid Game' – how far are we willing to go to accumulate personal wealth; the lengths people are forced to go to – the fact it resonated with so many around the world is worrying. You get a sense this is the reality for so many people globally. And that makes me feel hugely sad."

Director Hwang Dong-hyuk came to a similar analysis, commenting on how audiences can relate to the "hopeless grownups" (via BBC). Additionally, the director based much of the series on his observations of class struggles in Korea (via Variety).