Out maybe of BTS, there is no more well-known Korean name at the moment than that of director and screenwriter Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of the hugely popular series of Netflix “The Squid Game”. Inspired by Japanese comics like “Battle Royale” and “Liar Game”, the show deals with a dystopian society where those with financial problems can win a millionaire sum if they participate in a deadly game.
Since its departure on September 17, the series has positioned itself at the top of the list of the most viewed on the streaming platform, and according to Netflix itself it is close to becoming the most viewed original program in its history. A success that contrasts with the financial troubles that Hwang Dong-hyuk went through in 2009 writing the story.
Born on May 26, 1971, Hwang Dong-hyuk studied journalism at Seoul National University, although his love of movies later led him to pursue a ‘master’s degree’ in film production at the University of Southern California.
During this period he directed the short films “Desesperation” and “Heaven & Hell” in 2000, while his next project as director and screenwriter was the short “Miracle Mile”(2004), which was about a Korean woman who travels to the United States to find a brother who was adopted 20 years earlier. The film was his first encounter with fame, being screened at dozens of international festivals and awarded by the Directors Guild of America and the Emmys.
Hwang Dong-hyuk returned to the topic of adoption and lost families in his first feature film entitled “My Father”(2007), a film based on the true story of Aaron Bates, who in the film becomes an American soldier who travels to South Korea in search of his biological parents, to find that his father had been sentenced to punishment of death. His fascination with this topic was explained in an interview with Donga.com.
“‘My Father’ is in line with a short film that I made when I was studying in the United States. I was impressed when my aunt, who was adopted by an American family, came to Korea to (meet) her mother, who is my grandmother.”, He recounted.
Although “My Father” was a hit at the Korean box office, its release was not without controversy due to protests from the families of the victims of the real killer.
After his big screen debut, Hwang Dong-hyuk began to conceive his next project. One of the stories he devised was the one that became “The Squid Game”, which he started writing in 2008.
Initially written as a feature film, the director was inspired by the comic strips he read for ideas. There was an additional factor that contributed to his story: the difficult economic situation that he was at that time that forced him to live with his mother and grandmother and even sell his laptop.
“I freely admit that I had a lot of inspiration from Japanese comics and animation over the years. When I started out, I was in financial difficulties myself and spent quite a bit of time in coffee shops reading comics like ‘Battle Royale’ and ‘Liar Game’. I started to wonder what would happen if I took part in these games myself.”He pointed out to Variety.
Thus, the director used the story under the idea of what people do for money, as well as a critique of a society where material fortune has become the greatest value.
“I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that shows extreme competition, in a way like the extreme competition that life is. But I wanted to use the kind of characters we meet in real life.“Added the director.
This emphasis on common leads also led him to choose traditional Korean games as challenges for their simplicity, leaving the viewer to focus on human drama. Additionally, the fact that innocent activities had life and death consequences created “a very surprising irony.”
In 2009, Hwang Dong-hyuk had finished the script, but encountered additional difficulties in producing the series. “Back then, it seemed too different and violent. There were people who thought it was too complex and not commercial. I couldn’t get enough investment and the casting was difficult. I was thinking about it for a year, but then I had to put it on hiatus”He recalled.
Four years after “My Father,” Hwang Dong-hyuk experienced success again after adapting and directing “Silenced”Based on a novel inspired by a true case of sexual abuse in a school for the deaf in the city of Gwangju. The film not only triumphed at the box office, but also reopened interest in the case and caused the Korean legislature to abolish the statute of limitations for sex crimes if they involve minors or the disabled. Despite this, he also had his detractors for the harshness of his scenes and the depressing ending.
“I did it intentionally to make people uncomfortable”He told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper about the case. “First of all, I wanted to make this horrible incident known to the world. Second, I wanted to expose the structural social problems that were revealed during the process of how the case was buried. The scenes of sexual violence and the morbid and unhappy ending were therefore inevitable”.
The director also highlighted his interest in social issues and how he saw film as a way to achieve change. “We can see through movies how much the world changes us. You cannot change society with a single film, but seeing the repercussion of the premiere of this film, we can think about the power that cinema has to positively affect society.”.
His next project led him to change genre with “Miss Granny”(2014), a comedy about a 74-year-old woman who recovers her appearance from when she was in her 20. The film was not only a local success but also received several adaptations in various countries in the region. Meanwhile, his last feature film was the historical drama “The Fortress”(2017), focusing on the Qing Dynasty’s second invasion of the Joseon kingdom of Korea in 1636.
More than a decade after conceiving the story of “The Squid Game,” Hwang Dong-hyuk found a new opportunity to adapt the story.
“After about 12 years, the world has become a place where these peculiar and violent stories of survival are truly welcome.”Hwang told the Korea Times. “People commented that the series is relevant to real life. Sadly, the world has changed in that direction. The games in the series that participants go wild for align with people’s desires to hit the jackpot with things like cryptocurrencies, real estate, and stocks. So many people have been able to empathize with the story”.
Another big reason for the series’ creation was the growth and competition among streaming services, which have led to increased investment in original series around the world. Netflix in particular has invested more than US $ 700 million in Korean productions between 2015 and 2020, according to information from the Wall Street Journal.
Despite the support of a great company, returning to the project was not so easy for the director.
“Turning history into a series remained an adventure, just as it was a decade ago”He recalled. “I knew it would be all or nothing; or a masterpiece or a bizarre failure. The idea for this work was very experimental. So I kept wondering if audiences would find it compelling for the characters to risk their lives to play child’s games.”.
Although the director has avoided answering decisively if there will be a second series, the success of the series seems to make it inevitable and for the moment Hwang Dong-hyuk seems to try not to let the sudden international fame go to his head: “It is the recognition of a lifetime, but it is also a label that will follow me. From now on, anything I do will be compared to ‘The Squid Game’, which for me is a burden and an honor”.