Lee Jung-jae thinks ‘Squid Game’ critics should watch it again

The New York Times
New YorkWritten By: Jennifer Vineyard c.2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Oct 19, 2021, 07:57 PM IST


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In the month since its debut, 'Squid Game' has become a global phenomenon and was Netflix’s most-watched new series ever, according to the streamer.

This interview contains spoilers

“Squid Game,” Netflix’s candy-colored Korean series about a tournament of childhood games played to the death, elicits strong reactions: People are fascinated or repelled. The most intense fans may want to wear “Squid Game”-style tracksuits, make dalgona candy or even learn Korean. Detractors complain of egregious violence and gaping plot holes.

In the month since its debut, the show has become a global phenomenon and was Netflix’s most-watched new series ever, according to the streamer. It remains one of the service’s most popular titles. (In another measure of its cultural penetration, it inspired a bizarre “Saturday Night Live” parody over the weekend.) But the worldwide “Squid Game” mania has had little effect on the show’s star, Lee Jung-jae, who said he has been enjoying it all but that “nothing much” is really different in his life. And doing the series hasn’t made him a better game player, either.

“I’m very bad at games. I never would have made it to the end of ‘Squid Game’ myself,” Lee said last week. “Well, maybe I would have done a relatively good job at marbles, but I don’t think I would have lasted that long. I would have dropped out earlier on in the game.”

“Dropping out” isn’t really an option in the cutthroat games (unless the majority of the contestants vote to stop). The beleaguered competitors persist in the hope that winning the cash prize will redeem their lives, and most are willing to abandon their morals in the pursuit of victory. Even though Gi-hun ultimately does win, the game robs him of his childhood best friend, Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), his opponent in the final battle.

Before he was player No. 456, Lee was a model-turned-actor who had starred in a number of hit Korean films, including the erotic thriller “The Housemaid” and the award-winning gangster drama “Deliver Us From Evil.” He’s about to make his directorial debut with the espionage thriller “Namsun,” which he is also producing.

Lee talked about “Squid Game” in a phone conversation from South Korea, aided by a translator. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q. “Squid Game” is rather polarizing, as you may know. Some have slammed it for being pointlessly violent or having only a vague message, if any at all. How would you respond to those criticisms?

A: Well, everyone has their own taste, and I completely respect whatever response each viewer has. I understand that there are mixed responses.

In Korea, people have an altruistic mindset; you would have no friends if you weren’t kind and considerate. That’s because Korean people believe that their friends are very valuable and important. I really love my friends. I care for them. I would like to maintain a good relationship with them. And I think what “Squid Game” has done is to tie in this theme of altruism to the storyline of the survival game. On top of that, it added very impressive visuals.

For those viewers who found the series a little less interesting, I would like to recommend that they watch it again because “Squid Game” is not really a show about survival games. It’s about people. I think we pose questions to ourselves as we watch the show: Have I been forgetting anything that I should never lose sight of as a human being? Was there anybody who needed my help, but I was unaware of them? Should I have helped them? I think if they rewatch the series, the audience will be able to notice more of these subtle elements.

Q: Are you aware of the debate among some viewers about whether it’s better to watch the series with subtitles or in the clunkier dubbed version, which offers less nuance?

A: I’m sure that Netflix has done a great job in making the subtitles in a way that helps the global audience more easily understand the series. I don’t think the small details really matter that much, and I don’t think it would really change the main theme or the storyline. But of course, each region has a different culture. There could be a specific word in Korean that accurately encapsulates a concept that might not exist in other regions. I think in that case, changing the words in the subtitles to help an audience understand the story better is fine. I don’t think subtle nuances really change the fundamental way that the series is communicated, so I’m not really concerned about those slight differences.

Q. In the finale, Gi-hun stays in South Korea, rather than getting on the plane to Los Angeles. Netflix hasn’t said whether there will be a Season 2, but if there is, what do you want to see happen to your character?

A: That’s a very difficult question because the story could go in any direction, and some of Gi-hun’s emotions are very complicated. He’s a very intriguing character. I guess he could go and try and punish the creators of the game. Or he could try to stop new contestants from playing it. Or he could try to join the game again. I have no idea at this point.