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‘Squid Game’ mastermind Hwang Dong-hyuk still has much to offer

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Director Hwang Dong-hyuk gives his acceptance speech as he takes the Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for his record-breaking Netflix hit “Squid Game” during the 74th Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday. [YONHAP]

 

He is the man whose brain Steven Spielberg wants to steal. He is the man behind the skyrocketing global stardom of Lee Jung-jae, Jung Ho-yeon, Park Hae-soo and Lee You-mi. He is the man that started the global craze over Korean culture such as Red Light Green Light, dalgona melted sugar candies and ddakji folded paper squares. The Halloween after his series’ release, everyone in the world seemed to be dressed up in green tracksuits or red hooded jumpsuits.

That man is Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator and director behind the megahit Netflix series “Squid Game,” for which he recently took home the Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series award at this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards on Monday in Los Angeles. The main protagonist of “Squid Game,” Lee Jung-jae, won Outstanding Lead Actor.

During his acceptance speech, Hwang boldly called out his ambition to visit the Emmys again, with Season 2 of the series.

“I truly hope ‘Squid Game’ won’t be the last non-English series here at the Emmys, and I also hope this won’t be my last Emmy either. I’ll be back with Season 2. Thank you!”

Ever since Bong Joon-ho made history by winning the Palme d’Or in 2019 and four Oscars including Best Picture in 2020 for “Parasite,” Korean content has stood in the global limelight. However, no one had anticipated that Netflix Korea’s dystopian hit “Squid Game” would become the platform’s most-watched series, having been streamed for 1.65 billion hours in the first 28 days since its release last September.

Hwang, on the right, poses for a photo with Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos at Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles on June 12. [YONHAP]

 

“Squid Game,” which took $21.4 million to produce, has generated $891.1 million in value for Netflix, according to Bloomberg’s article published last October, citing leaked internal data.

Hwang initially came up with the script 12 years prior to the release of “Squid Game” in 2021, inspired by comics of survival genres such as “Battle Royale” (2000-05) and “Liar Game” (2005-15). At a local press interview last September, Hwang reminisced that the investors thought the story was too “extreme” to turn it into a film, believing the plot to be too far-fetched that the characters would risk their lives to enter the Squid Game for a chance at a huge amount of money.

When the series was released worldwide on Netflix, however, the show was praised to have captured the zeitgeist through portrayals of minority characters who represent immigrant workers, the elderly, North Korean defectors and workers who were unjustly laid off.

A scene from Netflix series “Squid Game.” From left, Park Hae-soo, Lee Jung-jae and Jung Ho-yeon portray three of the 456 participants of the 33rd Squid Game to win the prize money of 45.6 billion won ($34.8 million). [NETFLIX]
Similar to what “Parasite” did, the series reflects the ever-growing socioeconomic inequity in capitalism that can drive people to the extreme — viewers no longer consider such a setting to be irrelevant during times when the soaring household debt, decreasing job opportunities and income inequality continue to worsen.

Before the director rose to global prominence with “Squid Game,” Hwang was already a well-established name in Korea for his works such as “The Fortress” (2017), “Miss Granny” (2014) and “Silenced” (2011).

Born in 1971 in Ssangmun-dong, northern Seoul, Hwang graduated from Seoul National University with a B.A. in Communications and received an M.F.A. in film production at the University of Southern California.

His debut feature film was “My Father” (2007) starring Korean-American actor Daniel Henney and Kim Young-cheol, based on the true story of an American soldier, a Korean adoptee who came back to his home country in hopes of finding his biological parents.

A scene from 2011 film “Silenced,” where Gong Yoo depicts a newly appointed art teacher who witnesses the sexual abuse of students committed by faculty members at a school for deaf children. [CJ ENM]

 

His 2011 film “Silenced” drew public outcry, as it was based on a true story that took place at Gwangju Inhwa School for the Deaf in which faculty members had sexually assaulted deaf students repeatedly over the course of five years in the early 2000s.

A scene from 2014 film “Miss Granny,” starring Shim Eun-kyung as a 70-year-old woman who is given a new life when she transforms back into her youthful 20-year-old self after having her picture taken at a mysterious photo studio. Na Moon-hee portrays the 70-year-old protagonist. [CJ ENM]

 

In his next film “Miss Granny,” Hwang tried his hand at comedy with a story revolving around a 70-year-old woman, isolated from her family, who returns to her youthful 20-year-old self after having her picture taken at a photo studio.

In “The Fortress,” Hwang turns to historical fiction, set in 1636 during the Qing invasion of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), depicting ideological clashes between two leaders portrayed by Lee Byung-hun and Kim Yoon-seok.

From comedy to historical drama, and now dystopian hit “Squid Game,” Hwang has shown throughout his 15-year filmography that genre, to him, has no boundaries.

A scene from 2017 film “The Fortress,” starring Lee Byung-hun and Kim Yoon-seok as leaders who clash due to their ideological differences, set during the Qing invasion of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). [CJ ENM]

 

The director already has a jam-packed schedule lined up for the next few years. As he had forecasted, Season 2 of “Squid Game” will premiere on Halloween of 2024.

Before the release of Season 2, Hwang is scheduled to release a feature film tentatively titled “Killing Old People Club,” inspired from Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco’s posthumous work “Chronicles of a liquid society” (2016).

Hwang had forewarned that the film will be even more violent than “Squid Game.” Hinted at throughout various local press interviews, the film is about the social conflict between older and younger generations.

As Hwang had hinted at during his Emmy acceptance speech, he revealed again at the backstage interview that he was “halfway done” writing for Season 2.

“I just finished writing about episode 6, so it’s kind of like halfway done,” Hwang said. “The biggest difference is the character [Gi-hun]. He’s a different guy from Season 1 — he’s going for revenge, so he’s not going to be as loose as in Season 1.”

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]

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