Squid Game and Beyond

By Michaele Jordan: There’s been a lot of excitement about Squid Game. Everybody’s talking about how clever, original, and utterly skiffy it is. I watched it, too, eagerly and faithfully. But I wasn’t as surprised by it as some. I expected it to be good. I’ve been watching Korean video for ten years, and have only grown more addicted every year.  And yet I just can’t convince many people to watch it with me.

I suppose it’s the subtitles. My hearing is poor, and I often have trouble following dubbed dialogue, with its lack of proper lip synch. So I’m grateful for subtitles (even when the English grammar gets rocky). But most people hate them. Most Korean movies are not dubbed, and almost none of the TV shows are.

But now that you’ve all seen how very exciting Korean SF can be, I’m hoping that some of you will come around. Please allow me to throw a couple of titles at you.

I’m starting with nice, easy ones – current TV shows that are still available on Netflix. The easiest of all is probably The King: Eternal Monarch, (2020) directed by Baek Sang-hoon and Jung Ji-hyun. Like many Korean offerings, it’s a mix of many flavors. First off, it’s a romance. (It’s always a romance—the Koreans love romance. Fortunately they do it well, except for the saccharine music that is obligatory in every love scene.)

But it’s also a costume drama. Despite being set in roughly modern day, the king and his court are often attired in period costume. Royal tradition, you know. Plus he’s often seen on his horse, decked out in a uniform with a lot of gold braid. It’s billed as a fantasy, but I would argue it’s more SF, being a tale of parallel worlds. Except the parallel worlds were separated by a demon and can be reunited via a magic flute. So —SFF? For those who care nothing for horses or magic, it’s also a political thriller and a crime drama.

In one world, the king of Corea is murdered by his evil half-brother, Lee Lim, (Lee Jung-Jin.) How’s that for Shakespearean drama—a bastard prince! Then, in a truly heart-rending scene, he nearly murders his little nephew, young Gon, who tearfully, hopelessly challenges him with the family sword, which he can’t even hold upright. Fortunately they are interrupted.

Lee Lim escapes through a portal to South Korea, which, in the absence of monarchy, suffers its own internecine conflict with North Korea. He digs in, and slowly and painstakingly plots his return to a throne in another world. The child is left behind, to bewail his father’s death in formal mourning dress on national TV.

Twenty-five years or so later in Corea, Lee Gon, (played by Lee Min-ho) is proving himself a good king, maybe because he learned young how horrific political corruption can get. And—of course—he stumbles onto the portal. When he arrives in Korea, his horse snarls traffic, and he gets busted by detective Jeong Tae-eul, played by Kim Go-eun. Don’t let her good looks fool you. She is not soft, and she didn’t fall in love with him at first sight. But she did feel sorry for him, and almost stuck the poor lunatic in an asylum. Plus her father really liked his horse.

I’d best stop here before I end up trying to tell you the whole convoluted story, but rest assured, all its twists and turns remain faithful to its basic premise, with no cheating anywhere. The characters are presented with surprising subtlety, and brought to life with many convincing details. And—hallelujah!—the romance is not heavy-handed! Even if he does end up charging to her rescue on horseback in the grand finale.

Now, let’s look at Hotel del Luna (also known as Guest House of the Moon), 2019, directed by Oh Choong-hwan. It was written by two sisters, Hong Jung-eun and Hong Mi-ran, and I have to warn you: it’s very girly. And yet . . . girly, or no, it’s not a romance. Or not exactly a romance. Or not a current romance. All the gentle love scenes take place a thousand years in the past. And if the modern-day heroine, Jang Man-wol (Lee Ji-eun) is still mooning after her lost love, she conceals it marvelously. She is sharp-tongued and greedy, and rules her hotel with an iron hand.

The hotel is more than just a business — in a very real sense, it is her identity, the role she has been bound to for a thousand years. It is also a supernatural focal point, a place perfectly poised between the worlds of life and death. It is a hotel for ghosts, where they can pause after death to resolve whatever personal issues prevent them from passing on to rebirth. Although the building is real and solid (it has to be since those whom it serves have not yet passed out of the mortal world) the resident ghosts, be they guests or staff, are not made of matter and are generally invisible to the living.

Man-wol is the only staff member who can interact with living humans. It’s not a job she likes much, so she bestows the ability to see ghosts on Gu Chan-sung (Yeo Jin-goo) and appoints him General Manager of the hotel. It’s not a kindness—he hates it. But his father owes her a favor, and she needs at least one human on her staff to take care of all the stupid paperwork the mortal world entails. She is, after all, much too busy drinking really good champagne and trying on new shoes to deal with such nonsense.

This is where it really gets girly: Man-wol’s clothes. Every time the modern-day woman walks on camera—that’s an average of every seven minutes per episode—she is wearing a different glamorous outfit. There are sixteen episodes, and over a hundred outfits, each one rumored to have cost at least $4,000. (Not a cheap show to put on! Good thing it was wildly popular.) In the past, Apparently, Man-wol had only the clothes on her back in the past, so she needs to make up for lost time. Chan-sung routinely scolds her about her expenses. She either laughs or snarls. (Spoiler alert: Man-wol and Chan-sung do not fall in love. Forgive me—I felt you had to know.)

Although the tone is light, there is considerable drama. This ‘story’ is a collection of smaller stories. Do we not all, every one of us, have our own story? The ghosts all used to be living, so they, too, each have their story. Mind you, not all of the ghosts are benevolent—some have only lingered in the hope of bloody revenge, and once revenge has become bloody, it intrudes on the mortal world. Such as these cannot be tolerated, in this world or the next. (Buddhism has a hell, too.)

However, most of the ghosts are simply troubled or deluded, and face difficult resolutions. The hotel staff is there for them, waiting on them, listening to them, arranging special events for them and running strange errands. They even arrange phone calls with the living (although the living think the calls are only dreams.) It is their job to bring peace, so that the unhappy stories can draw to a close. We are frequently reminded that death is, in its own way, a blessing.

The staff are ghosts, too, of course, and some of them are very old. The sweet old bartender—who devises special drinks for special occasions—and his old friend, the charming housekeeper, both died in the fifteenth century. He is still haunted by the slanders heaped on his name when he was a scholar, and she by the loss of a long-dead child.

Saddest of all is Man-wol’s history, an epic of blood and war, love and betrayal. We see no trace of it in her now. But it is there, lingering and dark, guiding seemingly random actions, and erupting suddenly into inexplicable hatred against reincarnated souls that no longer remember her. She may not be a ghost, per se—she’s something other—but she’s a real bitch, sometimes. She, too, needs some unreachable resolution. Nonetheless, I promise you will care about her. And I also promise you will not guess the ending. Watch it and see!

Michaele Jordan was born in LA, educated in New York, and lives in Cincinnati. She’s worked at a kennel, a Hebrew School and AT&T. She’s a little odd. Now she writes, supervised by a long-suffering husband and two domineering cats.  Her first novel, Blade Light, was serialized in Jim Baen’s Universe, followed by her occult thriller, Mirror Maze. Her work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, and Buzzy Mag. Horror fans will enjoy her “Blossom” series, which appeared in The Crimson Pact, Volumes 4 and 5.  Her website www.michaelejordan.com is undergoing reconstruction, but just grab a hard hat and come on in.

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14 thoughts on “Squid Game and Beyond

  1. I really like Hotel de Luna. Its fundamentally about letting go and Death and its very well done. I liked the first half of Eternal king much more than the second, when things got a bit too convulated for my tastes. But its a good start,

    I heartily recommend Signal, which is my favorite show. Its a police drama, but the twist is (which is revealed int hte trailer, so no spoiler), that one detective finds a walki.talkie that allows him to speak with another detective from 20 years ago.. So they solve cold cases together. Its brilliantly done imho.

    If youre into zombie, you can make much worse than All of us are dead, which is very zombie.

  2. An old friend put me on to Hotel del Luna and we watched it (online) together (virtually) and had a lot of fun discussing it as we went along. (I knew that one lone firefly at the beginning had to be significant!) Absolutely captivating show – it succeeds on so many different levels. Well worth watching.

    I saw Hellbound, The Silent Sea and All of us are Dead on Netflix, and those all have their good points, too.

  3. Personally, I absolutely hate dubbed shows. I want to hear the actual voices of the characters.

    I’ve enjoyed a large number of Korean shows on Netflix including The Uncanny Counter, Beyond Evil, and The Silent Sea.

  4. Hotel del Luna is really great, even if I could have done with a little more of Man-wol being mean to Chan-sung. (And they absolutely do fall in love. I’m not sure how it’s possible to read the show any other way.)

  5. Ah, well obviously it is possible to read the show that way, then. And that’s cool

  6. Errrr, Buddhists don’t really have a Hell as Christians think of it. Buddhists do believe in a form of life after death. However, they don’t believe in heaven or hell as most people typically understand them as it’s not a fixed place of existence.

  7. I loved A Korean Odyssey and recommend it heartily. Also Mystic Pop Up Bar. Currently on Hotel de Luna and enjoying it a lot!

  8. I’m really enjoying K-Media these days. I really loved Space Sweepers, for some K-space opera. I kinda hesitate to recommend Korean horror because people might start looking at me different, but Train to Busan (zombies) and I Saw The Devil (serial killer).

    Trivia, Lee Minho from The King is in boy band SHINee, the only K-Pop group personally endorsed by former President Barack Obama. I kinda like them too.

  9. @Cat Rambo:
    Korean Odysee is my wifes favorite – I havent seen all episodes because she was binge-watching it. But its a good show – Im especially fond of devil-king.

  10. I really enjoyed Sisyphus: the Myth starring Cho Seung-woo as a wealthy tech CEO with a tangled family history and Park Shin-hye as a traveler from the future driven to fulfill her mission. Lots of time loops and an complicated antagonist played by Kim Byung-chul. Streams on Netflix

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