The games started with 456 players. All of them were financially desperate owing millions of won to their creditors. They have all signed an agreement that they will be joining the games to win an unspecified cash prize. They were made to play grand versions of traditional children's games. However, they soon found out that each game had violent twists where the losers literally get eliminated. Fear loomed over the contestants, but the grand prize of 45.6 billion won was just too tempting to resist.
We follow the stories of a few of these players. #456 was a compulsive gambler who was about to lose custody of his daughter. #218 was a graduate from a prestigious business school only to be involved in large-scale financial fraud. #067 was a defector from North Korea who lost her money trying to get her family together. #001 was an elderly man with a brain tumor. #199 was an illegal migrant from Pakistan victimized by an unscrupulous employer. #101 was a vicious gangster who dared to defraud his boss.
As we have seen in similarly-themed films like the "The Hunger Games," series like "Alice in Borderland," or reality TV shows like "Survivor," these competitive activities bring out the best and the worst in the contestants. At first, they form alliances and help their teammates go forward like in the tug-of-war game. However in the later stages, self-preservation takes over and its each man for himself. Some people are inherently more ruthless than others and this was best seen in Game 4 with the marbles, and Game 5 on the glass bridge.
Lee Jung-jae is a big movie star of famous films like "Il Mare" (2000), "The Housemaid" (2010), "New World" (2013) and more recently, the "Along With the Gods" films (2017 and 2018). He completely deglamorized himself here for the role of the chronic down-and-out loser Gi-hun, contestant #456. He is a flawed character for sure, but you knew he had a good heart. Of course, since he was the main character, you sort of knew that he should make it all the way to end despite all the tough luck he had during the games.
The elaborate playing arenas, costumes, masks, various set pieces and props they built for the games in this series were quite memorable, especially with hot pink dominating the color scheme. That giant doll in the first game of "red light, green light" is already an iconic meme on social media. The waltz lilt of "The Blue Danube" was a haunting aural backdrop. The guest appearance of Gong Yoo as the recruiter was quite a pleasant surprise, but the revelation of the actor behind the mask of the ice cold Front Man was outright flabbergasting.
With so many characters (mostly unlikable) involved, there were too many stories to weave together. Some of them were not as interesting as others so the pace bogged down many times. There was grisly subplot of organ trafficking, which provided more scenes of gratuitous gore, was confusing, and not entirely necessary. How the policeman Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) infiltrated and moved around the game complex undetected was not too convincing. The ending sequence had a good last minute twist, but went on a bit too long.
This series certainly upped the level of violence seen in Korean drama series that I had seen so far. I had seen the zombie gore of "Kingdom," the teenage bullying in "Extracurricular," and the gangster shootouts of "Vincenzo," but this one was on another level. This violence in this show felt far more brutal and senseless.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."