Sunday, June 16, 2024

Squid Game played me so hard with Kang Sae-Byeok and Ji-yeong

Squid Game has absolutely stolen my heart and mind since I first started watching it last Sunday, particularly in regards to the relationship between Kang Sae-Byeok. I’m very easy to predict, and it was as if Squid Game knew that giving me a closed-off, badass but vulnerable young woman would make her an instant favourite for me. And it seems I wasn’t alone with that feeling either, there are dozens of us Sae-Byeok fans out there, dozens!

With the premise of Squid Game being about 456 people competing in a set of kid games to win some serious cash, you would expect some level of savagery. However, it isn’t just a competitive streak that is urging these characters on towards the prize money: it’s a fight for survival. With that in mind, expect some serious spoilers while reading on. Capiche?

We first meet Sae-Byeok when Squid Game protagonist Gi-Hun runs into her while trying to escape loan sharks. It’s quickly established that despite her innocent look, she’s an excellent pickpocket and is able to sneak away with ease. Later we learn her reason for pickpocketing is, like most things in this series, about providing for someone else rather than herself. Despite her abrupt and closed-off nature, she eventually becomes a crucial part of Gi-Hun’s group during the games.

It’s further on in the series that we see her establish a friendship with another woman known as Number 240, who we later learn is called Ji-yeong. Despite the series being set in the modern-day, the pressure of fighting for their lives has led to many of the contestants – including the main characters – to fall back onto their survival instincts. For this reason, a lot of the competitors choose not to partner with women because they are considered ‘the weaker sex’. Not believing this bullshit herself, Sae-Byeok recruits Number 240 into the team. It’s not met well with the others, but she proves to be a valuable and intelligent member. More importantly, it’s the first time we get to see Sae-Byeok show vulnerability to a fellow competitor – something which she’s only been able to do outside with her brother, Cheol. Usually, she’s a loner, content to let people make the first move. It’s subtle character development and I am here for it.

Squid Game
Sae-Byeok is a character that doesn’t let people in – for good reason

What stands out straight away from the two’s relationship with one another is that there is a clear level of respect between the two of them. While the rest of the competitors consider them the weaker link, Sae-Byeok and Ji-yeong see each other as two individuals that, regardless of their sex, are just doing anything to survive. Nothing more, nothing less. It may not sound like much, but considering the odds stacked against them come from not just from the male competitors, but fellow women like Mi-nyeo, it’s significant that they find allyship with one another.

Unfortunately, the budding relationship is cut short in the 4th game of the competition. In this game, players must play a game of marbles with one another. The winner gets to live and the loser perishes. Both Sae-Byeok and Ji-yeong have been fighting to survive since the very beginning, but their bond – as small and shallow as it may appear in the space of a day and a half of knowing one another – being put to the test in such a cruel way is excruciating to watch.

What’s worse about the marble game is that it asks competitors to pair up with someone, not knowing what the next game would be. Most immediately went to the person they felt were strong enough to work alongside or, barring that, those they trusted the most in the games. For Sae-Byeok and Ji-yeong, despite the former’s gruff nature and the latter’s earnest persistence, that was one another. This is emphasized by the other couples in the marble game, such as Cho Sang-woo and Abdul Ali, as well as Oh Il-nam and Gi-Hun. They all are tethered to one another, whether it is because of friendship or love. Or both.

Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t go into Squid Game expecting a happy ending for anyone. But there’s still something that hurts so much about the demise of Ji-yeong and how much it physically and mentally affects Sae-Byeok. Perhaps it’s because their relationship with one another is formed so quickly, and yet gets into the deepest depths of who they both are. In the space of 30 minutes, the two are able to peel away the other’s soul and look in through a viewpoint that nobody ever has. Ji-yeong’s tortured past, her own assumed lack of a future, and the weight of choosing another life to succeed while her story ends. It is both so intimate and heartbreaking that even Sae-Byeok is moved to tears.

What hurts the most about this is the ending for Sae-Byeok herself. Not only does she lose someone who sacrificed their life to help her reach her dreams, they did so for nothing. It’s like heartbreak after heartbreak, and my heart can’t actually take it.

Ultimately, Squid Game played me like the sapphic fool I am. Give me two vulnerable women who care for one another, then rip them away from one another and I am like putty. Seriously, I don’t think I’ll be recovering from Episode 6 of Squid Game anytime soon and it’s all Ji-yeong and Sae-Byeok’s fault.

Squid Game (directed by Hwang Dong Hyuk) is available to watch on Netflix right now.

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