One of the ominous food moments happens during the second game of Netflix’s hugely popular survival drama series Squid Game.
It involves a brittle candy wafer made out of sugar and baking soda. During the game, the characters have ten minutes to cut out a stamped shape perfectly. Win, and they’re a step closer to going home with an enormous sum of money; lose, and they’re shot dead. The game seems easy enough, but the scene is nail bitingly tense: a woman pleads for her life when she cracks her wafer, a man trembles as he stares into the barrel of a gun, the protagonist Seong Gi-hun struggles to focus as gunshots blast out and the clock ticks down.
Throughout the nine-part series, writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk uses dishes to foreshadow impending doom, such as the cider and egg the players are served right after that game. “I just came close to dying,” says the gangster Jang Deok-su. “And what do I get for all of that? An egg for a meal. Assholes.” But the meagre rations are deliberate. The characters starve and end up fighting one another. After a throbbing, chaotic five-minute scene, dozens are dead.
Food is also used to capture the desperate plight the characters are in. Severely in debt, Seong is cornered in a bathroom by a loan shark who presses a knife against Seong’s nose while a henchman holds a bowl up. “Your blood was tasty,” the loan shark growls. “My boys and I should make a nice delicious soup in it.” At a street side stall, Seong apologises to his daughter for the tteokbokki birthday meal instead of a nicer dinner. “It’s okay,” she says. “We went with my stepdad to a steakhouse earlier.”
When food is used for comedy, those moments are tinged with dark humour. Seong wins money in a precursor challenge to the main games and encounters a fishmonger on his way home. Seong pays her 10,000 won for some mackerel and tells her to keep the change. As Seong jauntily strolls away, the fishmonger clicks her tongue and mutters: “Prick, that was 12,000 won.”
As time runs dangerously low during the second game, Seong licks the back of the wafer to make his task easier. Other players catch on, and soon the entire field is tonguing the candy furiously.
Neither is food just a reward, like when the three remaining players are treated to a fine dining experience before the final game. They sit at a formal table and are served a hulking T-bone steak and red wine. But they stare at the feast apprehensively and chew tentatively, as the tension builds up between Seong and his main rival Park Hae-soo. At the end, the guards clear their bloodied plate and leave a steak knife behind, an ominous sign of the final trial ahead.
While it would be a stretch to call Squid Game a food program, the meals carry just as much meaning as dining on your favourite dish. You just might not be around much longer after that.
Hero and feature images by Netflix. The story first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore