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Squid Game is disrupting Hollywood’s safe awards season

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The South Korean drama earned three SAG award nominations on Wednesday

Participants standing at the beginning of the Glass Stepping Stone Bridge game in Squid Game. Image: Youngkyu Park/Netflix

The Screen Actor’s Guild Awards are not the most illustrious of Hollywood’s many awards —that would be the Academy Awards. But the SAG Awards occupy a special place in the industry, as do various other Guild awards, like the Director’s Guild Awards and the ACE Eddie Awards for editors. As SAG notes on its website, “of the top industry honors presented to actors, only the SAG Awards are selected entirely by performers’ peers in SAG-AFTRA with 124,000 eligible voters.” Which makes Squid Game’s multiple SAG nominations even more impressive.

The Netflix show garnered three nominations: Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor, for Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun, Player 456; Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor, for Jung Ho-Yeon as Kang Sae-byeok, the North Korean Player 067; and an overall award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble Series.

Squid Game protagonist Seong Gi-hun sits up in a bunk, looking startled, in an early episode of Squid Game
Lee Jung-Jae as Seong Gi-hun
Photo: Netflix

Netflix has run a sizable awards campaign for Squid Game, including pop-ups in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Paris featuring K-pop DJ sets and chances to play the games seen in the show. For an awards swag bag, Netflix gave out dalgona cookies, which viewers might remember being obsessively licked in the show, alongside an HD projector and noise-canceling headphones.

Netflix has been able to parlay non-American entities into awards for years now, from The Crown to Alfonso Curon’s Roma. But Squid Game poses some unique challenges: unlike The Crown, it completely relies on subtitles, and unlike Roma, the show operates very much within a specific genre of battle royale dystopias.

It’s not completely alone on the dystopia front as Jung Ho-Yeon is competing against Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaiden’s Tale, but Moss has been nominated and winning awards for her role as June since 2017. Squid Game has only been around for one season.

Jung Hoyeon as Player 067, Kang Sae-byeok, looking sweaty and overwhelmed in the Korean drama Squid Game
Jung Hoyeon as Player 067, Kang Sae-byeok
Photo: Netflix

For Hwang Dong-hyuk, the show’s creator, the entire experience of awards season has been a new one. “In Korea, when you create a production, you don’t really have an awards race. Some day, somebody will call you up and say, ‘Come get your award,’” he told Vanity Fair in December 2021.

He also cites Parasite as inspiration for his success. Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 movie, a massive success in South Korea and critical favorite in the United States, shocked many when Jane Fonda opened an envelope and announced the psychological thriller as the first non-English language movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The victory helped Hwang Dong-hyuk regain his confidence when restarting his famously long road to the Squid Games’ eventual creation. Parasite’s win gave him “a more ambitious goal, thinking of not only the local Korean market but also globally, and gave me hope that maybe it could be seen all around the world and that I should make it be seen around the world,” he told Vanity Fair.

ABC’s Coverage Of The 92nd Annual Academy Awards - Backstage
Parasite’s breakthrough Oscar win has helped power South Korean success in American awards

While awards season is flawed in many ways, it remains the most prominent means of judging TV and movies outside of the strictly commercial realm of box office returns and hours viewed. Having this approval can help a streaming service stand out amidst the very crowded field, which might be part of why Netflix has such low subscriber cancellation rates. A successful awards season could also push back against the recent criticism that many of the Netflix’s shows just aren’t very good.

In the 2010s, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Curon created an unprecedented moment for Mexican directors, earning a cavalcade of awards and nominations for movies like Gravity, The Shape of Water, Birdman, and others. While Squid Game has stiff competition in the SAG Awards and whatever comes after, between the hit show and Parasite, a similar moment might be starting for South Korea.