Nine men in pink jumpsuits with black facemasks bearing the circle, square and triangle symbols found on videogame console controllers are standing guard. With them is an imposing man dressed all in black and wearing a hooded cloak and mask and a woman in a robotic doll costume. They watch people play games against each other as a timer ticks down.
You may recognise that description and assume it describes a scene from the Netflix episodic series Squid Game – a Korean production that has taken the world by storm – except this took place on a Saturday afternoon in October in Phnom Penh.
Squid Game was viewed by 111 million different Netflix accounts globally in its first 17 days on the service – becoming the number one trending show on Netflix’s top 10 list in 94 countries around the world – making the Korean series a breakout hit with fans not only in Asia but also in the US and just about everywhere else.
On October 30, Prince Security Service (PSS) – a member of the Prince Holding Group that was established in 2018 to provide “unparalleled security solutions ensuring the safety of premises, people and assets” – celebrated Halloween by organising a Squid Game themed event held at Bornga, a Korean restaurant located in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang I commune.
PSS drew inspiration from the series’ characters and dressed their security personnel in the red-clad guard jumpsuits seen on the show along with the man in black and a hostess dressed as the infamous “Red Light, Green Light” robotic doll who welcomed guests on arrival and then pitted them against each other in a pair of competitive games like on the show.
“Most people who have viewed the series already know that the guard characters play quite a memorable role in it and since we’re a security company it perfectly blended with the whole Squid Game theme. Also, the timing was right to do a Halloween event,” Benjie Liu, the managing director of PSS, tells The Post.
A few journalists from local media outlets were invited to the lunchtime Halloween party and to participate in the PSS recreations of two challenges taken from the series – “marbles” and “sugar honeycombs.”
Attendees went through two rounds of games. In the first round, players were required to go head-to-head in pairs playing “marbles” – where they were each given a handful of marbles to wager on games of “rock, paper, scissors” – but they had to bet and play quickly because of a ten minute time limit.
The five players with the most marbles at the end – rather than simply the player who won the most matches – advanced to round two, which was a game called “sugar honeycombs” where the first player to carve a shape in the honeycomb candy would be declared the winner and take home a cash prize.
“Unlike the original series – which has richer rewards but also horrible punishments – participants in our Halloween event do not have to compete for their survival.
“Instead, the winner took home 456,000 riel [approx. $114 USD]. While that is not a life-changing 45.6 billion won [approx. $4 million USD] like on the show at least nobody was harmed during the challenges or event,” Benjie jokes.
The PSS event was just one of many examples illustrating the popularity of the South Korean Netflix show in the Kingdom, some of them manifesting themselves physically and some virtually.
Not only are people here watching the series, they are also doing things like playing the mobile game, wearing costumes from the show for Halloween and even eating more hard honeycomb candy. The influence is hard to ignore.
One online shop that operates a Facebook page called “Xstyle Glory” has brought the green tracksuits seen on the show to Cambodian consumers. Fans of the series have flooded their inbox asking about pricing and sizes.
The online entrepreneur – who prefers to remain anonymous – tells The Post that “we’ve seen the trend is quite massive with young people here and also with our neighbor’s in Vietnam. That’s where we imported the green tracksuits with the four main characters’ numbers on them from, but we limited our order since we weren’t sure if the trend would keep going after Halloween,” the merchant says.
The craze definitely seems to have kept going well past Halloween. On Cambodian social media, there are people sharing recipes for honeycomb candy – called Dalgona candy – and some bakeries and cafes in Cambodia are also now offering this treat.
Naga Mo Mo – a restaurant specialising in old-fashioned Chinese burgers – has a promotion where customers ordering three Mo Mo (burgers) get one free Squid Game sugar honeycomb.
Stonegrill Cambodia Restaurant and Bar is another restaurant that jumped on the Squid Game bandwagon and gave away free sugar honeycomb candy to customers who joined in the fun and had their picture taken with costumed Squid Game soldiers and posted it to Instagram.
Mitr Phol Sugar Cambodia – a leading sugar company with a parent company based in Thailand that has been in business for over 50 years – has also joined in the fun by sharing a recipe for Dalgona candy.
“Sadly, because of the pandemic we can’t travel to Korea and taste their sugary and chewy version – but no worries! You can still enjoy homemade Dalgona. Here is a recipe with easy-to-find ingredients,” says the sugar company’s website.
Other signs of the show’s influence are found online in the iOS and Google Play app stores. Some of the top ranking apps for Cambodia are games based on the show like the 456 Survival Game and Cookie Cutter: Life Challenge or Squid Game: All Challenges and even Squid Game: Roblox.
Children can be heard humming the musical phrase uttered by the show’s giant robot doll even though they don’t know the language it was spoken in and some children imitate the “Red light, Green Light” game – which is also a top trend on Tiktok right now – with their own playground versions.
The fandom and popularity of the show among younger viewers is not without controversy, however, as Squid Game is rated 18-plus due to its graphic depictions of violence as well as some adult-oriented sexual content that involves nudity.
The show itself has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from audience members and its popularity speaks for itself in that regard, but critics who are tasked with examining the shows themes and messaging from a more nuanced perspective than someone looking for simple entertainment have often been disturbed by the underlying philosophy or ideas they feel the series promotes to its audience.
Cambodian counseling psychologist Hoeur Sethul says that the violent imagery of the series concerns him given the phenomenon’s popularity with young people.
“If the show is rated for 18-plus, more or less that means that it could have a negative impact on children, the content is not meant for children and they shouldn’t be watching it. The show has a great deal of violence and there’s no reason kids should be exposed to that. It could influence their behavior and make them more aggressive.
Sethul says that there is no real benefit to children being exposed to violent imagery and that the government could consider taking action to put in place a ban on this content to stop Cambodian children from being exposed to it but those bans tend to be ineffective when any 18-year-old can legally circumvent them.
“Ultimately, it’s their parents who need to assert themselves and do a better job of controlling what their kids are exposed to. They can do that by using the parental controls – such as requiring a PIN number in order to watch content rated for adults – that services like Netflix already offer,” he says.
The other side of the argument is that the series isn’t just violence for the sake of it. The plot tells a story that arguably teaches life lessons about friendship, trust and the corrupting impact that money can have on everyone in society today.
In online discussions the series’ more grown-up fans can and do cite plenty of redemptive qualities like its original plot, exciting pace and striking imagery when faced with concerned critics or parents, while dismissing concerns about its depictions of violence as reductively simple and alarmist.
PSS managing director Benjie says that their Squid Game event was a big success and that any controversy about the show would probably just increase the publicity they got from it.
“I attended a Halloween party last weekend – all of us did in-costume – and we attracted so much attention! We had non-stop requests for photos from fellow party-goers. The series’ success has helped us promote our business successfully.
“Personally, I can’t wait for season two of Squid Game and I’ve met a whole lot of people recently who feel the same way,” Benjie says.