The Bad American Acting In Squid Game Rules, Actually

This post contains spoilers for "Squid Game."

"Squid Game" is a phenomenon, and rightly so. It's a vicious thriller series that sharply criticizes class and capitalism, anchored by across-the-board stellar performances. Until ... episode 7. That's when the Korean drama series introduces the mysterious "VIPs," who turn out to be wealthy Americans, alongside one Chinese businessman, who look and sound like they're characters played by Tobias Funke. They're hammy, they're over-the-top, and they're in gross contrast to the nuanced performances given by Korean stars Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon, and Wi Ha-joon — and even by the broader performers Heo Sung-tae, who played the gangster antagonist, and Kim Joo-ryoung, our favorite unhinged wild-card player. And yet, it works. In fact, it kind of rules.

I'm not here to say that these performances by the white VIPs (who are played by Daniel C. Kennedy, John D. Michaels, and Geoffrey Giuliano — all professional actors, and not random people plucked off the streets, in fact) are good by any means. They are objectively bad. But it works in the greater context of the K-drama genre and even the wider Korean movie circuit, both of which have famously employed white actors who act and speak like an alien's approximation of a human being. Because that's kind of what's happening: we're seeing Americans through the lens of South Korean writers and directors. And baby, it's not that flattering.

Are We the Baddies?

Americans are so used to seeing themselves represented in Hollywood that it's a little jarring to see things from the other side: that white people aren't so beloved, Bob! This is never more clear than in "Squid Game," where the three white VIPs are depicted as bloodthirsty, crude voyeurs with over-the-top drawls and accents who guffaw over "69" jokes and have hilariously bad banter like:

VIP 1: "Only five remaining players."

VIP 2: "And then there were five!"

That the VIPs behind such a twisted game as "Squid Game" are white Americans is not a subtle jab at the richest 1% hailing from the U.S., but Korean dramas and films have rarely been about subtlety. "Squid Game" itself has a transparent piggy bank hanging over the heads of the contestants — you couldn't get a more obvious metaphor for capitalism.

Long before "Squid Game" earned the ire of Americans who saw themselves depicted as cartoonishly evil goons, South Korean movies and K-dramas have been featuring hilariously wooden white characters who are often borderline caricatures. Look to even the critically acclaimed films of Bong Joon-ho, who had an eeevil scientist in his 2006 film "The Host" played by Scott Wilson say stilted lines like, "The Han river is very broad, Mr. Kim, let's try to be ... broad-minded about this." The scientist who shows up later in "The Host," played by Paul Lazar, is even hammier and capital "E" evil, practically cackling about the U.S. government's virus cover-up. And most any K-drama that features a white character, as prestigious as that series may be, usually has wooden dialogue and acting to match.

This is By No Means a New Thing

As surprising as this is to learn, Hollywood isn't the only movie industry in the world. China has the largest movie market on the globe, while Japan and Korea have been releasing critically acclaimed and wildly popular fare for years. Bollywood is a whole industry to itself. And often, in the films produced by other countries, Americans and Westerners rarely factor in — or if they do, sometimes it's not in the most favorable way.

Look to any Korean, Japanese, or Chinese movie that features a white character, and you'll see the same thing: cartoonish caricatures of Westerners, sometimes played for laughs, and rarely accurate.

But you know what, that's fine. A few actors have even mined whole careers out of playing the hammy heavies in Chinese martial arts and action movies — which are basically pro-China propaganda as they are — such as Scott Adkins and Frank Grillo. When either of those two show up in a movie like Ip Man 4 or Wolf Warrior 2, you can expect the most 'roided-out depiction of testosterone-powered American bravado — perfect for the noble Chinese protagonist to defeat in a show of homeland superiority. 

Adkins and Grillo are extremely good at this, and there's a whole community of Western actors who have made a living out of playing these cartoonish depictions of white people — just look to the IMDB profiles of Kennedy, Michaels, and Giuliano in "Squid Game," and you'll see almost exclusively Korean titles on their resumés.

And you know what, maybe we all need a little ham to go with that boiled potato they gave us as a meal in "Squid Game." And maybe we all need a little humbling reminder that white Americans aren't always seen as the default hero in other countries. And maybe it's a little refreshing to see white people be depicted as those cartoonishly bad doofuses, after years of Hollywood doing the same to Asian people.