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‘New History in K-Drama’: South Korea Hails Emmy Success for ‘Squid Game’

SEOUL — First it was the movie “Parasite.” Then Yuh-Jung Youn, the star of “Minari.” Now, “Squid Game.”

The dystopian Netflix drama’s success at the Emmys on Tuesday — including the top acting prize for its star, Lee Jung-jae, a first for a foreign-language show — was greeted with cheers in South Korea and hailed as the latest example of the country’s rise as a cultural powerhouse.

Major Korean news outlets such as MBC and Yonhap made the news the lead story on their websites. Chosun Ilbo, one of the country’s largest newspapers, said “Squid Game” had written a “new history in K-drama.”

“It seems like South Korean productions are getting more and more recognized internationally, which makes me excited,” said Lee Jae, a commercial producer in Seoul, who binge-watched the series as soon as it came out last year.

In the show, which was produced by Netflix and became its most watched series ever, 456 desperate contestants are pitted against one another to the death for a cash prize of nearly $40 million. Players must survive through several rounds of children’s games in order to win.

After its release last September, the show skyrocketed to popularity, becoming a sensation in not only South Korea but also on a global scale. At the time, the series outperformed other popular non-English shows like “Money Heist” and “Lupin,” according to Ted Sarandos, a co-chief executive officer and chief content officer for Netflix. At a business conference last year, he said that “Squid Game” was “blowing past all of them.”

The show’s success is the latest in a string of international accolades for South Korean productions. In 2020, “Parasite,” the class satire directed by Bong Joon Ho, became the first foreign-language movie to win the Academy Award for Best Film. Last year, Youn, a veteran Korean star, the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in “Minari,” the film about a hard-luck family of Korean immigrants in the United States.

Those earlier awards signaled a growing acceptance of foreign-language productions, said Daniel Martin, a film studies professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He said the success of “Squid Game” at the Emmys could be “a sign of hopefully a generational change.”

While audiences might “go back to not caring about non-English content, ‘Squid Game’s’ win shows that viewers are receptive to Korean content, which is encouraging,” Martin said.

South Korea has emerged as an entertainment juggernaut in recent years, captivating international audiences with K-pop bands such as BTS, as well as hit TV shows and critically acclaimed movies.

Most recently, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” a Korean feel-good show about a young autistic lawyer, has been the most watched non-English-language program on Netflix in the past several weeks.

For “Squid Game,” the Emmys are only its latest achievement. In February, the drama scooped up multiple prizes at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, including lead performer honors for Lee and Jung Ho-yeon.

Lee, who is considered one of the most successful actors in South Korea, began his career as a model before starring in a number of hit Korean films, playing characters including romantic leads and cutthroat gangsters. His directorial debut, “Hunt,” an espionage thriller, was released in South Korea last month.

On social media and online forums, his fans poured on the praise.

“To South Korea’s Lee Jung-jae! Congratulations on winning the best lead actor. You are an actor who gives his all into his work and to his fans. I applaud you, someone whose hard work deserves such accomplishments,” said one fan on Twitter.

“Wow, Lee Jung-jae won the award for best actor. He really is amazing,” another fan tweeted.

In his acceptance speech, Lee acknowledged the support of his fans at home and their love for the show. “I’d like to share this honor with my family, friends and our precious fans watching from South Korea. Thank you!” he said.

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