Hwang Dong-hyuk: Squid Game's True Superhero of Deaf Children

Few observers could have predicted the enormous global success of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s 2021 series Squid Game, but the career of the show’s creator contained clues about his talent for producing compelling storylines that tap into the zeitgeist.

While the idea for Squid Game matured on Hwnag’s backburner, waiting for the development green light, he directed a film that shook South Korean society to its core, leading to changes in the country’s laws, the belated prosecution of vicious sexual abusers, and long overdue justice for a group of deaf children whose plight had been ignored by corrupt officials and a disinterested media. It’s remarkable that Hwang created the most popular show in the history of online streaming, but had secured his status as a True Superhero long before then. 

Hwang Dong-hyuk: Squid Game's True Superhero of Deaf Children

The genesis of Squid Game

Hwang was born in Seoul in 1971 and, from an early age, he wanted to be a writer but believed he lacked the talent to achieve this goal. He discovered a new ambition in 1992 when his mother purchased a video camera and Hwang immediately fell in love with the possibilities offered by film. He later described his first exposure to filmmaking as “the most fun thing I’ve done in my life, so I knew I wanted to become a film director”.

On completing his BA in Communications at Seoul National University he pursued his new passion with vigor, making several acclaimed short films before moving to Los Angeles where he studied film production at USC and won a Student Emmy for his graduation thesis film, 2004’s Miracle Mile. 

Hwang Dong-hyuk: Squid Game's True Superhero of Deaf Children

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Few observers could have predicted the enormous global success of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s 2021 series Squid Game, but the career of the show’s creator contained clues about his talent for producing compelling storylines that tap into the zeitgeist.

While the idea for Squid Game matured on Hwnag’s backburner, waiting for the development green light, he directed a film that shook South Korean society to its core, leading to changes in the country’s laws, the belated prosecution of vicious sexual abusers, and long overdue justice for a group of deaf children whose plight had been ignored by corrupt officials and a disinterested media. It’s remarkable that Hwang created the most popular show in the history of online streaming, but had secured his status as a True Superhero long before then. 

Hwang Dong-hyuk: Squid Game's True Superhero of Deaf Children

The genesis of Squid Game

Hwang was born in Seoul in 1971 and, from an early age, he wanted to be a writer but believed he lacked the talent to achieve this goal. He discovered a new ambition in 1992 when his mother purchased a video camera and Hwang immediately fell in love with the possibilities offered by film. He later described his first exposure to filmmaking as “the most fun thing I’ve done in my life, so I knew I wanted to become a film director”.

On completing his BA in Communications at Seoul National University he pursued his new passion with vigor, making several acclaimed short films before moving to Los Angeles where he studied film production at USC and won a Student Emmy for his graduation thesis film, 2004’s Miracle Mile. 

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He returned to Seoul to make his first feature film as a director of 2007’s My Father, based on a true story about an adopted son searching for his biological parents who discovers that his real father is on death row for murder. The movie was a commercial success, topping the box office charts in South Korea in its opening weekend but it was also controversial; the victims of the real-life killer had not been consulted about the film and this oversight may have contributed to Hwang’s struggles to get his next project commissioned.

A year after My Father was released, he found himself broke, unemployed, and heavily in debt after taking out loans in an attempt to self-finance his next film. As he later described that period: “I couldn’t get an investment, so - tired and broke - I went to comic book cafes and read a lot of comic books about survival games and gambling and at that time, because I was so helpless and broke, I felt that if I could earn this prize, I myself would join one of those games… and that’s how I started writing Squid Game.

Hwang Dong-hyuk: Squid Game's True Superhero of Deaf Children
On the Squid Game set with stars Park Hae-soo (left) and Lee Jung-jae (right)

Giving a voice to the silenced

While the idea for Squid Game came about in 2008, the show would not be commissioned for another decade and did not reach our screens until 2021. In the interim period, Hwang eventually resumed his career behind the lens when he was asked to direct an adaptation of another real-life story, Dogani (released in English territories as Silenced). The film - and the book it was based on, The Crucible, by author Goon Ji-young - tells the harrowing true story of the Gwangju Inhwa School for deaf children.

In 2005, a new art teacher arrived at the school and discovered that many of the staff, including the school’s principal, were physically and sexually abusing the students. He turned whistleblower and alerted human rights groups to the abuse, for which he was subsequently sacked, but police only launched an investigation several months later after former pupils of the school gave interviews to national TV news reporters. It took eight months for the case to come to trial and may have taken even longer had pupils and parents not staged a sit-in protest demanding justice. In the end, six people were charged, with two of them immediately released because the statute of limitations had expired.

The school’s principal was initially sentenced to five years in prison but this was reduced to probation and a trivial fine on appeal. Two of the other teachers served prison terms of less than a year, and four of the teachers were subsequently reinstated at the school. The case received little public attention and The Crucible did not sell well on its initial imprint. 

Hwang Dong-hyuk: Squid Game's True Superhero of Deaf Children
The courtroom scene from Silenced

Hwang was initially reluctant to take the film on as his previous film had also been a dramatization of a true story but he later described how he felt compelled to bring the case to the public’s attention. In particular, he was moved by a passage in The Crucible that described how after the trial, “when it was announced in sign language that the sexual offenders would stop short of receiving probation and 10-month prison sentences, muffled cries of the hearing impaired children filled the entire courtroom.” Fortunately, Hwang was highly successful in his goal, and the film both shocked moviegoers and tapped into growing unease within South Korean society about inequality and legal injustice.

More than 4m Koreans saw the film in cinemas - close to one tenth of the population - and The Crucible was reprinted and topped the bestseller lists. The outcry provoked by Silenced proved impossible to ignore for the authorities, and laws were changed to remove the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases against children under the age of 13, leading to several cases against the Gwangju Inhwa teachers being reopened, with the school’s principal eventually being sentenced to 12 years in prison for raping a student and the school itself ultimately being shut down.

Hwang Dong-hyuk: Squid Game's True Superhero of Deaf Children
Accepting the 2022 Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series

Netflix comes knocking

Hwang went on to make two more hit films in Korea before Squid Game was greenlit. The first, 2014’s Miss Granny, was a huge departure from the gritty social commentary of the previous two movies, a comedy about a 74-year-old woman who magically regains the appearance of a 20-year-old. It was an enormous success, as was his next film, 2017’s The Fortress, a historical drama set in 17th century Korea. As Hwang continued to thrive domestically he polished his Squid Game script as society changed around him; he later described how the plot of the show seemed outlandish when he first conceived it in 2008, but became more believable as time passed and society grew more materialistic and cynical.

Ultimately, the show was commissioned by a company that would also have seemed outlandish in 2008; at that time Netflix was a DVD rental business that was just beginning to take its first steps into online content streaming. By 2019 Netflix was seeking to broaden its foreign-language programming as it looked to expand its video-on-demand services globally.In Squid Game they found the perfect vehicle, a show that - like SIlenced - shocked viewers and tapped into growing unease about inequality in society. It became a huge ratings hit.

While Hwang will always be primarily famous for Squid Game’s extraordinary success - it is the most-streamed show in Netflix’s history, besting the closest rival, Bridgerton, by a ratio of almost 3:1 - it is Silenced that is perhaps his greatest and most Superheroic achievement, given the impact it has had on the lives of vulnerable children in South Korea.

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