Why is Squid Game’s English-Language Acting So Bad?

Squid Game's main cast delivers some incredible performances... not so much the English-language actors playing the VIPS, though.

One of Squid Game's VIPs in a gold animal mask
Photo: Netflix

Squid Game is a superb series, impressively executed from start to finish. Its assets include its stellar cast, filled with veteran actors and newcomers alike delivering moving, complex performances. Sadly, the deep bench that is the Squid Game ensemble does not apply to the crew of English-language actors, who come in to fill the various VIP roles in Episode 7 with all the nuance of a high school quarterback bombing an audition for the spring production. Why are the English-language actors in Squid Game so bad? You can probably already have some guesses, but I’m going to break it down for you anyway…

The phenomenon of bad foreign-language acting is not specific to Squid Game, nor is specific to Korea. It’s logical to assume that any country’s entertainment industry would have a harder time casting good actors in a language that is not native to that country, especially when you think about how that pool is further diminished by work visa requirements. Unlike the United States or some other countries, Korea is a highly homogenous country, which means a majority of the people who live there are of Korean ethnicity. Therefore, when casting a bunch of white, English-speaking dudes for Squid Game (or any other Korean drama), it’s going to be a bit of a challenge.

While English is not one of Korea’s official languages, it is taught in school, which means most Koreans of the younger generations have a familiarity with the language. Because of this, Korean TV directors who are producing a series for a domestic audience in addition to a potential global one may prioritize a slow, clear delivery for the English-language lines, giving Korean speakers with some English-language skills a chance to understand the dialogue without the use of subtitles. This could have been the case with Squid Game, in which the VIPs deliver their lines in a measured, unnatural manner. Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, who directed all nine episodes of the series, attended film school at USC in L.A., so he is presumably not only fluent in English but also familiar with natural American speech patterns. (Most of the VIPs speak with an American accent.)

Honestly, given the role the VIPs role in the narrative, the stilted performances of the English-language actors kind of works. The VIPs are a group of disgusting wealthy men so out of touch with humanity that they bet on human life for fun. This is reflected in the manner of their speech. While the contestants are literally running for their lives, counting the seconds that could be their last, the VIPs speak slowly and without rush. They haven’t a care in the world, even as they are watching people die for money any of the VIPs could easily bestow on them. To call them monsters would be letting them off the hook for their lack of humanity, which is a choice they make everyday, but to have that separation between the contestants and the VIPs marked not only by a language barrier, but by a style of performance is an interesting narrative decision, if it was one.

Ad – content continues below

Did the VIP performances pull you out of Squid Game’s drama or did it work for you? Let us know in the comments below…