Physical 100

Physical: 100 (2023)

Win or bust: Darwinian struggles for survival and Greek myths of (im)mortality in Netflix’s Physical: 100 (2023) first published (in Korean translation) in the book 한류를 읽는 안과 밖의 시선: 2024 K-콘텐츠 [The inside and outside perspectives of reading the Korean Wave: 2024 K-Content], Kyunghee University Press, February 25, 2024, pp.131-9

Physical 100

Real physiques

Created by MBC producer (and former commando in South Korea’s special forces) Jang Ho-gi, and aired over nine weekly episodes on Netflix in early 2023, Physical: 100 assembles one hundred people in a decorated studio space to a challenge. They wiil determine, through a series of performance contests, what the show’s unseen host calls “the most perfect physique regardless of gender, age, or race.”

The contestants are sportspeople, body builders, boxers, wrestlers and MMA fighters, special forces veterans and reservists, Olympics and national events competitors, CrossFitters, trainers, fitness influencers, dancers, a car dealer, a prison guard, a firefighter and a farmer. Some are recognised celebrities, others are marginal strangers. They include, musclebound hulks, six-pack models and spry athletes, of every weight and height. Their bodies and talents may be differently adapted to their individual pursuits, but what each and every one of them has in common is that they can all legitimately lay claim to having honed themselves to a physical peak.  

Physical 100

The idea of judging between these contestants seems inherently flawed, even impossible. How, for example, do you compare a hulking male weightlifter to a flexible female stunt woman? Or a cyclist to a cheerleader? Each, after all, has their own specialised skills. The preliminary task, in which all 100 cling by their arms to a metal frame suspended over water and vie to be the last to let go, obviously does not favour the heavier contestants, whereas a later team event that involves the hauling of a 1.5 tonne ship is to the obvious advantage of those with greater bulk and muscle.  

Physical 100

These different trials, or ‘quests’, may be designed to test – whether separately or all at once – the strength, agility, athleticism, balance, speed, stamina, fighting skills, cardiovascular endurance, teamwork, willpower and even, to a degree, strategy, of the various contestants, but there is no attempt on the part of the show to analyse or explain the methodology behind the events, or the criteria for ‘winning’, or what is even meant by a ‘most perfect physique’. It is as though 100 individual entrants to the Olympic Games found themselves having to compete, without adequate preparation, in every single event (including some all-new ones), and half were eliminated at the outset for lacking wrestling skills.  

Reality television

This lack of methodology is built into the games. Players are asked to choose team members without having any idea what they are about to play or which abilities might prove the most useful. In the final two episodes, as the last remaining contestants compete in a series of knockout rounds to reduce their number from five to one, it is hard not to imagine that the exact same games, if played in a different order, might yield radically different results. There were even allegations of rigging in the finale, with claims that the one-on-one match was twice interrupted and restarted near its end, so that the player who consistently was well in the lead lost through the sheer exhaustion of his repeated efforts.1 It would seem that this quest for Korea’s fittest person exercises little scientific rigour in achieving its ends. 

Physical 100

So what precisely are those ends? “This is a competition, so we have to win – but we also need to have fun,” says Choo Sung-hoon, a respected MMA fighter who, at age 48, represents the oldest competitor in Physical: 100. Choo is summarising the dynamic of a show involving competitive play whose principal purpose is to entertain. For here the tried-and-tested formulae of many other internationally successful television programmes, mostly of the ‘reality TV’ variety, are recombined to keep the viewer hooked. There is the host, heard but not seen, who when addressing the players with exposition or instruction is figured on a large television screen as a giant digital eyeball, in imitation of the iconic ocular logo from television’s Big Brother (this of course makes the host the one disembodied figure in a show otherwise obsessed with the sweaty spectacle of bodily forms). There is the constant post-eventum commentary provided by participants, also reminiscent of the ‘diary-room’ confessionals from Big Brother. There is the way that the host always makes a long pause before announcing crucial information, or that the show defers identifying a round’s winner(s) and loser(s) until the next week’s episode – all recognisable techniques used by other shows to generate an artificial kind of suspense. And naturally there are the arbitrarily assigned tasks, and the prize money (₩300 million). When 50 repetitive one-on-one matches are gradually accelerated into a rapid montage, or when the near two hours for which a pair of burly men hold 150kg weights on their shoulders are collapsed into a few minutes of on-air time, it is clear that this is less a thorough document of physical endeavours than a variety show edited to maximise the potential for visual entertainment.

           Win or bust: the ‘reality’ of death

There is another television show whose influence can be felt here, although this time it is not reality TV. “I got the feeling it would be like Squid Game,” Choo comments, as he and the others are lining up. “I felt the kind of fear I felt when I was watching Squid Game,” comments another competitor before the first event. The connections are evident between Hwang Dong-hyuk’s 2021 drama series and this: both were made for Netflix; both involve a series of escalating, game-like elimination rounds designed to pare the contestants down to a single winner; and both feature the lure of a large cash prize. The obvious difference between them is that the losers in Physical: 100 are not actually killed – but they certainly speak as though they are. For here tournaments are called ‘death matches’, and winners are designated ‘survivors’. “It’s worth betting your life for,” one competitor is heard saying near the beginning, while another, after losing but being granted “one last chance to survive” in a special round, comments: “I basically came back from the dead.” 

Physical 100

What is being staged here is a Darwinian struggle – ‘survival of the fittest’ – with the defeat constantly being equated to death, as though mortality itself is encoded in these contestants’ competitive strivings for superiority, even perfection. When all 100 first enter the studio’s atrium, they are confronted with plaster casts of their own torsos – and as each contestant is eliminated, they are required to smash their own (model) bust with a hammer. It is a peculiar ritual. When ice climber Kim Min-cheol smashes his torso, someone comments, “That’s got to make him feel better,” as though this final act were a cathartic consolation for losing – but for the most part the destruction of the torso is a clear act of self-destruction. “Before I smashed my torso, I gave it a hug,” comments ‘RoboCop’ Park Jung-ho, “It was very emotional.” If the busts capture the literally sculpted beauty of the contestants’ different physiques, they do not immortalise it, and what the destruction of the player’s casts expresses with great visual economy is not only the death of the ego, but also the ephemerality – even the vanity – of pursuing bodily perfection, in an existence where contingency and the clock always work against our bodily integrity.

Heroes, monsters, and gods

“When I first came in, all the torsos made me think of a Greek temple,” comments ex-UDT sniper Hwang Ji-hun. Indeed those busts – all chest, with head, arms and legs missing – resemble what remains from the ruins of Hellenic statuary, and call to mind the idealisation of the body in Ancient Greek aesthetics. Where reality television typically builds narrative from its participants’ backstories and personal interactions, Physical: 100 relies more on archetypes and myths. Towards the end of the show, five games – Punishment of Atlas, Fire of Prometheus, Wings of Icarus, Tail of Ouroboros and Punishment of Sisyphus – expressly draw upon Greek mythology to frame the hubristic impossibility of the tasks, while the participants are depicted as Grecian Titans and Heroes engaged in elemental trials. The bigger, brawnier contestants are regularly referred to as ‘monsters’. And when the muscular Yun Sung-bin, Jung Hae-min, Choo Sung-hoon and Ma Sun-ho line up for a gruelling heat, the stuntwoman Kim Da-young significantly likens them to Marvel’s Avengers. The point is that for their brief time on Power: 100, contestants are elevated to the status of superhumans, metahumans, even gods – before it is all over, and text promises another season of this potentially endless quest for perfection.2 Perfection, after all, is its own myth. 

Physical 100

In the meantime, not only is Squid Game too getting its own long-heralded sequel, but the merger of its fantasies with reality television will also continue apace with Netflix’s forthcoming Squid Game: The Challenge, in which real contestants will vie in (non-fatal) Squid Game-like events for what Netflix is promising will be the “largest cast and lump cash prize in reality TV history”.3 It would seem that when perfection and elimination are at stake, there has never been more televisual competition.  

© Anton Bitel

  1. Song, Suzanne. “Physical: 100s finalist Jung Hae-min speaks out amid allegations of a rigged finale”. The Straits Tiimes, 28th February, 2023); Mendoza, Ingrid. “Netflix’s ‘Physical: 100’ Finale Rigged? Series Accused Of Manipulation Amid Contestant Controversies”. International Business Times, 28th February, 2023. ↩︎
  2. Season 2 of Physical: 100 is now complete and also on Netflix ↩︎
  3. Netflix press release“Netflix Greenlights ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ Reality Competition Series”. 14th June, 2023. ↩︎