In a historical cross between “The Walking Dead” and “Train to Busan,” the undead bite back during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty in the new Netflix Original series “Kingdom.”
Starring Ji-hoon Ju from “The Treacherous” and Doo-na Bae from “Sense8,” Netflix’s “Kingdom” walks the edge between thriller and historical drama, combining the concept of zombies and familial politics gone awry during Korea’s Joseon period. According to khanacademy.org, the Joseon Dynasty began in 1392 and ended in 1910 when the Japanese invaded the Korean peninsula.
The series features a fair mixture of suspense, gore and betrayal, highlighting how power struggles and deadly disease affect the human psyche. Moreover, the race to find a cure for the zombie pandemic echoes humanity’s desire to live, a concept that often challenges one’s selfish tendencies: do I save others, or save myself instead?
Sickness and bad blood
“Kingdom” begins in Hanyang, now present-day Seoul, South Korea, where the crown prince Yi-Chang waits anxiously for the queen, the king’s second wife, to grant him permission to enter his father’s chambers. Yi-Chang is worried about his father’s health, as the king fell ill 10 days prior and no word about his condition has been shared since. The queen, who detests Yi-Chang for being an illegitimate son, denies Yi-Chang’s request.
Meanwhile, posters declaring the king’s death are being posted. The king’s soldiers capture two men who are spreading these posts, accusing all those involved in making and posting the notices of treason. When the accomplices are discovered, they are taken in for interrogation and tortured.
Concerned for his father but unable to defy the queen, Yi-Chang asks his personal guard Moo-Young to steal the journal from the royal infirmary in order to find out what is wrong with the king. While Moo-Young does this, Yi-Chang manages to slip into the king’s quarters, only to hide behind a sliding door from a beast that reeks of blood and rotting flesh. Before he can get a clear look at the creature, Yi-Chang is discovered by the king’s guard and escorted away.
Upon returning to his private room, Yi-Chang is met by Moo-Young, who successfully brought the journal. According to the entries, the king was suffering from what seemed to have been chicken pox; his symptoms soon developed into something more severe. One log states that “there may be no cure” and all subsequent pages are blank. Alarmed by this, Yi-Chang and Moo-Young decide to track down the physician who signed the last entry. This physician had worked at the palace but resigned three years prior, and was now on his way back to his clinic, located south of Hanyang.
As Yi-Chang departs, it is revealed that the act of treason, spreading false rumors of the king’s death, was initiated by Yi-Chang himself, who wanted justice for the years of mistreatment by those in the palace because of his illegitimate status. Running away from the Cho Hak-jo clan, the queen’s family which now seeks to punish him, and being driven by the desire to save his father, Yi-Chang and Moo-Young travel south, searching for the physician who had attempted to treat the king.
But what lies past the gates of Hanyang is the evil truth about the king’s disease - and the potential annihilation of the Korean people.
It’s in the flowers
“Kingdom” has a handful of aspects that people may take a liking to.
First would be the series’ use of gore. Commonplace in zombie films or shows, the gore in “Kingdom” is not overdone nor underutilized. Throughout the show, blood is often kept to a minimum when there is no violence, allowing the viewer to just barely forget the true horror that the characters face. If the viewers forget the scope of the pandemic, the blood splatter, beheadings and throat slashings that occur when the zombie horde approaches serve as dreadful reminders.
Second would be the series’ use of time period. In many zombie films and TV shows, many outbreaks occur during modern times. Characters in these shows have access to advanced guns and grenades, as well as medical supplies that are readily available.
“Kingdom,” however, trades machine guns for swords and grenades for arrows, leaving the people of the Joseon period defending themselves from ravenous zombies at close range.
While the show does feature a handful of guns, presumably given to the Koreans by the Japanese prior to the Japanese occupation (the show has not confirmed this), a lot of the combat is within arms-reach, striking terror within those who watch soldiers and villagers get tackled and eaten by the undead.
What makes “Kingdom” stand out from similar zombie flicks is the cause of the infection. As opposed to viruses and mutations, like in horror video games “Resident Evil” and “Dead Island,” the pandemic in “Kingdom” is caused by the “resurrection plant,” a small purple flower that was used to bring the king back to life after he died from an unknown disease. The people of Joseon were not told the fate of the king because the Cho Hak-jo clan did not want Yi-Chang, the illegitimate son, to take the throne.
Since the series lays out the cause of the infection, viewers do not waste time trying to figure out how the zombies came to be. Instead, they sit through each episode witnessing the spread of the disease, watching in assumed horror as the sickness moves from the palace to the southern part of the Korean peninsula.
This use of storytelling may seem boring for those who want to find out the origin of the sickness as the show progresses; however, knowing the process of the infection from the beginning adds to the overall experience of horror: knowing (mostly) everything, but not being able to do anything about it.
The show also adds a twist on the usual zombie trope. Throughout the series, it is believed that the zombies only come out at night, escaping to darker areas to “sleep” during the day. This knowledge helped the humans gain an upper hand while preparing to fight them.
However, the last episode of the season ended with a plot twist that many may not have expected: The zombies were still active during the day. Why?
It was not the night that brought the zombies; it was the cold temperature.
Did I mention that “Kingdom” takes place during the winter?
Gnawing into (good) flesh
Despite its relatively short six-episode run in season one, “Kingdom” has a fair amount of character development, most notably with Yi-Chang’s character.
The need for the development of a main character is obvious, but what cannot be overlooked is the importance of establishing a character as “human.”
Some shows, such as “Aldnoah.Zero,” and light novels, or “Japanese novellas,” showcase a perfect protagonist; a main character without flaws. While pleasing for some, a character with no flaws rids the viewer of the chance to relate to the story.
If no relevance is established, people will have no interest in seeing the story through.
For example, Yi-Chang is righteous, wanting to help the people of the Joseon period, but commits treason to get revenge on those who wrong him. This may bring into question whether Yi-Chang truly wants to save all people or just a select few.
In another instance, Yi-Chang shakes in fear as the people around him are slaughtered by arrows; it is not until someone else brings him back to reality, saying that if Yi-Chang does nothing, they will all die, that he takes action. This reflects how even those in power can falter, regardless of their intentions.
Unfortunately, Yi-Chang’s character is the only one who seems to have experienced growth. Despite many characters, it seems that season one focused more on Yi-Chang and how those around him can help or suppress him in his mission.
The show also explores the villains in depth. This point can be seen most clearly with the queen, the king’s second wife. At the beginning of the show, the viewers are shown that the queen is pregnant; however, the child must be male in order to take the throne and keep the Hok-jo clan in power. Near the end of the show, the government invites all pregnant women to the palace, including Moo-Young’s wife.
What seems to have been political hospitality is soon revealed to be something sinister; the queen has been faking her pregnancy and plans to take a male child, killing the potential mothers and their female babies until an “heir” is found.
Why the queen is faking her condition is not answered in season one, though it can be inferred that she wants to please her father and keep her family in power.
“Kingdom” maintains a feeling of foreboding throughout, a product of the music score and cinematography. The music score has a lot of low, vibrating notes, which can cause unease - an emotion that matches the graveness of the zombie pandemic. With camera shots that display the historic environment and bloody hordes in equal measure, the watcher will be conditioned to expect the worse.
Although the horror and tension are the highlights of the show, it would have been better to see character development play a bigger role in season one.
Wait, it’s not supposed to be funny?
Horror is not supposed to make people laugh, but there is something amusing about noblemen screaming as they run away from zombies.
“Kingdom” portrays royalty and noblemen in three ways: honorable and just, evil and conniving and inept and naive. If you could not tell with the adjectives, the third depiction of upper class men are the ones that are screaming and running away.
Although many of the show’s infuriating moments happen when these prominent members of government showcase selfish tendencies (leaving the villagers behind while they escape, for example), the blatant display of ineptitude by these figures are both hilarious and alarming, as the latter suggests that no one, not even those in power, is prepared to protect their people.
Beware of the cold
“Kingdom” is a thrilling roller coaster ride of suspense, gore and anxiety. While dabbling in the well-explored trope of zombies, the show presents a different take on the concept, including the conditions in which the undead rise, as well as the process by which it spreads. Those who like Korean history, a good scare or enjoy a bit of political critique may form an affinity for this show.
Rating: 4.5 torches