In recent years, Netflix has increased the number of Korean original programs distributed on its platform, with “Kingdom” (2018–) being the latest addition to this growing list of productions.
The drama series has a few hit-makers in its credits: screenwriter Kim Eun-hee also wrote the well-received cable drama “Signal” (2016) and director Kim Seong-hun directed the 2016 hit “The Tunnel.” Viewers familiar with Korean popular culture will surely be reminded of the 2016 film “Train to Busan,” also available on Netflix, another huge zombie-film hit that was widely successful both in Korea and internationally. Where “Kingdom” differs is perhaps in its attention to plot development, made possible by the choice of distribution platform.
The series is set in the Joseon era, Korea’s longest-ruling dynasty. The opening scene in the first episode sets the tone for the whole series. It begins late at night, when a physician and a young boy head to the King’s chambers, with the old physician warning the boy to not look inside the King’s bedchamber at all costs. As the young boy sets down the King’s medication, a monster from inside the King’s bedchamber grabs and devours the young boy.
It is later revealed that this entire ploy has been set up by the power-hungry Minister Cho Hak-jo, expertly portrayed by Ryu Seung-ryong. Bloodthirsty monsters rampaging throughout in the country run parallel to Minister Cho’s efforts to gain power for himself. Minister Cho is effectively the most powerful person in the country, with his daughter as Queen and his son as head of the Royal Investigation Bureau. Cho sought to convert the King into a zombie, keeping him barely alive, to buy his daughter time to give birth to a new Crown Prince.
The zombie virus spreads at an extremely rapid rate, and the series does a good job capturing the panic and horror of the crisis. Family members try to save their weaker relatives, and then try to feed on them after they themselves have caught the virus. The nighttime fight scenes with the zombies are often chaotic, given that they occur in total darkness, a condition which the zombies are unable to handle. While these scenes may be disorganized and at times disappointing, such combat scenes hardly factor into the overall development of the series. This allows viewers to focus in on the themes of the series instead, making “Kingdom” a significant departure from classic horror zombie flicks.
In fact, one can almost forget about the bloodthirsty nature of the zombies throughout the series, and instead focus on the politics of the whole situation. Rich nobles appear to be feckless and leave the infested city of Dongnae, leaving the peasants to fend for themselves. A sense of justice is perhaps delivered when most of the nobles are turned into zombies as well. However, Kim Eun-hee smartly keeps the new mayor of Dongnae, who is related to the Cho family, alive, even if he does not seem to have nefarious intentions, to reflect the disparity of choices that different classes had in dealing with the situation.
Meanwhile, Minister Cho’s extreme desire for power is reflected in his accusation of the Crown Prince Yi Chang for treason. In a stand-off with the Crown Prince, forces under Cho’s command take advantage of the Crown Prince’s hesitancy to shoot at innocent peasants who had just fended off a hoard attack. Cho further orders the closing of all gates south of the capital, including around the city of Sangju, where the Crown Prince was headed in an attempt to join forces with General An Hyun (Heo Jun-ho), a war hero. The Queen (Kim Hye-jun) is also involved in a plot that takes advantage of innocent villagers for her own attempt to maintain power. The portrayal of such a class divide further enhances the series’ value in criticizing the noble class for hardly ever considering the fate of the people.
“Kingdom” gives us just enough information to keep us enthralled. We are left to wonder about the backgrounds and motivations of some of the other characters. For instance, why is Minister Cho confident that General An could never turn his back on Minister Cho himself? Why does Young-Shin (Kim Sung-kyu), one of the first few who fended off the zombies with medical assistant Seo-Bi (Bae Doo-na), hide his military background and have such a hostile attitude towards General An Hyun? And why does Moo-Young (Kim Sang-ho), the Crown Prince’s bodyguard, appear to be so shifty towards the last two episodes?
Just as it seemed that the Crown Prince had finally been able to rally support and consolidate strength with General An Hyun, the series offers us a shocking twist right at the end. As all this is happening Seo-Bi searches for the crucial ingredient to cure the virus. With the above questions left unanswered, Kim Eun-hee has set the series up for an exciting second season.
And while the series features a strong lead cast of Ju Ji-hoon, Ryu Seung-ryong and Bae Doo-na, one of its potential weaknesses was the acting of Kim Hye-jun. With Ryu suggesting that Kim Hye-jun will play a bigger role in season two, viewers can only hope that the quality of her acting will rise to the occasion.