In a world where the Internet is slowly becoming saturated with Korean content, Netflix took a risk in an original series complete with a powerhouse cast, blockbuster writer-director tandem, and skillful cinematography to bring us a zombie apocalypse unlike any other.
Kingdom kicks off the six-episode series with impressive opening credits of a dead Joseon king, who was being revived to life by a traditional physician using a what they call a “resurrection” plant. The king must not die, as the evil that surrounds the palace still needed him for their own ill-conceived plans. And just like every other sageuk, the power struggle stems from the extreme politicking within the royal family, with the Crown Prince’s position always being at risk.
Joo Ji-hoon returns to dramaland as the pampered Crown Prince Lee Chang. He was born out of wedlock, which puts his position in question. His royal father married a much younger queen (Kim Hye-jun), the daughter of the chief state councilor Lord Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong) from the powerful Haewon Cho Clan. Since the king is nowhere to be found (he turned into a zombie y’all after that acupuncture-ish ritual with the resurrection plant), Cho Hak-ju alleged Crown Prince Lee Chang of plotting treason along with the nations’ top scholars. As Crown Prince Lee Chang tried to check on his bedridden father, he learned that he was missing. And together with his trusty bodyguard Mu-yeong, they embarked on a journey to find out what really happened behind the palace doors.
Their search led them to Jiyulheon, a clinic in old Dongnae district, wherein they were welcomed by a bunch of dead bodies piled up underneath the elevated cottages. And from that set-up, the prince’s mission slowly unfolded from fighting for his rightful throne to finding the cure to a mysterious plague that causes the dead to wake up at night driven by an insatiable hunger for living flesh.
Not many might notice it, but the manner in which the disease began to spread is both gruesome yet faithful to the zombie apocalypse formula. Typically, victims turn into zombies as a result of getting bitten by the infected. Man eats man, so to speak. Well, that’s also the case in Kingdom but with a little bit of a twist. Here, it was the living who ate the infected, quite literally at that, after the body of the first victim was turned into man-flesh soup and served to unsuspecting patients. This might be too gory for some, but actually necessary in establishing the context that famine surrounds the kingdom. You might curse Young-shin (Kim Sung-kyu) for serving the infected flesh to the patients, but it’s important for everyone to remember the reality of their world: that sometimes, going to the extreme is what it takes to survive. Interestingly enough, that reality is what triggered the zombie apocalypse, and it is also that same reality where their survival instincts to endure the undead’s invasion can be drawn.
It also seems like Kingdom is not intended for hardcore K-drama fans, who are used to the same old tropes in historical fictions. This drama is for zombie gore fans, for the fans of the likes of Dawn of the Dead, Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead. And even though it is set up in old Korea, establishing the tension is done tastefully because the audience is not only fixated on the zombies. The conflict is not one-dimensional which is engaging for non-Kdrama fans. What also makes Kingdom different is how the characters are determined to find the cure for the plague, which is somewhat forgotten in the case of other hit zombie shows.
The seamless weaving together of politics and the zombie apocalypse makes for the proper pacing of the six-episode first season which is crucial for not making the series dragging to watch. The pilot season did good in building up the entire dramaverse for more episodes (or seasons) to come. Aside from the interesting backstory of the main characters, writer Kim Eun-hee also gave her audience an intriguing mix of personalities which injects dynamism in the overall storyline given that the characters have different motives in surviving the apocalypse. Even though some of their decisions may be morally unacceptable for the general public, the characters still ultimately make reasonable – albeit annoying at times – choices as far as an apocalyptic world is concerned.
Photo credits: Netflix, Bae Doona’s Instagram