While browsing Netflix, my attention was caught by what I thought was a historical drama. Set in South Korea, ‘Kingdom’ is way more than a period piece – it’s a zombie-infested horror.
Having grown very jaded with ‘The Walking Dead’, I’ve stayed away from anything featuring zombies for a while now. But I was intrigued enough by ‘Kingdom’ to give it a go – at 6 episodes, it wasn’t going to take up too much time. I am so glad I did.
Not at all familiar with South Korean history, this, for me, was a good starting point to delve deeper. Set in the medieval Joseon era, which lasted a whopping 5 centuries (1392-1897), the story follows Crown Prince Lee Cheng as he inadvertently uncovers a political conspiracy surrounding his father’s illness. Except his father isn’t just ill.
Forbidden to see his father by order of his step-mother, the young queen, the prince tries to uncover the truth about his father’s actual condition, not what he’s being fobbed off with. Eventually, he discovers there’s a zombie-virus infecting the people. Working with others, he does his best to stop it spreading.
There are a lot of characters to keep up with, and a lot of information too, but nothing came across as ‘info-dump’. It’s amazing how much is covered in a mere 6 episodes, with great character build-up and lots of ‘showing’ instead of just telling.
I enjoyed the way each conflict built up the prince’s character. Each moment leaves him with the choice of pushing ahead or running away and saving himself. The way he handles himself, his growing awareness of what are, essentially, his people fast turned him into one of my favourite characters.
My other favourite is the nurse-physician, Seo-bi. Her horror at seeing people she knows turn into monsters doesn’t stop her fighting to defend herself and others, while continuing her relentless search for a possible cure.
To be honest, the prince’s personal bodyguard, Mu-yeong, doesn’t fit the accepted ‘idea’ of bodyguard being short and slightly tubby-looking. But, when it comes time to defend the prince, he steps up with no hesitation and expert swordsmanship. He’s a well-written character too, with an agreeable mix of humour and solemnity.
The main villain, Cho Hak-ju, the queen’s father, is determined to expand his clan’s control and power over the kingdom. The writers have done a superb job, in my opinion, in making him a chilling villain, one you do not want to underestimate.
The queen is another character who’s been written well, and she’s more than just a puppet. Despite having to navigate her father’s unnerving cruelty, she’s a strong woman who can think for herself.
There’s a mysterious young man who throws in his lot with the prince. He seems to be a simple soldier but there’s definitely more to him than meets the eye.
As for the zombies, they’re not what I’m used to. They seem to have vampire-like characteristics in that they hide from the sun, as if truly dead, and only ‘wake up’ when the sun sets. And they move very fast.
I think what sets ‘Kingdom’ above most zombie fare is the setting. The lack of technology in the form of instant communication, rapid-fire guns and motorised vehicles adds to the tension. Poor villagers can only move on foot. The few carts, laden with belongings, the old and infirm, although pulled by horses, don’t move very fast either. Watching them trying to flee fast-moving zombies had me on the edge of my seat, clutching a cushion, and I haven’t done that in ages.
The other thing I realised, this zombie series focusses equally on class struggle and surviving the zombies. The wealthy truly look down on the poor, viewing them as sub-human, and think nothing of sacrificing them so the rich can survive. Royalty and the wealthy seem to have unlimited access to food and all the good things in life while the poor starve, drink filthy water and are reduced to eating tree branches to try and keep the hunger at bay.
While reading about how the series was conceived, I came across this interesting snippet, which suggested that the zombie-virus is more to do with a plague:
‘The premise of the series was inspired by a true 19th century record found of a plague in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (the kingdom): “In the fall, a mysterious disease began to spread from the west, and in 10 days, tens of thousands of people died in Hanyang [present-day Seoul]”. Considered the world’s longest continual documentation of a single dynasty, the annals are also considered veritable and ‘objective’ as not even the king was allowed to read it.’
Despite the first season spanning only 6 episodes, the camera still found time to linger over the gorgeous scenery and set pieces of the royal household and landscape the prince travelled through. And it didn’t stint on pausing on the wretched poverty either while relishing the violence and gore of the zombies chomping their way through their doomed victims.
This article describes how historical details were used to add to the authentic feel of the show.
A second season is already being made, and I’m so looking forward to it. It is possible to watch the English-dubbed version of ‘Kingdom’ on Netflix. But I chose to watch it in the original Korean, something I personally prefer to do with any foreign programme. I’d recommend doing that with ‘Kingdom’ as I think it really helps to immerse yourself fully in the series.