By Trevor Hsia
Northwest Asian Weekly
Of the many horror series that feature zombies as a theme, most of them share many of the same features and settings, but the South Korean Netflix original “Kingdom” sets itself apart from the standard formula. Taking place in a notable historical period of ancient Korea, as civil unrest and a zombie outbreak threaten to collapse civilization, the nation’s Crown Prince attempts to thwart the political scheming of the Queen’s family while learning just what it means to become a leader. A well-written adventure with impressive visuals, Kingdom is a must-watch for anyone who enjoyed works such as “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Train to Busan.”
“Kingdom” is a fantasy horror thriller set in Korea during the Joseon period (1392–1897), during a time of political upheaval, widespread famine, and destabilizing class inequality. The Queen’s family, the Haewon Cho Clan, is engaged in a steady takeover of the government, while they bleed the common people dry for their own power and influence. The Emperor has fallen ill and his own son, the Crown Prince Lee Chang, is forbidden from seeing him. Accused of treason, the Prince seeks out the last known physician to treat the Emperor so he can learn the truth behind his father’s condition and depose the Haewon Cho Clan, whose continued machinations for power threaten to drown Korea in an undead plague.
“Kingdom” is based off of the webcomic The Kingdom of the Gods, written by Kim Eun-hee, who also wrote the screenplay for “Kingdom” itself. They have written other popular series like the award-winning TV drama “Signal.” The director is Kim Seong-hun, who directed the award-winning survival drama, “The Tunnel.” Together with Netflix, they created a six-episode, approximately six-hour long epic that distinguishes itself from other shows in the genre through a variety of ways and leaves a lasting impression.
While most TV shows and movies concerned with the zombie apocalypse are set in the modern day, there are a few that distinguish themselves by having it take place in the past or future, and “Kingdom” is one such series. The only guns to be seen here are the rare muskets in use by the army, and even swords are relatively few in number. Spears, bows, and makeshift weapons are the order of the era, which leads to fight scenes that are much more visceral and intense than other works. It makes for an exciting visual treat, and a welcome departure from the clichés of similar series.
The show also has a very strong theme underlying character developments and motivations of the main cast, in particular that of the Crown Prince. Prince Lee Chang begins as rather aloof with no small amount of self-interest, but as we come to learn about the inequality between the nobles and peasantry, the famine, and the corruption of the government, the Prince grows as a person. Everyone has the choice to make between putting themselves and their own survival first, or helping others and working together. Both the virtues and flaws of human nature are explored throughout the season, making the entirety of it an emotionally-charged journey from start to finish.
Overall, I was very impressed with “Kingdom.” It hooked me in and would not let me go until I had finished the season. Even now, the memory of it has me clamoring for Season Two, which is already confirmed and slated to begin production. The aesthetics and visuals were enough to rival big budget box office hits, which only added to the realism and immersion. The pacing kept me on the edge of my seat during scenes where the main cast fought for their lives against the unending hordes of the infected, while at the same time giving me plenty of breaks where the action slowed and I could take some time to process what just happened. “Kingdom” never made me feel burnt out or bored, which was quite a feat for an entire season that I watched in one sitting. It felt like one long movie at times, and I cannot help but compare it to “Game of Thrones” in terms of visual quality, presentation, and appeal. Political intrigue on top of an undead outbreak? That’s exactly the kind of multilayered story that draws me in and keeps me thinking long after the credits have rolled and the TV turned off.
If you have watched and enjoyed “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” or another South Korean zombie film “Train to Busan,” then I wholeheartedly recommend “Kingdom.” It is a show unlike most in the category, yet still appeals to anyone who enjoys the genre. The entire first season is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Trevor Hsia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.