Kingdom is a 2019 South Korean political period horror thriller streaming television series, created and written by Kim Eun-hee, available on Netflix. It is set in the 16th century three years after the end of the Imjin War. Kingdom takes place in a fictional, medieval-inspired Joseon Kingdom and blends political thriller and elements from zombie horror. The story follows Lee Chang, the Crown Prince of Joseon, who attempts to investigate the mysterious illness recently afflicting the King, only to find himself caught in the middle of an epidemic turning the dead into mindless, man-eating monsters; while trying to save the kingdom from the plague, he must also stop his political opponents from seizing the throne. The background to the story, was three years after the famous “Battle of Unpo Wetland” near the city of Sangju during the Japanese invasions of Korea, where 500 Korean soldiers, led by Governor Ahn Hyeon, defeated an army of 30,000 Japanese invaders. Unbeknownst to the common people, this victory was achieved by using an herb known as the “resurrection plant”, which transformed the diseased villagers of Sumang into ferocious zombies; after the battle ended, the zombies were executed and buried in secret.
Binge-watching requires a few things. A couch, or a comfy bed, for one thing. Some snacks at the ready, as well. But the one thing you must have is a considerably large chunk of time, a commodity that grows more precious by the day in today’s hyper-connected gig economy. In such a situation, the show we watch must hold our interest right from the start – Kingdom works brilliantly in that aspect. Even with English subtitles, it is engaging with the right mix of horror, intrigue and suspense. The first season of Kingdom, Netflix’s first original Korean series, quickly gained a small cult following hungry for more of its gruesome charms. At only six episodes, it doesn’t suffer at all from the frustrating phenomenon known as “Netflix bloat,” and it finishes on a cliffhanger so big you’ll be genuinely shocked when it ends.
The show begins, as does any political thriller, with rumors – of the death of the king of Joseon, who hasn’t been seen outside the palace walls for more than a week. Flyers appear tacked up in Hanyang, announcing the king’s death and calling for the immediate crowning of the prince, Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon). However, those inside the palace claim the king is not dead, merely sick, but his affliction has turned him into something monstrous.
Meanwhile, citizens in a small town in the southern province unknowingly contract the disease ravaging the king and die suddenly, but that night they all rise again as zombies, hungry for human flesh and these zombies aren’t your George A. Romero or Walking Dead zombies – these seem to be the ancestors of Usain Bolt and run super fast. The crown prince sets off from the palace to help the people in need, but when he discovers the truth of the disease, he teams up with a physician (who has a constipated look on her face throughout the show), a mysterious warrior, and his personal guard to fight the spread of the disease while also trying to stop a coup from overthrowing his claim to the throne back home.
On top of being a fast-paced horror epic in historical garb, Kingdom mirrors the disastrous mishandling of the 2020 pandemic with such withering irony and pitch-black humor that it seems to be riffing on headlines you read five minutes ago. Picture a nation gripped by political chaos that finds itself afflicted by a plague so new that no one understands its properties yet – those who know are in exile or are using it for their own benefits. Its ruler is a demented senior whose underlings use his decline as camouflage for their own agendas. People turn against each other, medical experts operating on the scientific method study the pandemic and present their latest findings to officials at every layer of government but are met with indifference, stupidity, self-interest, and pandering to higher-ups. Things keep getting worse. The body count rises. There’s no end in sight. If anything came close to mimicking the Covid Pandemic, it is this – atleast on TV as on the big screen we had the eerie Contagion before this.
Kingdom starts in the royal palace at night. An underling is commanded to slip a bowl of blood through the crack under the red curtain of the king’s sleeping quarters. We hear guttural grows and animalistic shuffling and scratching. Then the underling gets yanked under the curtain by the king, who has become a flesh-eating ghoul subsisting on servants and peasants. We soon learn that the king’s inner circle has been keeping his condition a secret and presenting their own schemes as the king’s wishes. The main focus of their treachery is Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), the king’s son and anointed successor. The Queen Consort (Kim Hye-jun) is pregnant with the king’s child; if the prince gets killed or imprisoned, her baby will assume the throne and allow her and the traitorous Chief State Councilor, her father, (Ryu Seung-ryong) to run things on the infant’s behalf.
The prince and his bodyguard Mu-yeong (Kim Sang-ho) travel to a remote province to investigate reports of a strange disease that’s been spreading at the border, and meet two physicians, Seo-Bi (Bae Doona) and Yeong-Shin (Kim Sung-kyu), who have been researching a phenomenon that they identify as the undead sleeping during the day but waking up at night craving human flesh. It’s here that Kingdom distinguishes itself as more than a rehash of the usual elements. This is a story about a pandemic that could be contained with minimal deaths were it not for the selfishness and thickheadness of the people running the country. Its real villains are authority figures who fail the people they’re supposed to protect (starting to sound familiar?). What makes Kingdom stand apart from other zombie thrillers is its spooky prescience. Like all zombie stories, it’s a moral tale about society imploding because of a “disease.” And it’s about the choices the uninfected make to ensure the survival of their loved ones and civilization as a whole (or protect their own interests).
In Kingdom, doctors study a new disease’s victims, separate fact from speculation and rumor, and come up with suggestions that they believe will slow the infection rate. Then they present what they’ve learned to functionaries and military people, who thwart, ignore, or undermine them. When the doctors figure out that flesh-cravers have to be locked up to prevent them from biting the living, they’re laughed at, which of course leads to a zombie attack. One of the same men who ignored their advice tries to blame them for the carnage and jail them. When the doctors figure out that the zombies hibernate during the day, they recommend reducing the zombie population by beheading and burning them in their sleep. They’re told that this is an impossible request because, according to faith, a dead person enters the afterlife with the same body they had when they passed on. After a long, increasingly desperate argument, the authorities offer a compromise: They’ll burn the bodies of the peasants, but bury the nobles.
These scenes are as agonizing as they are appallingly funny — not just because we know from watching zombie films that certain things just aren’t done, but because we’ve seen our heroes putting in hard work only to have it ignored by fools. Men and women of reason keep getting kneecapped by laypeople who are in thrall to “gut feelings,” or who cling to existing laws, customs, and rules because they can’t accept that the world they once knew is gone.
True to science, the heroes also learn that, like all diseases, this one mutates in response to human countermeasures, changes in climate and terrain, and other factors. Which means that what was true last week might change, necessitating a shift in tactics — and a new round of conversations with officials who belatedly accepted the last set of observations, and believe that a change in the pandemic’s narrative must mean that the doctors didn’t know what they were talking about the first time. The application of basic science to nightmare imagery lets Kingdom continue into a second season after reaching a satisfying stopping point at the end of season one.
The show is pretty dense, but it’s so exciting, and, at only six episodes, the plot moves swiftly as the characters find themselves deeper and deeper in trouble. Think Game of Thrones meets The Witcher meets the good bits of The Walking Dead. If that’s not enough to convince you, here is a list of cool things this show has in it: Sick swordfighting (it’s set in the 1600s, so not everyone had guns or knew how to use them yet). People in cool hats (all the costumes are amazing). People shooting flaming arrows at stuff. People galloping horses through city gates and immediately yelling a dire message at other people. A hilarious one-sided romance. Some truly gross undead special effects.
So what more do you want – plenty in it for the intellectuals who enjoy dissecting a show and plenty more for us fun-loving folk who just enjoying watching a new show which promises action, thrills and horror in equal amounts plus a fresh story which is hard to find.
Go watch Kingdom and relieve yourself from the abject boredom of the usual fare on Netflix and have something new to discuss about zombies.