Starring: Ji-Hoon Ju, Seung-Ryong Ryo, Doona Bae, Sang-ho Kim, Jun-ho Heo
Director: Seong-hon Kim
Writer: Kim Eun-hee
Based on the webcomic: The Kingdom of the Gods by Kim Eun-hee
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
Historical drama television shows, and I use the term somewhat loosely, traditionally niche shows, seem to have found a wider audience, opening the door to more of them. Vikings has been successful for History, as was Rome for HBO. However, using the historical part as a backdrop and taking liberties with the genre has led to more interesting shows, as well as successful. One only has to think about Game of Thrones (hence the “loosely” part mentioned above) and you’ve got a hit. It’s an idea Kim Eun-hee had when he authored his webcomic The Kingdom of the Gods, on which this show, Kingdom is based. In it, the story is set in Korea’s medieval Joseon period but with one additional twist. The kingdom is dealing with a zombie outbreak.
Kingdom‘s plot is at its core, basic enough. The king has a son born of a concubine, but has a new, younger wife. Minister Cho arranges to have the king “murdered” and to have the Crown Prince arrested and stripped of his right to the throne. In his stead, the Queen’s soon to be born son (ya, not sure how it is they know) is going to be the one who inherits the throne. But in a fateful and lucky break, the Crown Prince, wanting to find out what happened to his father, leaves his home town of Hanyang to look for answers. As a result, he escapes his arrest and subsequent death penalty.
I tend to be apprehensive of shows that require reading subtitles, only because they tend to take away from my attention on the visual aspect of the show. (I mean, it’s the point of watching television, no?) But surprisingly, the show did a few things that make it easy to follow, whether intentionally or not. First, in the scenes that have more dialogue, the action is slow. Reading the subtitles doesn’t make you lose any of the action. And alternately, on the occasions where the action does get intense (and there are many!), there is less dialogue, allowing you to watch the action unfold. I never felt as though I would have to watch scenes or episodes multiple times fearing I’d missed something.
Kingdom is visually appealing. The cinematography is outstanding. Whether the scenes take place in villages or cities, or whether in the Korean countryside, they are all beautiful to watch. Highly impressive as well was their version of the zombies. We’re used to seeing them in movies today and have preconceived ideas on how they should look, how they should move, how they should be killed, and so on. However, our main characters are seeing these monsters for the first time and that adds to the intrigue and horror. For example, how to properly kill a zombie isn’t known to them. It takes them several attempts to figure out that beheading them (disconnecting the brain from the body) is the way. As I watched I was almost speaking to the television, trying to inform them of this fact. The effects were brilliantly done, possessing movie-like quality. It’s all very well done.
If anyone wanted a lesson on how to film zombie scenes, watching the third and fourth episodes is an excellent lesson. The terror these zombies inflict on the villagers who’ve never had to deal with anything of the kind is raw. The scene where the woman carrying her child on her back is trying to be saved but is being swarmed and bitten as well, is intense. The drama, the heart wrenching moments and the pure terror are perfect. These zombies aren’t fast moving, but they are relentless. At least during the night. During the day, they need to hide from the sun and fall asleep, thereby giving the living a fighting chance.
There are some great dramatic performances. I enjoyed the Crown Prince’s personal bodyguard, Mu-yeung, who not only acts as a devoted friend and protector of the Prince, but also brings moments of humor, albeit sparse, so a serious show. But the best performance is from Ji-Hoon Ju, the Crown Prince himself. Beginning as a helpless, even naively arrogant character, imprisoned by the customs and conventions of the Royal Family, he knows that something is wrong in the palace and that his life may be in danger. However, by the end, the transformation is almost complete as he is now not only a leader in birth and name, but one in action. He’s become a respected hero to the people and personifies the change he so desperately wants to bring to his country.
Aside from the zombie plague and trying to find its cause, stop its spread and find a cure, there is a lot of political drama at play in the show, not unlike Game of Thrones. This whole zombie story line started as a result of an attempt to usurp the throne. While one faction is working on putting the Queen’s own heir on the throne, the Crown Prince, while out looking for an explanation about his father, begins to get people to follow him by virtue of his actions. Living out of the palace has forced him to experience life as most of the population does. And it gives him a new respect for them, going so far as breaking age long traditions for the sake of their (and of course his), as well as the country’s survival.
There’s an interesting political parallel between Kingdom and modern day Korea. The north in the show is presently ruled by the Cho clan, running it with an iron fist, as a dictatorship, not unlike what we see today. On the other hand, the south is more in the hands of the people, and is where the Crown Prince is trying to break all of the previous rules or rather, conventions, to lead by example, caring for the people, which is more representative of present day South Korea. I doubt it’s a coincidence, but it’s well done.
Though great, the show isn’t perfect. The first season is six episodes long. However, the first was a little slow, serving as the set up show, contextualizing the story, especially for anyone who might not be familiar with Korean history. It was necessary, but I was relieved when I finally got to the second episode where the action moves faster. The middle four episodes is where the story really evolves and fleshes out, richly and compellingly. And the final episode, though it does provide a few nuggets of information that one could probably have deduced throughout the show, is really more of a set-up for the second season (which has been confirmed).
Kingdom is an excellent show. It has everything one would expect from a period fantasy series. Political intrigue, drama, humour, great costumes, beautiful sets, and an excellent story. Oh, and let’s not forget the horror! The coming of age of the Crown Prince as the true heir to the throne who wants to change the nation and make it a better one, away from all the corruption, is a compelling story. And for fans of the horror genre, the zombie plague is brilliantly done. Their existence and attack on people is terrifying and exhibits true terror. It’s is a must watch!
Kingdom is available for streaming on Netflix.