Posted on March 11, 2020

The Zombies of Kingdom are Better, Faster, Stronger

Guest Post

I happened upon Kingdom during a particularly gloomy Saturday afternoon. It was in some post-lunch delirium that I picked it out from one of Netflix’s algorithm-generated line-ups, titled “Korean Thrillers”—generated entirely from my recent viewing of Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan—fully intending on drifting into my afternoon siesta during the opening credits. Little did I know that 56 fraught minutes later I’d be wide, wide awake. Kingdom demands your attention: set against the backdrop of Korea’s Joseon dynastic kingdom (for which the show is named), this show breathes fresh air into an over-saturated zombie sub-genre.

I’ll try and give as little away as I am able in this review. Fortunately, Kingdom isn’t a show that really lends itself to spoilers. The show’s full force is felt in its technical mastery of the horror genre, having perfected the fine balance between excruciatingly drawn-out anticipatory tension and the inevitable—but nevertheless effective—jump scare. Kingdom holds you in its affective clutches for 50ish minutes, 6 times in a row. At least, that’s how I watched it: all in one sitting. Much of the show’s special sauce comes from its return to folklore as the basis for the supernatural, suggesting that evil is produced through contravention of the natural order, or faith, or the sins of man. Yet Kingdom’s undead are anything but mythological: they are political, and assertively so, about which viewers are left with little doubt.

Just take a look at the trailer for the first season of Kingdom, which serves up imperial opulence with a dash of otherworldly intrigue:

The trailer for Kingdom opens with a single, uncomplicated idea: power, and those who wield it, hold absolute primacy in this society. Antagonism between key imperial actors is established, and the victims of their machinations—those with less power—are clearly designated. Yet, it appears as though another, darker power has begun to haunt the realm, infecting the population top-down and bottom-up. The penny drops when Bae Doona—of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Cloud Atlas, and Sense8 fame—betrays that while the plague was purportedly eradicating peasant communities, in reality it transformed them into cannibalistic monsters. Lines of opposition are consequently redrawn in Kingdom, no longer delineating the powerful from the powerless, but the living from the dead.

Crown Prince Lee-Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) requests his stepmother, Queen Consort Cho (Kim Hye-jun), for an audience with his father

Set primarily in Hanyang (present-day Seoul) and the southern provinces, Kingdom follows two seemingly unrelated plotlines: the political conspiracy against the ascension of Crown Prince Lee-Chang by Minister Cho Hak-ju and his daughter—the Queen Consort—who would rather see the Queen’s unborn child take the throne and secure the family’s control through regency; and the general plight of villagers in rural provinces who seem to be succumbing en masse to a mysterious new disease. It is only as the narrative unfolds does one realize that the climax of the plotlines’ increasing entanglement deploys sharp criticisms of Joseon social hierarchy. Sure, it’s terrifying to have throngs of bloodhungry undead threaten to overwhelm city walls: but could a similarly-sized and indignantly impassioned group of rebelling human peasants produce a similar reaction? The inevitable response to institutional subjection is presented here as an undying, insatiable rage. And now that we’re talking hierarchy: Kingdom takes the phrase ‘political placeholder’ really seriously, seeing as the King—the earthly manifestation of the divine—is also, funnily enough, undead. Compacting the distance between the monarch and his subjects through their similar condition of (un)death, Kingdom rends the structure of Joseon monarchical hierarchy (which disenfranchises the poor and empowers their masters). The zombie figure lays bare this era’s political irony.

Crown Prince Lee-Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) and his bodyguard Moo-Young (Kim Sang-ho) discover a number of seemingly dead bodies strapped together and stashed away under the floorboards at Jiyulheon

But let’s be clear about Kingdom’s zombies: they’re not just metaphors for the disruption of social order, they’re flat-out terrifying. In the face of a rapidly ossifying sub-genre—zombies just aren’t as sexy as vampires and werewolves, no matter what Warm Bodies tried to tell us—that humanizes and romanticizes the monster, nobody’s swiping right for Kingdom’s undead. Without rehashing the ‘fast zombie’ trope popularized by the Zombieland series, Kingdom revitalizes the figure of the undead wight, whose insatiable hunger and grotesque immortality threaten the existence of humanity itself. 

Unbeknownst to the Crown Prince (Ju Ji-hoon), the King has fallen prey to the plague of the undead

Kingdom’s cinematography, art direction, and costuming warrant special mention, too. The series is technically stunning, with director Kim Seong-hun bringing to life Kim Eun-hee’s measured reimagining of Joseon-era Korea in exquisite detail. Long, hypnotic shots deliberately throw into relief both the magnitude of the zombie plague as well as the minutia of its horrors (think: The Shining), and fast-paced action sequences foreground the immediacy of its threat. Particular attention is given to set and costume design, with designer Lee Hwo-kyoung granting these efforts specific cultural purchase in distinguishing Korean culture from neighboring Japanese and Chinese counterparts. The creative development of the sageuk (historical drama) and well-delivered performances from supporting characters Seo-bi (Bae Doona) and Moo-young (Kim Sang-ho) only further cement the distinction of Korean cinematic culture and its staked claim within supernatural, thriller, and horror genres.

In short, this show is a must-see. You have a couple of days to get caught up as Kingdom returns to Netflix on March 13th.

Related: Check out our review of the brilliant South Korean zombie film, Train to Busan. And we also review other recent zombie fare: the TV series Black Summer and the film Cargo.

Alya Ansari is a doctoral student in the Department of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies minoring in Moving Image Studies at the University of Minnesota.

You Might Also Like

Back to top