Kingdom (2019-2020) | Season 1 directed by Kim Seong-hun | Season 2 directed by Kim Seong-hun, Park In-je
South Korea | Colour | 12 Episodes
Written by Kim Eun-hee | Starring Ju Ji-Hoon, Bae Doona, Kim Sungkyu | Based on The Kingdom of the Gods by Kim Eun-hee and Yang Kyung-il
Kingdom, in a nutshell, is about a group of people surviving Korean fast-moving zombies in medieval times, with court intrigue thrown in for good measure. The setting – including locations, costumes and values – is what immediately sets this apart from other zombie media. Being set over 500 years ago makes the Netflix series all the more terrifying, as the rural communities try to survive against zombies when they lack food, weapons, and live in squalid overcrowded villages.
In several episodes the zombies catch fire, and because everything is built on wood, it doesn’t end well. The costumes and weapons for the nobles are stunning and you get a real sense of their culture. Swords, bows and arrows are the main weapons used throughout the series and there are some brilliant fight scenes, aided by brilliant cinematography that make you feel as though you are there.
One thing that does irk me though is the ridiculous hats that some of the nobles wear. The sun hats (gats) make sense during the day, but why wear them at night? And the elite guard have feathers or fur at the side of their hats which reminds me of a gazelle. There’s also chef-like hats and hats with ears that remind me of Mickey Mouse in different professions. The hats themselves are historically accurate in relation to class and Confucian values but ruins the seriousness of the series’ tone for me.
The mannerisms of each social class and the interactions between them are interesting from a historical perspective but scary to see how revered the nobles are, despite how callous they treat commoners. Another drawback for me was the dubbing seemed out of sync and I found it occasionally confusing when locations and characters swapped, as I wasn’t familiar enough with the characters or the places to understand why they were important at first.
Regardless of these faults I really enjoyed Kingdom, particularly in the surprising ways in which people will get out of a zombie predicament, and their reaction to royalty. Will people let honour blind them to how evil Queen Consort Cho (Hye-jun Kim) can be? There is also a refreshing lack of romance in the story, with Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-Hoon) only focus on fixing his country so the people don’t starve, and fulfilling his duty as his dad wanted. Both female main characters don’t need sex or companionship, and are completely focused on their goals; Nurse Seo-bi (Bae Doona) in saving lives and the Queen Consort in keeping power.
That’s not to say there is no character development elsewhere either. The Queen Consort looks nervous under her father’s control in Season 1, but by Season 2, along with her royal ladies, she won’t let anything stand in her way. The Crown Prince also takes part in a journey; in this case from a lazy noble to a man who leads by example in giving up his food and throwing himself in harm’s way. Cho Beom-pal (Jeon Seok-ho) bumbles his way through life and is influenced by everyone, which makes him unpredictable and his character development uncertain.
The series could have focused more on some of its side characters – like Yeong-shin (Kim Sung-kyu) who has the most interesting past of any character – rather than relying on flashbacks. The episodes themselves seem to get shorter as the series progresses. In fact, by the middle of Season 2 the story progresses rapidly to the point I wonder if the writers were told to wrap everything up within the last episodes. Each of the 2 seasons is only 6 episodes long, but whereas in the first season the story and setting develop slowly, the second season is more rapid, tense, and political.
Until the last few episodes, I was confused about the zombie’s relationship to water, as they are scared of it at one point but then throw themselves in wells to escape sunlight, and happily come out after its been raining. Fire also is mentioned as scaring them, but on a few occasions, they don’t seem as affected by it. On the positive side, gradually learning about the virus throughout Kingdom does make for some dramatic moments, particularly the Season 1 cliff-hanger, and the explanations that are given are different to most zombie media.
Overall, Kingdom is an interesting and original addition to the zombie genre. The positives including characterisation, setting and action all outweigh the negatives, like the pacing in Season 2 and the damn hats. It’s safe to say I’m looking forward to the one-off special episode, Kingdom: Ashin of the North, due later this year and reading the comic, Kingdom of the Gods, that the Netflix series is based on.