Review: 'Kingdom' blends zombie action with Korean court intrigue

Crown Prince Chang and Seo Bi battle zombies in “Kingdom”.
Crown Prince Chang and Seo Bi battle zombies in “Kingdom”.

South Korea is in a state of zombie mania. When Netflix announced last year that it was making a blockbuster Korean epic series called Kingdom, a movie based on the same premise, Rampant, had already been released. Both these productions were based on Kim Eun Hee’s web comic series, The Kingdom of Heaven, about a crown prince in medieval Korea who fends off court politics and flesh-eating undead to save his people.

Kingdom, though, is able to flesh out the story much more with a multi-season television run as opposed to a single feature-length film (Netflix ordered a second season before the show even premiered). The first season, which was released on 25 January, consists of six hour-long episodes.

South Koreans first became enamoured with the zombie genre when Train to Busan pulled at their heartstrings. Kingdom, though, mixes things up with its setting in Joseon period Korea, where the weapons of choice are swords and arrows instead of guns.

The series starts off a bit slow, but gets much better as it draws you in with its blend of nail-biting action and political intrigue. Crown Prince Chang (Ju Ji Hoon) spends much of the first episode attempting to solve the mystery of what’s happened to the king, who’s seemingly vanished after contracting smallpox (we know he’s turned into a zombie, get on with it already!). The monarch is being kept out of the public eye by his power-hungry queen (Kim Hye Jun) and her father, Cho, the corrupt chief state councillor (Ryu Seung Ryong).

Chief State Councillor Cho is a power-hungry villain in “Kingdom”.
Chief State Councillor Cho is a power-hungry villain in “Kingdom”.

It’s gradually revealed that the sick king was turned into an undead monster through the desperate machinations of his relatives, who hoped to prolong his life until the pregnant queen could give birth and have her child succeed the throne. The zombie illness eventually spreads beyond the palace, inevitably. In a way, the zombies are therefore a metaphor for the corrupting influence of power.

The zombies here are fast – their speed is on the level of World War Z zombies as opposed to the lumbering gait of those in The Walking Dead. Thankfully for the townspeople they terrorise, the monsters only hunt at night, and hibernate during the day.

Be warned that the show is pretty bloody and graphic, whether it’s zombies chomping on humans or humans slashing zombies. Netflix was a natural home for Kingdom as creator Kim Eun Hee could not find a TV network who would broadcast the gritty violence she envisioned for the show.

The zombies in “Kingdom” hunt at night and hide during the day.
The zombies in “Kingdom” hunt at night and hide during the day.

The production value is fantastic. Think lush period costumes, intricately detailed palace architecture, and vast sets including city streets and fortresses. Kim Eun Hee said each episode cost US$1.78 million (S$2.4 million) to make.

The protagonist prince is followed on his adventure by his trusty bodyguard Moo Young (Kim Sang Ho). Along the way they encounter physician Seobi, played by Bae Doo Na, who seeks to find a cure for the zombie disease. Bae is already known to American audiences for her roles in Sense8 and Cloud Atlas.

The character development of Chang could have been written better. The prince initially seems to be vying with Cho simply to save his own skin. He was born to a lowly concubine, so if the queen gives birth to a royal heir, her clan would most certainly kill the older prince in their bid for power. However, as the series progresses, he suddenly morphs into a selfless hero who’s full of empathy for the suffering commoners. There are attempts to portray humorous banter between Chang and Moo Young, but these fall rather flat due to some woodenness in Ju’s acting.

That being said, we can’t wait for season two. And what a wait it’ll be: a chilling twist during the final episode reveals new information about the nature of the zombies and sets up a cliffhanger for the next season.

Here’s a trailer for Kingdom:

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