Kingdom is a Netflix Original South Korean horror series, directed by Kim Seong-hun. It is based on the webcomic series The Kingdom of the Gods, written by Kim Eun-hee, who worked as the writer of the show as well. The series fulfills a multitude of categories, from Korean period piece, to political thriller, to zombie horror, and much more; however you want to label it, it is undoubtedly entertaining and appealing to a wide audience.
Kingdom follows a multitude of characters, all portrayed by talented and multi-dimensional actors, as they attempt to overcome a disease that is plaguing their nation—a zombie epidemic that is spreading rapidly throughout the villages of Joseon (the old-school name for Korea). At the root of the disease lies a mysterious plant called the Resurrection Plant. When used properly, the Resurrection Plant has the miraculous ability to bring the dead back to life… but not quite as elegantly as you would imagine. The disease of the undead spreads rapidly throughout the land, and many people desperately try to eradicate it. Despite their efforts, in the shadows there lurk evil people that wish to harness the power of the undead for their own personal gain.
While the quickly-spreading zombie disease is at the forefront of the show’s content, the plot dives deeper into much more complex elements. One of the most prominent conflicts is present between Korea’s political factions, the royal family, and the peasant families that live under them. Unbeknownst to his people and to a majority of his political supporters, the King of Joseon has died of an illness, only to be brought back to life (and subsequently zombified) by the leader of the notorious and powerful Haewon Cho clan. The Haewon Cho are led by the unforgiving Lord Cho Hak-ju, and his daughter, who is married to the King of Joseon and therefore the Queen of the nation. The Haewon Cho are willing to take any extreme measures in order to preserve their power, and knock down any opponent who stands in the way of their political dominance.
Here steps in the main character, Lee Chang, the Crown Prince of Joseon. He is the son of the King of Joseon, but his mother was a concubine, therefore undermining his power and making him unfavorable in the eyes of the Haewon Cho clan. Throughout the series, he struggles to find a balance between helping the peasant villagers of Joseon, taking his power back from the greedy Haewon Cho, and of course, killing plenty of zombies on the way. Lee Chang cares about the people of Joseon and wishes to improve their conditions of living, acting as a stark contrast to the Haewon Cho clan and their focus on lavishly living while their people starve and are killed off by zombies. This conflict plays out marvelously throughout the series, with shocking secrets revealed, surprising betrayals, and plenty of well-choreographed sword fights.
Lee Chang is accompanied by a well-rounded and intriguing cast of characters. Mu-yeong, Lee Chang’s bodyguard and best friend, is incredibly devoted to serving and protecting the Crown Prince, but is hiding a secret from him that could destroy his trust. Seo-bi, an intelligent female physician who is well-informed about the disease, uses her wits and her medicinal skills to try to find a cure for the horrid zombie plague. Yeong-shin, a highly skilled fighter and tiger hunter, perhaps has the highest zombie kill count throughout the series, but he wrestles with the knowledge that he may have been responsible for the zombie plague in the first place. All together, these characters make up an entertaining and complex team, all with their own secrets and burdens. The different dimensions of each character add a lot of diversity to the plot’s themes and storytelling throughout the series.
From a technical aspect, Kingdom is brilliantly made. The setting of Korea’s Joseon era (1392-1910) is accented by beautifully made sets of royal palaces, gardens, towering walls, peasant villages, and much more. Even when most of these locations are covered by piles of zombie bodies, the attention to detail in every environment where the show was filmed is marvelous. As for special effects, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horror movie or TV show that is as well-made as Kingdom. Every rotting zombie face, every decapitation, and every fight scene look absolutely real and believable. The production value of this series is so high, it will make you question how the producers could have possibly created such authentic special effects. One can only imagine how many hours the background actors must have spent in the makeup chair to look like such realistic zombies.
With such a captivating plot, compelling characters, and high-value production, one has to wonder why Kingdom never really soared in popularity on Netflix. Season 1 was released in January of 2019, and Season 2 followed in March of 2020. During both of those release phases, there was very little media attention or hype to follow. Even with Rotten Tomatoes scores over 90% and high praise from critics, Kingdom failed to attract the widespread attention and publicity that most newly released Netflix Original shows manage to achieve with ease. What component was Kingdom missing that made it lie undetected?
In the United States, and throughout most Western audiences, there is an abundance of zombie content, some of it as mindless and unoriginal as the zombies themselves. Shows and movies like The Walking Dead, World War Z, and Netflix’s own Santa Clarita Diet are loaded with popularity and recognition, even though they receive plenty of criticism themselves. Perhaps the Kingdom series didn’t receive the same kind of attention because it is not catered toward the Western eye, nor does it include any major Western elements. It’s set in Korea, all of the dialogue is spoken in Korean, and it includes factors such as Joseon-era politics and wars that are unfamiliar to Western audiences. It is easy to understand why someone who is not fond of reading subtitles would skip right over Kingdom if it popped up on their Netflix suggestions list. Pitching a “Korean period drama about zombies” to your friends might not sound so appealing to them either.
However, Western audiences should strive to diversify their streaming content a little more and open up their willingness to watch non-Western media. Do you really want to keep watching the same old recycled zombie plot? While most zombie flicks and shows these days are all too predictable and present nothing more than the promise of good graphics, Kingdom offers a fresh and unique outlook on the zombie apocalypse genre. It’s got a fascinating, politically-charged plot that extends further than just fighting zombies, excellent acting, and state-of-the-art special effects. It also explores relevant topics such as gender disparities, poverty vs. the greed of the rich, power struggles, and of course, an unstoppable zombie pandemic. The pandemic part may hit a little too close to home at times, but there is no better show than Kingdom to watch in quarantine during this fall season.