I am a self confessed Korean drama addict but I’m not much of a fan of saeguk (period) dramas. I always felt they were too heavy on politics and they often run for over 20 episodes. When I first heard that Netflix was developing Kingdom, its first Korean zombie series set in the Joseon era, I was already on board with the idea because for sure, it was not going to be the typical saeguk drama which spans decades before the rightful king or queen is crowned to rule the people. Kingdom is based on Korean web manhwa Kingdom of the Gods written by Kim Eun-hee and illustrated by Yang Kyung-il.
Synopsis: It has been 10 days since the King has fallen ill and with each passing day that the King’s Palace remains closed, even to members of the royal family except for the queen, the suspicion of Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji Hoon) that his father is already dead, grows. When he sneaks into his father’s quarters to see him, he discovers that the conspiracy of the powerful Haewon Cho political clan runs deeper than hiding his father’s true condition. Their greed for power causes an epidemic to spread in the east and west territories of the Kingdom and it is up to the crown prince to save his people and claim his throne.
When the lead role was initially offered to Song Joong Ki for his Korean drama comeback, I was really hoping that he would accept the project because not only did Kingdom have a unique premise, but it was helmed by the powerhouse team of writer Kim Eun Hee (Signal) and director Kim Sung Hoon (Tunnel). Unfortunately, he declined the project. Fortunately, it went to Ju Ji Hoon, which I believe was a blessing in disguise because he was absolutely perfect for the role. Ju Ji Hoon wears the role of royalty as if it was second skin and gives life to his character so effectively.
From the onset, viewers will already sympathize with the Crown Prince. While he is the legitimate heir to the throne, he is helpless inside his own palace because the ruling clan is doing everything in its power to cling to power and prevent him from taking his rightful place. I loved the development of Crown Prince Lee Chang’s character. He was the ultimate underdog from the beginning — illegitimate, inexperienced, outclassed — but his heart was in the right place. As he overcomes each hurdle to save his people from the monsters, he slowly came to terms with his role in his country’s history. As he navigates through the tangled political web that keeps him from the throne, he is helped along by a motley crew of survivors who recognize his leadership.
Personally, I was particularly concerned in the beginning because the Crown Prince seemed more inclined towards politics than in swordfights but my fears were allayed when it was revealed that he knew how to handle himself well with a sword. Whew!
I liked that the series focused on developing key characters in the series like Bae Doona’s Seo bi, the physician who had vital information about the disease; the mysterious Young Shin (Kim Sung Kyu) who was like the Walking Dead’s Daryl to Pring Lee Chang’s Rick Grimes; the Prince’s bodyguard Moo Young (Kim Sang Ho) and war hero Ahn Hyun (Heo Jun Ho), a key player in the battle for the throne. On the flipside, the evil trio of kingmaker Jo Hak Jo (Ryu Seung Ryeong) and his equally evil spawns, Queen Regent (Kim Hye Jun) and royal army captain Beom Pal (Jeon Seok Ho) were chilling effective in their roles as arrogant and greedy politicians who will stop at nothing to stay in power. It was truly amazing how the story was able to balance the politics and the horror element of the series and laid out these characters’ different motives in choosing their side. At the same time, it succeeded in implying that there were more layers to the characters motivations and ambitions that meet the eye.
On the horror aspect, these zombies were on whole different level. The Walking Dead’s walkers were slow and not very bright but Kingdom’s zombies are sprinters. They attack in groups and the infection spreads instantly which makes them multiply in terrifying speed. There were too many close calls and frustrating moments when the Capitol seemed more concerned about arresting the Prince instead of using their armies to battle the undead but that’s a story for another day.
It was an amazing production that truly involved the audience in the experience. It invoked an epic feel that is uncommon for this type of genre. As much as one is horrified by the idea of being eaten alive, one will also be appalled by the sheer ruthlessness of politicians who will use crisis to further oppress the people. The discrimination among the classes was also very evident in the series which fuels the sense of injustice more as it depicts the deplorable conditions that the poor have to endure under the puppet king;s rule.
All in all, I would consider Kingdom to be one of Korea’s finest saeguk dramas that can rival the suspense and graphic intensity of HBO’s Game of Thrones. By the first season’s end, it had Battle of Castle Black feels which only fueled one’s desire to see what happens next when the second season opens. Too bad filming will only begin next month and fans will have to wait for another few months before we could binge on another epic season. I for one, could not wait to see if my conspiracy theories are correct. One word for the entire thing — brilliant, even though it ended on a cliffhanger. I could not think of more superlatives for this series. Seriously.