I don’t like watching zombie flicks.
But Netflix’s new show Kingdom, a six-episode saga set in 15th century Korea, had me hooked right from the get-go.
Set to stream Jan. 25, Kingdom is a wonderfully shot, scripted and intelligent take on the zombie genre, one that feels like a period drama — just with undead monsters as a bonus. The brilliance of the show is no surprise: The talents behind Kingdom include ace Korean director Kim Seong-hun of hit 2016 film Tunnel, and Kim Eun-hee, who wrote 2016’s police procedural Signal, one of South Korea’s highest-rated dramas.
Kim said she’d been working on the idea since 2011, but couldn’t get it to air on Korean TV platforms because of the violence. But then Netflix came knocking and the rest is TV history.
The premise of Kingdom is simple. In the beautiful Joseon period of 15th century Korea, an ambitious minister wants to take over the throne. He keeps the ailing king alive with a mysterious medicine that also seems to have turned him into an undead monster… that feeds on human flesh.
Meanwhile, our hero the crown prince, played by Ju Ji-hoon, tries to get to the bottom of the matter, but he isn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart — failure would mean him sentenced to death, plus he’s losing his position as heir thanks to the machinations of the evil minister.
Throughout the first season, there was substantial character growth for our hero, but the villain’s motivations were shallow and one-dimensional at best. Sense8’s Doona Bae plays Seo-bi, a nurse, who doesn’t get enough to do, which feels like a waste of her talents.
Unlike your typical Korean drama that tends to play it safe for the local censors, Kingdom is brutal with its decapitations and violence. Heads fly whenever a noble is offended, scholars are tortured with burning irons and zombie wounds are scary real. I was squirming in my seat, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the wonderful cinematography.
Shots cleverly linger on certain scenes to draw out the impressive sets, while adeptly tracking the action during sword fights or zombie attacks. The scenery is also breathtaking, from the beautiful royal palace gardens to the vast plains of Korea, while the realistic hovels of civilians add a visceral feel of poverty that contrasts from the glamor of the palace.
Care is also taken to slowly emphasise certain pivotal moments, sometimes with shots lingering carefully on the details of the show’s expensive and elaborate costumes, drawing out what would otherwise be a mundane plot device into yet another wow moment.
The scares build slowly, but the drawn-out scenes add to the suspense — even if you see what’s coming in the end. The show creators have pointed out that hunger is the theme of Kingdom, and this shows, from the flesh-craving appetite of the undead zombies, the hunger for power in both the villain and the hero, and the desire to do good in a world gone mad.
There are twists aplenty, but they are terribly predictable thanks to plenty of foreshadowing. It doesn’t leave much sense of satisfaction, which is the only complaint I have, aside from the fact that six episodes don’t quite tie up the story, leaving you hungry for the upcoming season.
Kingdom will stream globally on Jan. 25 on Netflix.