2019: The year of the woke zombie

#SGWatch4U is our screen review column where we tackle anything from film to TV/Netflix.


Disclaimer: We’ll watch anything with zombies in it. Something about the undead and their uncanny likeness to the people around us, perhaps, makes them such good fodder for mindless television (it’s why we once sat through a zombie holiday musical, and thoroughly enjoyed it).

But we also like concept—anything fresh that reinvigorates a tired sub-genre. Zombies on a train? Sure. Zombies juggling teen angst and insatiable hunger for human flesh in the suburbs of California? Why the hell not. So when Netflix hands us zombies in medieval Korea amidst the unraveling of a great political conspiracy—we click play and binge-watch the entire season in two days.

Like many successful action flicks, the South Korean Kingdom was adapted from a webcomic series, The Kingdom of the Gods, authored by Kim Eun-hee who also serves as the screenwriter for the television series. The six-episode season is set in 17th Century Korea, during the medieval Joseon period, and opens immediately to alleged treason within the palace.

Rumours of the King’s death circle the Hanyang province (modern-day Seoul), and embroiled in the thick of it is Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon). He should be next in line for the throne—if it weren’t for the scheming General Cho Hak-jo (Ryu Seung-ryong), whose daughter has married the current emperor, and is now carrying his son. Should her son be born first, he will become the new king, and Prince Lee Chang will be deposed. All too conveniently, a mysterious new plague begins to creep across the country, turning people into the undead with a sickening, protein-rich appetite. Threatened both by forces within and outside his home capital, the Prince must prevent the advance of the plague, while dodging corrupt officials attempting to behead him at every turn.


Seo-Bi and Yeong-Shin

Straightaway, Kingdom mashes the best of global hit TV shows—the morality debates of The Walking Dead, the dynastic politics of Game of Thrones, and zombies. As with most zombie movies, it picks up and forms a squad of sorts along the way: his royal guard and bestie Moo-Young (Kim Sang-ho), a feisty physician Seo-Bi (Bae Doo-na), and a secretive but skilled civilian Yeong-Shin (Kim Sung-gyu).

But there are some quirky, necessary details that give the Kingdom zombies their own identity. They are of the fast, sprinting variety, which makes for more thrill during the attacking scenes; and they are totally powerless in the day, hiding from the sun under rocks and building structures where they become inanimate.

And it’s this second detail that is weirdly refreshing. Already a departure from most zombie narratives, it allows the series to focus on its main messages—the class politics in the situation, the characterisation. As the zombies take a time-out in the day, the action (and your attention) swivels back to Prince Lee Chang’s conflicts with the Cho house and his own growth as a ruler for the people. The zombies were never meant to take the front seat. Sparing no subtlety in its delivery, the show outlines a growing class divide even in medieval Korea, shaped by selfish decisions and morally egregious characters; and the resulting chills are inescapable. The smartest thing Kingdom does is gradually reveal who the true monsters are: the entitled upper class (plus, it’s a relief to know that our protagonists stand a fighting chance and won’t be randomly mauled for spectacle’s sake).

At almost an hour long per episode, Director Kim Seong-hun’s Kingdom takes its time to pace its action and reveal its twists. More often than not, it chooses to end on a high point to goad you on to the next episode—which, though frustrating for the average television watcher, unfortunately works in the Netflix era.

There’s a little left to be desired of the season finale, which (spoiler, sort of) spends much of its 40-minute run time—the shortest in the whole series—building to a climax that never happens. It’s not an Inception cliffhanger, but it’s unsatisfying nonetheless. Kingdom is one of 17 new Asian original productions Netflix has pledged its budget to, and a second season has already been announced. But filming only starts this month, and unless they’ve got a killer production schedule, the new season will likely only be ready next year.

Will the tension it painstakingly built in the finale be able to sustain itself, and its audiences, till next year? Or have the producers unwittingly shot themselves in the foot? Unlike killing a zombie (i.e. via a shot in the head), the answer isn’t so straightforward.


Kingdom is now streaming on Netflix.