One of the things fans of K-drama can look forward to in Kingdom, a zombie period drama, is the higher level of gore that is not the norm for TV shows from South Korea.
Director Kim Sung-hoon said during an interview in Singapore: “You will see a lot of blood, like people’s heads getting chopped off, which are possible because we’re on Netflix. I am both nervous and excited for audiences to watch it.”
Kingdom, a six-episode thriller, is Netflix’s first original Korean scripted series.
With a budget that reportedly cost US$1.78mil (RM7.32mil) per episode, the series features zombies from the get go. Its cinematography as well as attention to detail on costume and set also boast of big-screen quality.
Set during the 15th century Joseon Dynasty, it is a time when there is a power struggle for the throne while the reigning king is taken ill.
It involves the crown prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) who is about to lose his position (and perhaps his life) as the current queen is pregnant with a new heir.
Controlling who gets to sit on the throne is prime minister Jo Hak-joo (Ryu Seung-ryong), who is manipulating the situation to his benefit.
To make matters worse, the king drops dead. But he’s fed a medicine that brings him back to life … as a zombie.
In the midst of all this, is a kindly nurse (Bae Doo-na) – who may be the only character in the whole show without an ulterior motive other than to help the sick people.
It is up to the prince to find a cure to the plague, which has infected the nation. But is a self-involved young man, who has only lived a life of luxury, up to the task?
Actor Ju, who is best known for his role as crown prince in 2006 series Princess Hours, noted this of his character: “He doesn’t fight for the greater cause. He is only concerned about his own safety and comfort.
“But when he goes on a mission to uncover the truth behind his father’s illness, he sees the people suffering firsthand. He has to overcome many challenges, before he can consider himself king material.”
The walking dead
While Kingdom may sound like a weird genre mash-up – costume drama and zombies – series writer and creator Kim Eun-hee believes zombies to be a perfect metaphor for hunger, be it hunger for power or the more basic need to feed.
As the series starts in medieval Korea, it shows how the poor citizens are leading a miserable life with no food and hardly any means to weather the harsh winter. Meanwhile, the rich are living an easy life, remote from the common people’s hardship.
Eun-hee said: “The overall theme of Kingdom is hunger, both in physical and emotional form, which can be a strength or a weakness.
“All the characters are driven by their want for a better life, and it is up to the individual to choose whether to be compassionate or cruel when put in that situation.”
Director Sung-hoon added: “We are all familiar with zombies, but when placed in this era, we could also explore through it, issues of classism and sexism that existed during that time.
“Women in that era, for example, are of little or no importance although they do various duties. That’s why we chose to have Bae Doo-na’s character not be your typical woman in that she has an important role here.
“And we feature the hierarchy of class and what happens to it when everyone faces a common enemy.”
Winter is here
Most of the series were shot during winter which posed a problem to the cast.
Ju, who had to do a lot of action sequences outdoors, conceded that the freezing temperature was the biggest hurdle for him.
“Since the scale of the show is big, the look of the drama requires authenticity. So, we went to a lot of tough environments to film the series,” said Ju.
“Some places, if you are not careful when walking, you can slip, fall and break your bones.”
Ryu continued: “The visual aim for the show is to create terrifying moments and tension in every scene.
“To do that as a character was not easy.”
Despite the challenges, both these actors brought their A-game, said director Sung-hoon who can’t praise Ryu and Ju enough.
“Ji-hoon has a lovely charisma and he’s good looking. He came prepared physically for the role and showed great grit in playing the crown prince. I think he is the greatest actor in the industry.
“(The role of the evil minister) was the most difficult to cast. But the moment Ryu appeared, we knew our difficulty was over. We just had to give him the stage and he brings the best.” Sung-hoon said.
Ju, who confessed he will try to survive as long as possible if a zombie apocalypse occurred, shared that he’d love to try playing the undead.
“I have great respect for actors who play zombies. They go the extra mile – they really produce the groaning sounds zombies make even though doing so hurt their throats. I got to know them during production and they’re all hardworking,” Ju recalled, while the more quiet Ryu nodded in agreement.
Netflix has already green-lighted Season Two of Kingdom with filming tentatively scheduled to take place next month.
Ju mentioned that he is not sure how his character’s story would go on in the second season, but he did say the fight against evil will continue.
“I am happy with the result of the first season. When I first read the script, I thought it was refreshing,” Ju elaborated.
Ryu concurred: “Kingdom has a familiar Korean story, but one that uniquely blends with a monster from the West. I am confident the combination is something that will resonate with the global audience.”
Kingdom is available on Netflix.