Fans of the zombie genre may experience a feeling of deja vu while watching Kingdom, the new South Korean period horror series.
Not so much for any similarities to The Walking Dead or even Kingdom compatriot Train To Busan, but for its striking parallels with last year’s big-screen release Rampant, also from the land of K-drama.
Both are set during the medieval Joseon period, both feature a crown prince of the realm becoming embroiled in a political conspiracy, both feature corrupt ministers exploiting the throne for their own ends, and both are packed wall-to-wall with the ravenous undead.
Each show even has a prison-set scene with officials and prisoners alike trying to escape hordes of the monsters.
As if all this is not enough, their directors have similar names too (the Hangul characters appear the same in their respective Wikipedia pages). Rampant is helmed by Kim Sung-hoon (Confidential Assignment) and Kingdom is directed by Kim Seong-hun (A Hard Day). Yes, my head is spinning too.
But where Rampant rather sanctimoniously blamed the undead plague on foreign devils, Kingdom attributes it to a (literally) homegrown source.
And where Rampant’s villainy stemmed from just one man’s ambition, Kingdom more feasibly highlights inter-clan and inter-class rivalry (and jealousy) as the basis for its palace intrigue.
For all the similarities, Kingdom acknowledges that it is based on a webcomic called Kingdom Of The Gods by Kim Eun-hee, who also wrote the screenplay for the series. On the other hand, Rampant appears to credit no source apart from its own screenwriters. Go figure.
Well, I enjoyed Rampant despite its lapses; and, swatting aside that pesky deja vu, I thoroughly enjoyed Kingdom as well.
Kingdom wastes no time establishing its key figures. The King has not been seen in public for some time, supposedly ailing; while his new Queen (Kim Hye-jun) is expecting his child.
Her father Cho Hak-jo (Ryu Seung-ryong), a former general, practically runs the country as a high-ranking minister; and the Crown Prince, Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), has been accused of treason (paving the way for the upcoming royal baby to be the future monarch).
Investigating the mystery surrounding his father’s supposed illness, Chang sneaks out of the palace and goes looking for the doctor who treated the King. His search leads him to a distant province just as the undead plague breaks out – and yes, there’s a connection, of course.
Where Rampant’s zombie rampages soon became tedious, Kingdom has no shortage of menaces to trouble its protagonists – hunted by the royal guard, Chang has no idea who he can trust, not the local officials or even the respected provincial leader he turns to for help.
He makes a watchable main character as he grows from a pampered prince to a strong leader able to back up, with actual deeds and leadership, his claims that he cares for the common people.
Ju makes the character’s arc believable, and he has some capable support. Besides Ryu’s cold-hearted chief conspirator and Kim’s queen with many secrets, interesting secondary characters include: Seo-bi, an earnest physician’s assistant played by Bae Doo-na (Cloud Atlas); Moo-young, Chang’s loyal bodyguard (Kim Sang-ho, Fabricated City’s vile secondary villain); and Young-shin (Kim Sung-kyu), a woodsman/huntsman with exceptional, as-yet-unexplained military skills.
Kingdom also scores points for making really good use of the zombie genre as a vehicle for allegory, much like George Romero’s seminal efforts.
It takes constant aim at present-day woes and crises brought on by greed and ambition, cheekily using the medieval setting as a mirror of the present.
With much of the country gripped by famine, the nobles stuff themselves to the point of gluttony while hashing out political jiggery-pokery; and, when the undead plague should be the Great Equaliser, they still insist that “their” zombies receive preferential treatment.
Trust me, there are many more such moments throughout the series when you will find yourself unsure whether to shake your head in disbelief or just let out a loud laugh at how absurd (yet also believable and familiar) it is.
There is intrigue layered upon intrigue, unveiled in stages as the series progresses, with the storytellers keeping a few eyebrow-raising surprises till the later episodes.
Of course, the biggest one is kept for last – reason enough for anyone who has made it to that point to audibly groan at the thought of waiting possibly another year for Season Two.
In today’s saturated scenario, amid a general indifference to the continued existence of many TV shows, that eagerness to see more of Kingdom should say a lot about its appeal. A satisfying meal for sure, but you’ll soon be hungry for more.
All six episodes of Kingdom Season One are available on Netflix.