Binge-worthy: Netflix's new K-drama, ‘Kingdom’
MANILA, Philippines — In Kingdom, the old saying “the king is dead, long live the king” can be taken pretty literally. The king of Joseon has succumbed to smallpox. But the king needs to be kept alive if the queen wants to hold on to power. So the queen and her minister father bring in a doctor familiar with an obscure herb called the Resurrection Plant. The herb brings the king back to life, but it has one hell of a side-effect: it turns the recipient into a flesh-hungry zombie. It’s less cure, and more curse.
To hide the undead king from the rest of the royal court, he is chained up, and nobody but the queen and the minister (plus a few hapless victims) are to see him. To prevent his victims — who themselves become zombies — from wreaking havoc, they are chained up and tossed into a river. We get to see the bottom of the river littered with upright bodies, and it’s one of the most memorable scenes in a series full of stunning visuals.
The apparent absence of the king is an obvious concern to the crown prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon). His efforts to uncover the truth about his father reveals a larger conspiracy within the royal court.
One of the most stunning things about the series is its ability to mix beautiful, majestic scenery with gut-spilling violence — at least, when the zombies are there. Kingdom takes a page out of The Walking Dead by putting human conflict at the center of all the horror. But while the walkers in The Walking Dead are an omnipresent threat to the characters, the ones in Kingdom have to sleep during the day, only to emerge at sundown. Kingdom uses this quirk as an opportunity to flesh out the toxic politicking and intrigue that beset the royal court.
Having zombies that sleep by day also allows the series to ramp up the tension and suspense. During the day, the characters fight and bicker with one another. But as soon as the sun goes down, the only thing that matters is survival. It’s this push-and-pull that makes watching Kingdom a compelling journey.
Political intrigue and zombie horror aren’t the only story threads Kingdom interweaves. Kingdom is also a coming of age story. At the beginning of the series, crown prince Lee Chang is your tropey spoiled prince. He is intense, physically gifted, but not the best at combat. He also likes to joke about killing the family of his most trusted royal bodyguard because, well, what else is a royally-spoiled royal supposed to joke about?
His initial motivation is relatively simple: find out what is happening to his father. But to do that, he and his bodyguard have to travel far to look for the physician who attended to the king. This journey becomes both a physical and emotional one for the crown prince. As the duo travels to various villages and towns, they witness both the ravages of the zombie outbreak (calling it a zombie apocalypse at this junction wouldn’t be appropriate yet) and the poverty afflicting a number of his subjects. The prince develops from someone out to learn about what happened to his father, to a full-grown man out to reclaim his rightful place in Joseon.
Kingdom attempts to cover a lot of ground (both literally and figuratively). And with a 6-hour runtime, the show sometimes feels like a test of endurance. I would argue that Kingdom doesn’t really need those 6 hours to tell its story. Kingdom is about the journey, not the destination — but the show would have been better if it trimmed some of the fat.
And that takes us to the biggest problem with the series: it leaves the two main conflicts — the one involving the schemes of the queen and the minister, and the one involving the zombies — hanging. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the series were a couple of hours shorter. But as it is, Kingdom spent 6 hours ramping up all that tension and suspense, only to end while I’m at the peak of my emotional involvement.
The good news is Kingdom has already been renewed for a second season. To help temper my disappointment over the lack of resolution, I am going to pretend that these two seasons are really just one, albeit with a really big cliffhanger in the middle, like what The Walking Dead does. But to me, a zombie piece needs resolution, or an emotional payoff, to become truly great. You can either solve the zombie outbreak or kill all the protagonists — but what matters is that there is some sort of closure (even one that sets up a new season or sequel). As it is, Kingdom is a fantastic journey without a satisfying destination. – Rappler.com
Iñigo de Paula is a writer who lives and works in Quezon City. When he isn't talking about himself in the third person, he writes about pop culture and its peripheries.