Review by C.J. Bunce
After more than a decade watching our all-time favorite series take place in Korea (M*A*S*H), it’s refreshing to at last to see in wide U.S. release a quality series set in Korea. That series is the first South Korean series released by Netflix, a fantastic medieval historic mash-up with zombies called Kingdom, which began streaming this past weekend. Sprouting from a well-documented, mysterious plague that killed tens of thousands of people in Hanyang (present-day Seoul) during the 16th century Joseon dynasty, this story nestles the viewer in a fully realized Korea of the past, complete with opulent sets, costumes, and production values said to have cost nearly $2 million per episode. The result matches a stunning script (based on a web series by Kim Eun-hee, who counts herself a zombie aficionado and proves it with this series), top acting from a slate of South Korea’s most award-winning actors, and cinematography showing locations most Westerners have never seen, with an exciting Braveheart of the Far East meets The Walking Dead genre action feast.
The region’s king comes down with smallpox, and on his sick bed his latest wife, a young pregnant queen (played by Kim Hye-jun) schemes with her father and the king’s supposed confidante, Lord Cho (Masquerade’s Ryu Seung-ryong), to seize control of the throne, conspiring with Cho’s embedded clan of thugs to shun the true heir, the Crown Prince, played by Ju Ji-hoon (The Spy Gone North) as an earnest, Henry V-inspired leader. But is the king really dead, and what other secrets does the queen keep? Father and daughter bar access to everyone outside their circle, and so the Crown Prince escapes with his trusted and fierce lieutenant Muyeong, played with equal parts grit and humor by Sang-ho Kim (Octopus), conjuring the versatility of Japan’s Toshiro Mifune. They set out to discover the source of the spreading plague, meeting up with a doctor played by Sense8 and Jupiter Ascending‘s Doona Bae, and (in a twist worthy of a Tom Clancy novel) the realization fosters the Crown Prince’s viability as a real leader against an unthinkable threat. Rounding out the main cast is a mysterious warrior named Yeong-sin, an angry, defensive villager who buries a group of the dead against local traditions, played by Kim Sung-kyu. His character is cloaked in his own secret past.
Deception. Murder. Conspiracy. A prince who above all else looks to protect his father the king and be a good leader. A heroic race to a stronghold via horse cart. A mother infected who turns on her own child. Swords and bow and arrow, and early rifles, as the only means of defense. Gorgeous, truly cinematic imagery. Western viewers get an incredible look at a beautiful island, forests, waterfalls, bubbling brooks, palatial estates, lakes and mountain views probably never captured for a wide modern audience, thanks to some stunning cinematography. Fog, night, and fire eerily presented among cinematic storyboarded action sequences. The music is a blending of traditional, medieval, Eastern themes, and sweeping programmatic action movie cues. Costume designs in exquisite fabrics and designs at first may seem odd to modern viewers, but their similarity to the garb of Akira Kurosawa films (that Western audiences have had greater access to over the decades) should ease in most viewers. The production sets and artistry are probably matched only by History’s Vikings of the current historical and fantasy TV series available. And the expected horror of the zombie genre–sword beheadings were never filmed so believably.
Director Kim Seong-hun (Tunnel) hides the secret to the plague in plain sight, the source component taking more of the story than found in most zombie fare. It’s a rich part of the fact-meets-fantasy lore found in this film, the kind of answer that will no doubt be used by future writers of zombie stories because it takes the biggest problem of the zombie genre–the preposterous idea that someone can get a disease that both returns them from death and become a flesh-eating beast–and nudges as little as possible viewers’ suspension of disbelief.
The only negative consideration? The poorly worded captioning (the film is not dubbed into English). What is likely better worded in its original Korean tongue becomes clunky only because an English editor clearly didn’t make an effort to formalize and smooth out the dialogue–it’s a bit like a Google Translate attempt in several parts. But this is a longstanding problem of English captions of many releases from Asia.
Don’t expect the magic-filled, theatrical fantasy sequences of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or any of the El Rey Network’s Flying Five Finger One Armed Eight Pole Shaolin Exploding Death Touch Tuesday martial arts fest shows–this is a different level of thoughtful filmmaking. Fair warning: this six-episode first season is like a short British television first season, and viewers are only getting half a story in the first six hours, with the entire sixth episode a volley of cliffhangers preparing viewers for the second season (filming for Season 2 is to commence next month). But what you get is a great six episodes of entertaining TV viewing.
Watch the first, fantastic season of Kingdom now, airing exclusively on Netflix.