Review by C.J. Bunce
Timing of the debut of a horror genre series on Friday the 13th isn’t that much of a clever stretch, unless your series is about a plague and it’s launched on this particular Friday the 13th. It’s a shame that with most people staying home there won’t be a water cooler to circle around to discuss Netflix’s latest and greatest release. That’s the second season of Kingdom, the fantastic, epic tale of villagers in medieval 16th century South Korea dealing with a deadly plague. Check out my review of the first season here at borg. I am a bit envious of those who get to watch the first and second season together, because there are subtle hints in the first season that will have a greater impact if you remember them as the many twists and surprises are unveiled. “Ripped from the headlines,” about a zombie series? Who would have thought that was possible?
And yet it is. The first strange irony is that the production was South Korea’s first international release via Netflix, with its topic mirroring people from differing statuses coping with a sweeping virus, government incompetence and mismanagement, and the disparate treatment of economic classes. Unprepared for what lies ahead, a king is infected with a plague that renders him uncapable of leading. A group of thug-like mobsters takes the opportunity to position their candidate to take the throne–only he is not ready to lead. In fact, he doesn’t even exist–yet. The actual person best able to lead–the rightful heir to the throne, a prince played in classic Shakespearean stateliness by Ju Ji-hoon–has been pushed aside and exiled. He soon learns his people are threatened by a novel virus–a virus that restores the dead, but not as their former selves. That was in the first season. In the new season we learn that the truth behind the virus is even stranger than we could have expected. As a physician (played by the excellent Doona Bae) struggles to find a cure, the heir to the kingdom attempts to save his people and return to seize the throne from the young, ruthless queen (played by Kim Hye-jun), who is at least partly to blame for his plight.
The result is a second season that matches the success of the first–the best zombie show you’ve ever seen, while also seizing the opportunity to bring a certain gravity along by steeping the story in a historical context. And now that many have lived a few days with the threat of a deadly virus at bay, you may find the series takes on its own different, unexpected, heavy level of drama. You might agree the nature of the threat in the series makes for the least “fantasy” version of a zombie story you’ve yet seen on film or television. Kingdom is as much science fiction as fantasy, but it’s like that science fiction you’ve seen from Stan Lee superhero creations, and all his character origin stories resulting from misapplied science. You’ll also find plenty of heroes and villains.
And it’s zombies, so of course that means horror. Know that Hollywood doesn’t have anything on current South Korean film industry prosthetics and makeup. Someone went through plenty of dark red dye for this production.
We’ve only run an annual kick-ass heroines award at year-end, but if we had one for men, the mysterious warrior named Yeong-sin (played by Kim Sung-kyu) would make this year’s cut. He was great again this year, with more expert physical feats. The writers must have caught on that they should amplify his role. It’s not that much greater compared to the leading roles, but he steals every scene. Many subordinate characters from the first season take on greater roles this round: Seung-Ryong Ryu as Cho Hak Joo is fierce and loyal to the prince, the buffoon Magistrate Cho (played by Jun Suk Ho) is both comedic and sympathetic, the military minister played by Sung Min Soo could be called the Korean Willem Dafoe in a brilliant performance, and Heo Jun-ho as Lord Ahn Hyeon only rounds out the slate of incredible performers.
Deception. Murder. Conspiracy. Gorgeous, truly cinematic imagery. In the first season director Kim Seong-hun hid the secret to the plague in plain sight, and now he hides the nature of a possible cure there as well, further bolstering the richness of the fact-meets-fantasy lore found in this show. Writer Kim Eun-hee created the perfect mash-up of history and fiction. Watch all 12 episodes, season one and two, of Kingdom now exclusively on Netflix. The season ends on another cliffhanger, so keep an eye out for a third season next year.