It’s been a while since last time I reviewed a horror-related TV show, so maybe you were expecting me to make this comeback with something like The Walking Dead (still haven’t seen a single episode), Penny Dreadful (maybe one day) or Channel Zero (I’ll get there, I promise).
However, I usually review only the first season of long-lasting TV shows for a simple reason: I want to recommend something that people might be undecided about and, once I’ve done that, I don’t think there’s any reason to carry on. Besides, I’m the kind of person who loves feature films and can watch the same one over and over, but I get tired quite fast of TV shows, the only long one I’ve ever watched entirely is Lost (and soon I will add Game of Thrones).
With that out of the way, let’s talk Kingdom, specifically the first season consisting of six episodes with a runtime ranging from 43 to 56 minutes each. The story is set in 16th century Korea and centres around the rivalry between The Crown Prince (Ju Ji-hoon) and Minister Cho Hak-jo (Ryu Seung-ryong), who masterminded a coup against the heir to the throne by hiding the fact that the actual king has been turned into a… flesh-eating monster!
Kingdom succeeds on so many levels, the first of which consists of managing to create a tonally consistent story where both the ‘zombie’/horror element and the drama/period piece scenario feel very much dependent one on the other.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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For example, when it’s revealed that the creatures are asleep when the sun is up – so, basically, they can only attack during night time – it would be so easy for the humans to burn the bodies, but they can’t due to social and religious restraints that were present in Korea at the time. Yet, setting the story in such a specific time and place helps the movie to avoid certain zombie flick clichés: for instance, when in a modern zombie film the characters learn that they need to aim for the head, the audience is already aware of that, which makes such a revelation very unimpactful. Here, instead, you assume that this is the first time somebody had to fight against this type of danger, therefore every revelation seems new to you as it is to the characters involved.
Yet, Kingdom embraces the very interesting route of exploring how the disease spreads and how the outbreak originated. Contrarily to most zombie materials in pop culture, which focus on the aftermath, Kingdom explores the way things started and does that, step by step, by putting the main characters in the middle of every stage of the outbreak. This isn’t just refreshing, it also provides the audience with a deeper connection and emotional attachment to the protagonists, people who’ve been through hell in its different phases.
Speaking of characters, I absolutely adored the main protagonist, The Crown Prince. He goes through a very complicated and troubled arc that shows him starting off as a stroppy youngster and, by the end of the season, he’s a hero. Without giving away too much, during the last two episodes, every time he spoke or showed emotions I got goosebumps. His character trajectory is very similar to Eleven’s from Stranger Things – they’re both ‘gifted’ people who have been put in dreadful situations and now they must learn how to gain what they deserve and to live up to others’ expectations. Besides, the actor who played The Crown Prince did an outstanding job, which made it easier for me to care for the character.
Aside from him, the overall acting is pretty fantastic: even the characters who seem to be there just for comedic relief (yes, this TV show is also quite funny at times) had a certain depth to them that made them more than one-dimensional figurines. An aspect that I was very happy to see in Kingdom – which is one of the reasons why I love South Korean cinema – is the fact that there are loads of extras but everyone of them is clearly given precise directions by the filmmakers, so that every scene that’s filmed with a wide angle seems extremely realistic and impressive because everyone is doing something that matters. Most zombie flicks either focus on the main action or show the extras doing absolutely nothing, which always takes me away from the tension of the scene.
Kingdom is, overall, a great visual spectacle that benefits from fantastic locations, neat (albeit not ground-breaking) cinematography, superb characters and good acting. Yet, aside from the first and last episode, this show is extremely fast-paced and packed with zombie action (watch episode 3 if you want to know how to film and present compelling zombie sequences in a movie), which makes the viewing experience very easy.
On top of that, there’s a (quite obvious) comparison between the situations depicted in the show and the political climate in Korea, divided between North and South. Just like it’s happening right now, the northern part of the reign is, in Kingdom, ruled by a power-hungry dictator, whereas the leader of the South is the people, with The Crown Prince constantly breaking social conventions to get closer to his vassals and to decrease the differences between upper and lower class.
I do have a few issues with the first season of Kingdom, though. First of all, the first and last episode are quite uneventful: they’re well executed, no doubt, but the first episode feels just like set-up (because that’s what it is) and the last feels more like a long teaser to season 2. Yet, the action scenes were gory, but they never felt as gruesome or out-there as I like zombie action to be: they are cool, but they aren’t terrifying or off-putting, so to speak. However, this is probably more of a personal preference than an objective complaint, so I won’t downgrade the show for it. The overreliance on slo-mo, though, can get a bit tedious as the viewer gets further into the story, especially because there’s enough practical effects and choreographed fight sequences to claim that the slow-motion is, indeed, just a cheap gimmick that adds nothing to the impact of those sequences.
I also read reviews complaining about the fact that, during the last episode, there’s an occurrence that is borrowed (or copied) from Game of Thrones. So? Would you rather have a tiresome concept with a cool twist over an original and compelling story with a predictable turn of events? Really?
Before I conclude and give my final grade, I also wanted to praise the filmmakers and everyone who worked on Kingdom for the dedication they put into the project: one of the crew members died during production due to overwork. This is tragic and should never happen, but it shows how much passion and, perhaps, reckless effort was put and I can’t help but admire that.
It goes without saying that I quite loved Kingdom and I would obviously recommend to anyone who’s into Korean cinema, zombie flicks, tv shows, Netflix… basically, everything! I can’t wait to watch season 2, which started production just yesterday!
Looking for more zombie action like this? Click on the image to get a copy of Train to Busan:
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