Writer, Director of South Korean Zombie Drama 'Kingdom' on Global Response and Coronavirus Parallels

Kingdom Still 1 -Netflix Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix

[This story contains spoilers from seasons one and two of Netflix's Kingdom.]

When season one of Netflix's South Korean zombie sageuk (historical drama), Kingdom, was released in January 2019, critics and audiences worldwide praised its sumptuous sets and costumes, engrossing story, artful cinematography and over-the-top gore. It was escapist fantasy of the best kind, with a Game of Thrones-esque combination of high political intrigue, supernatural threats and insanely elaborate textiles.

When season two was released in March, however, two days after the World Health Organization officially recognized the novel coronavirus as a pandemic, a drama about a mysterious disease spreading rapidly through an unsuspecting populace as government officials hid the terrible truth became slightly less escapist and slightly less fantastical.

The plot basics are as follows. It's the end of the 16th century and the Japanese have just withdrawn from the Korean peninsula after nearly a decade of war, leaving the country in ruins. Disease and famine are rampant (this is all historically accurate), and talk of rebellion against the crown is widespread. In a desperate attempt to cling to power, Cho Hak-ju, the king's adviser — and father to the queen consort — has turned the king into a zombie (this is not historically accurate) in the hopes that he can hide news of the monarch's death until his very pregnant daughter can give birth to an heir. Obviously, the success of this plan hinges on no one actually seeing the king, because the zombies in Kingdom are pretty obviously zombies and look gross and like to eat people's faces. Unfortunately, the current crown prince, Chang — whose mother was a concubine and who will thus be out of luck if the queen has a son — manages to sneak into his dad's chamber and see just enough to figure out something is (literally) rotten in the state of Denmark. Thus, Chang and his allies set out to discover the truth about the king amid rumors of a deadly plague spreading across the countryside.

By the end of season one, Prince Chang and his allies have uncovered Cho's treachery as well as the nature of the plague and its main symptoms — sensitivity to cold, pallid complexion, unslakable thirst for blood, etc. Season two focuses on stopping the zombie horde, finding a cure for the pandemic, and exposing the machinations of Cho and the queen.

I was curious to speak to writer-creator Kim Eun-hee about how, if at all, the real-world pandemic had affected the reception of season two, among other topics. (South Korea and the U.S. reported their first case of the novel coronavirus on the same day, Jan. 20, and since then the two country's paths have diverged, with Korea moving quickly to institute widespread testing and tracking programs. When season two debuted March 13, South Korea had already reached its peak in daily reported cases.)

Kim — who also authored the source material, webcomic Kingdom of the Gods — and season two director Park In-je answered THR's questions via email about the current mood in South Korea, the global reaction to the series, and the challenges of launching a homegrown zombie show. 

First off, how are you both doing in Korea? What's the mood like there amid the pandemic?

Kim Eun-hee: I'm currently working on the script for my next drama series, Jirisan. While there was a greater sense of fear with the number of confirmed cases rising in February, these days, most people trust the government's policies and refrain from leaving their homes as we all do our part to prevent further spread of the virus.

Park In-je: COVID-19 broke out around the last stages of postproduction for [season two of] Kingdom, so I've been in self-quarantine at home since then. Like other countries, Korea's spread of fear is slowing. Thanks to relatively early measures, Korea hasn't been seeing large-scale infections. But some theaters are shut down, and we're refraining from performances or traveling.

I had marked my calendar for the season two release in the States, but — like, I imagine, yourselves — I never thought the subject matter would have some direct relevance to current events.

Kim: Because the series deals with a pandemic, I think it's inevitable that the show is compared to the current reality and affected by it, whether it be good or bad. Although the series is a product of the creators' wild imagination, I hope the epidemic will soon be under control like in our series.

Do you get the sense that people are more or less interested in watching a show about a deadly pandemic amid a pandemic?

Kim: While Kingdom deals with a plague, I tried to put more focus on the story of the people that respond to it rather than the plague itself. Some fight it, some give up, and some use it to rise to power. If viewers were to focus more on those characters, I think it could alleviate the fear toward the epidemic.

Park: I don't think people would hesitate to watch the series because it deals with a pandemic; I think they'll accept it as a genre [series]. Kingdom has strong entertainment value, and I think Korean viewers no longer feel unfamiliar with the zombie genre. I also think it being a period piece, which many are familiar with, helps lower the barrier. I hope at least when the viewers are watching Kingdom, that they can really enjoy themselves.  

Are people in Korea drawing parallels from the show to the current political climate there?

Kim: During the entire time I was working on writing Kingdom, the whiteboard in my office always read, "What is politics?" The question I wanted to ask was, "Who is an upright leader that truly thinks of the people in the midst of a crisis brought on by an unknown disease?" I'm not sure if the Korean public agrees, but I think now is the time to seek answers to such questions. Personally, I think the Korean government, the KCDC (Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and medical professionals are doing a great job.

Park: It wasn't intended, but I've seen comments that draw parallels and link the show to what's happening in the real world. For example, people would refer to Prince Chang and the group running from zombies as "social distancing," or discuss the upcoming general election in Korea [in terms of] Chang's leadership, etc.

What did Netflix tell you about the response to the first season worldwide? What surprised you?

Kim: Through social media and online comments, I felt extremely grateful to see even the smallest of roles getting so much love. What was interesting with season one was how global fans reacted and related to the Korean elements in the show, such as Confucian values, hanbok (traditional Korean attire), hanok (traditional Korean houses) or the palace. I also really enjoyed watching the series dubbed in other languages.

Park: I read a lot of comments and discussions about Kingdom on online forums. I definitely see a lot of interest in the show. I was more surprised by how it was received globally. It was particularly interesting to see how so many were interested in the costumes when season one launched, and especially the fascination with the gat, a type of hat. So in season two, we tried to showcase a wider variety of hats, and also focused on sangbok — mourning clothes. Sangbok is a type of funeral clothing, and in the past, all Koreans had to wear sangbok for a certain amount of time when the king passed away. While people wear black in the West, Koreans traditionally wore white. I hope that more people can appreciate the beauty of hanbok in season two. 

Park, what were some of the unique challenges of filming this show?

Park: It had to be the struggle with seasons. We began shooting in late winter, all through spring, and finished in summer. In the winter, the zombies had to be barefoot and wear very thin clothes — as you know, our zombies are running all the time, so there were physical strains. And when it was warmer, we had to bring in artificial snow, and also use VFX during postproduction to create winter on the screen.

Kim, I saw another interview you did where you said you had pitched the idea for Kingdom but no one in the local industry was really into the idea of a zombie show, and Train to Busan was what made the idea more appealing. Can you expand on that?

Kim: Before Train to Busan, even in the film industry, the dominant notion was that the zombie genre was a niche genre that appealed to only a small group of fans. This was even more so for drama series. In Korea, TV dramas are usually aired on the so-called public broadcasting stations, and these channels are usually watched by families, meaning that shows are usually rated lower for a wider audience and are evaluated with stricter rules. Smoking, curse words are all not allowed, and while swords are OK, knives have to be blurred out. Needless to say, gory scenes that show harming of dead bodies were taboo. Under such circumstances, it was nearly impossible for a zombie show in which zombies can only be stopped by decapitation to be made into a drama series!

I feel like the mythology around the resurrection plant and the zombies is very well done here. Kim, when you were conceptualizing the zombies on Kingdom, what elements of other projects in that genre did you want to avoid or adopt? I feel like everyone has a "Zombies shouldn't be able to do that" thought at some point, or "If I were in a zombie apocalypse I'd do x, y and z," but not everyone gets to write their own series.

Kim: While I wanted to express the tension that comes with a zombie show, I didn't want to tell a story of an apocalyptic world. The resurrection plant is a symbol of wrong politics, and a tool to infect the hungry, but it is also the solution to the plague, albeit temporary. When the characters are seen running in the show, I wanted them to be running toward hope, no matter how difficult.

One of the fascinating aspects of the show for me is how people separate credible from not credible information. For instance, the notes of the physician appear to carry the weight of indisputable truth. Also, at the end of the season when Prince Chang tells the council members to falsify his death. Is there a historical precedent for the reliability of written records?

Kim: This is an extremely difficult question. I'm not a history major, so forgive me for not being able to give you more accurate information. But to explain the world of Kingdom as I've imagined, each character has their own reasons for believing the physician's notes. The prince saw the monster in the king's chamber and witnessed the infected patients in Dongnae; Lord Ahn Hyeon believed because he had created them with his very hands three years ago; the head of the Royal Commandery Division believed because he witnessed Ahn Hyeon come back to life; the chief magistrate was driven by his suspicion toward the Haewon Cho clan. As for the scene where Prince Chang orders falsification of his death; the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, a collection of records of all affairs related to the royal family of Joseon, is recognized as an objective historical record that was guarded by officers at the time with their lives. But I imagined this could be possible in the later season of Kingdom, as the royal palace in Joseon was in unprecedented chaos due to the epidemic killing all officers and the court aids. Please see it as a dramatic element that obviously did not take place in actual Joseon.

How much story do you have left to tell? How many seasons do you imagine this going?

Kim: Strangely enough, Kingdom is a series that gives me more energy the more I write it. The cast and crew all have great chemistry, and there's so much more to tell. If viewers allow, I would love to see it develop even up to season 10.

For American audiences who might be stuck at home, are there other sageuk-type series you can recommend to tide us over until season three?

Kim: If you're asking about another Korean sageuk, I recommend Dae Jang Geum. It is one of my favorite dramas and the lead character is also a nurse, like in Kingdom.

Park: Korean sageuks have a unique originality that is different from Japanese or Chinese period pieces. There's a sageuk that is more accessible than others; it borrows the storyline from Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and is called Masquerade (Gwanghae). Ryu Seung-ryong, who plays Cho Hak-ju in Kingdom, stars in this movie. It was a great success in Korea and tells an intriguing story. I highly recommend it.  

Season two of Kingdom is streaming now on Netflix.