Netflix's Korean Original Series 'Kingdom' Puts a Zombie Spin on the Historical Epic

'Kingdom' Korean Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

Creators say the show, set during the Joseon era and inspired by historical events, mixes genres in a unique way.

Zombies clad in traditional dress descended on a Seoul hotel that had been transformed into a medieval Joseon-era mansion on Monday, as Netflix introduced local press to its latest Korean original series, Kingdom.  

Premiering in 190 countries Friday, Kingdom is for all intents and purposes a zombie mystery-thriller, but director Kim Seong-hun (2016's blockbuster film Tunnel) said that the undead in this series were different in that they are plague victims. "Whether these plague victims ran or moved slowly — which is a trait that could be very important to zombie fanatics — is really only so important in terms of narrative significance. For example, I really thought about how, if they ran, whether such a dynamic athleticism could be utilized to crank up the horror factor," said Kim.

The late 19th century Joseon Kingdom that lasted from 1392 to 1910 was devastated by a series of wars and famine. The Netflix original series presents a doomed crown prince caught in political intrigue, played by popular actor Ju Ji-hoon (The Spy Gone North, Along With the Gods 1 &2). He must prove his innocence against accusations of betraying his king father and embarks on a suicide mission to investigate a mysterious outbreak.

Actor Ryu Seung-ryong (Masquerade), who plays a corrupt, power-hungry politician, emphasized that the mix of East and West was what makes Kingdom stand apart from other zombie features and series. "Our piece fuses together a local tale with a Western genre in a way that could resonate with a lot of people in different ways. It seems Korean content has been quite largely exposed to non-local viewers but I think [Kingdom] will also promote many other hitherto unknown aspects of Korean beauty."

The premise of the series was inspired by a true 19th century record found of a plague in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (the kingdom): "In the fall, a mysterious disease began to spread from the west, and in 10 days, tens of thousands of people died in Hanyang [present-day Seoul]." Considered the world's longest continual documentation of a single dynasty, the annals are also considered veritable and "objective" as not even the king was allowed to read it.

The story of Kingdom was conceived back in 2011 by South Korea's distinguished writer Kim Eun-hee. A self-professed fan of zombie fare, Kim said she ultimately wanted "to tell a story about hunger." "I wanted to portray people who were mistreated by those in power struggling with starvation and poverty through the monsters," she said. "Hunger is the most universal human instinct," she added, explaining that cravings extend beyond the physical realm into an emotional and intellectual abyss, as it "portrays a void in the heart, or hunger for power." Kim emphasized that she was struck by a sense of sorrow in the zombies in other franchises since "they have been castrated of all other desires other than hunger."

"I was astonished by the incredible acting skills of the 40 or so zombie actors, who actually were truly scary," said Bae Doona, who may be recognized from such Hollywood flicks as Jupiter 8 and TV series including Matrimonial Chaos and Netflix's Sense8.

Netflix has also announced plans for the second season of Kingdom. "The first season will end at a very opportune, climactic moment," said the director, who explained that he conceived the project like a three-part serial film. "I am looking forward to the next season [to be helmed by another filmmaker] as well."