By PARINYAPORN PAJEE
There's something about zombies that guarantees a hit – look no further than 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” to the current TV series “The Walking Dead”. So it comes as little surprise to see that the first South Korean original Netflix series, the zombie-driven “Kingdom”, drew millions of viewers when the first episode was streamed last Friday and will no doubt continue to gather an even greater following as the story pans out.
Written by hit-maker Kim Eun-hee, whose 2016 suspense thriller “Signal” has won several awards, “Kingdom “ is directed by Kim Seong-hun, whose movie “Tunnel” garnered a sales record with 7.12 million ticket sold and his acclaimed action thriller “A Hard Day” was picked for Directors’ Fortnight at the 2014 Cannes International Film Festival.
“Kingdom” also has a strong cast led by Ju Ji-hoon, actress Bae Doona and prominent actor Ryu Seung-ryong in the role of the vicious Joseon Chief State Councillor.
The six-episode “Kingdom” shows just how good Korean series can be. There’s a hint of “The Walking Dead” and “World War Z” in its zombie theme, a sense of “Game of Thrones” in the fight between the ruling class and ordinary folk, and a taste of the journey of the “Lord of the Rings” when it comes to the fight against the zombies, which starts from eastern Dongne (near today’s Busan) and heads to Hanyang (today’s Seoul).
That’s not to say there’s any imitation. The series has its own distinctive Korean drama style – it’s exciting, scary and funny and will lead to binge watching once you’ve started.
Netflix’s first original Korean series “Kingdom” is a thriller set in the Joseon era where people die from a strange plague and transform into flesheating zombies.
“Kingdom” is developed from an original story created by Kim Eun-hee for the webtoon “Land of the Gods” in 2011. Set in the Joseon era at a time when the population is devastated by war and famine, it sees Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) being accused of treason and his father the King terminally ill. Lee Chang sets off on a journey to find out the truth about the King’s disease but what he sees instead is a plague that is turning people into zombies.
Inspiration for the story came from a 19th century royal court document that recorded tens of thousands of deaths in the capital during an outbreak of an unidentified epidemic. “I thought an epidemic would be an interesting subject that could portray the sufferings of that time – the hunger, the deprivation,” the writer says during the press conference in Gangnam, Seoul.
“I wanted to talk about Kim Eun-hee’s notion of hunger, and its different roles. First, there is the physical hunger experienced by the commoners in our story and there’s the hunger or greed. Both of these gave birth to the so-called zombies or what we call the patients of the plague, so I hope that we can encourage viewers to think about these issues,” says the director.
“At the beginning of this project, I wrote the question ‘what is politics?’ on the whiteboard in my office. I wanted to tell the story of those who have power and how they affect the common people. I don’t know how effective I was in telling the story through “Kingdom” but it is a story that I had always wanted to tell as a writer,” Kim Eun-hee adds.
Since the phenomenal success of “The Walking Dead”, which was released in 2010, the zombie genre has taken off around the world with Thailand releasing “Phee Ha Ayothaya” in 2015, a chronicle of the plague that killed people and turned them into zombies during the Ayutthaya era. South Korea came up with “Train to Busan” in 2016, and last year’s “Rampant”, also set in the Joseon era.
While both writer and director agree that “Kingdom” is a little similar to “The Walking Dead”, they point out that most stories in the zombie genre tend to lack the narrative part of how the zombies came to life. “Kingdom” sets that to |rights with the hunger for |power.
“If you remove the zombies, it still tells a story of humans and we wanted to focus on who caused it, how they came about and how they became these zombies. This kind of storytelling is what differentiates “Kingdom” from other zombie tales,” says the writer, adding that the sense of tension is what makes the zombie genre so popular.
Veteran actor Ryu Sungyong plays the charismatic but vicious Cho Hakju.
Kim the director compares it to playing a video game. “In games, we get pleasure from killing or attacking the subjects that come on the screen but feel guilty if these are human beings. When it’s a monster or a zombie, that guilt goes away and all you feel is pleasure,” he says.
“The series brings together two different worlds: the calm beauty of the East and Western dynamism and I think that combination offers both entertainment as well as a certain level of irony, so I hope that that will resonate with our global audience,” he adds.
Kim set two criteria for choosing the cast. The first was that they had to be good actors or actresses and the second condition was they really had to fit each character. “That was the reasoning behind our choice for the three main characters and we were very lucky that all of them said yes immediately,” he says.
Actor Ju Ji-hoon accepted the role as the crown prince Lee Chang as he is the fan of the writer. Ju made his name in “Princess Hours” in 2006 and then hit the spotlight again with the huge success of the fantasy movies “Along With the Gods”.
Bae Doo-na is not only successful in her home country but also works on international productions like Netflix’s “Sense 8”. She worked with director Kim on “Tunnel” before and accepted the role of Seo-bi, the female physician who is key to resolving the plague. Charismatic actor Ryu, meanwhile, who starred in “Masquerade” and “Miracle in Cell No 7”, takes on the role of Chief State Councillor Cho Hak-ju, the de facto ruler of Joseon.
Ju says he found the crown prince role challenging.
“Traditionally all the kings or crown princes live in the palace but my character Lee Chang steps out of his comfort zone, the palace, to find answers himself, which give ‘Kingdom’ an element of a road movie and that’s what I was most interested in,” says the actor.
Lee Chang’s character shifts from a person concerned only for his safety and that of his father into a prince who learns that it’s the people that he needs to protect.
Actress Bae Doona in her historical drama debut as physician Seobi who is key to finding the cure for the plague.
Actress Bae also found it a challenge to play Seo-bi.
“It was an era of Confucianism and it wasn’t easy in terms of the social structure for a woman to play any kind of active role. At first I thought I wouldn’t be drawn to a female character in a historical setting but Seo-bi is a professional physician who is very smart. She is the brain of the group,” says the actress.
“When it comes to Korean historical dramas, there is a certain form of speech that is quite unique in the Korean language and I’m sure that's also the case in English and other languages as well. I had to really think hard about the particular speech as well as the attitude that would fit that particular time in era,” says the actress.
As the vicious Cho Hak-ju, veteran actor Ryu Seung-ryong sends chills down the audiences’ backs whenever he appears on screen. “My character doesn’t have any action scenes so for me the hardest challenge was getting the tone of my voice and my glare exactly right. That was quite difficult for me because I was playing a character that was scarier than the zombies but who was also scared of the zombies,” he says.
“Kingdom” has so many gruesome scenes that it probably couldn’t be shown on regular broadcast TV. Being streamed on Netflix allowed the writer and actors to broaden their creativity. Tempering the violence and ghastly scenes is the beautiful scenery of Korea in different seasons and the terrific cinematography.
“It was something that we wanted to portray. I believe that we have a calm beauty and showing it as the background to the horrific themes brought a different aesthetic to the scenes,” says the director.
And even before release the series, Netflix decided to renew the series for a second season. Shooting starts soon and cast and crew all agree they are looking forward to it.