On the Netflix series Kingdom

The Post-Genre Kingdom

In 2019, Netflix released its first original Korean series, Kingdom; a second season, which was also favorably received, came out in March 2020. Having written popular both police procedural series (Signal, 2016) and political dramas (3 Days, 2014),  screenwriter Kim Eun-hee attempted another leap across genre boundaries, successfully achieving a hybrid made of historical drama and zombie apocalypse, flavored with crime investigations and social political reflections. The original story, titled The Kingdom of the Gods, was first visualized as a webcomic series, then further expanded into the Netflix series, scheduled to return for a 3rd season in 2021.

The webcomic series The Kingdom of the Gods, authored by Kim Eun-hee and drawn by Yang Kyung-il

Set in Korea’s Joseon period a few years after Japanese invasions (1592-1598), the story tells how a rare kind of plant is able to resurrect a human being and transform him/her into a zombie. The plant was first used to create an invincible army to fight off the waves of enemies, then fell into the hands of the highly influential Haewon Cho Clan to usurp the throne. This eventually led to numerous people being zombified across the country. 

The terror takes a new turn when a few starving commoners unknowingly eat a human corpse (later revealed as a dormant zombie). They become infected by the plant (by the end of the second season we know that it is the eggs of the inhabiting worms that has the power), begin to transform and attack other people, turning them into zombies as well. The series then follows the same plague-like logic familiar to international audiences. To find the cure and stop the plague, a small group made up of the Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) and his personal guard Mu-Yeong (Kim Sang-ho), the physician Seo-Bi (Bae Doo-na), and the enigmatic warrior Yeong-Shin (Kim Sung-kyu) embarks on a journey while fighting against Minister Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong) and his daughter, Queen Consort Cho (Kim Hye-jun) who plotted the sinister coup[1].

Many typical elements in Chinese and Korean imperial dramas have been included in Kingdom, such as the splendor of the palace and the constant power struggles within it. From a political perspective, it shows the enormous difference between the corrupted imperial court and the poor masses suffering from famine, diseases, and wars. Clichés abound as well; such as the wretched/absent king and the young but vicious Queen, the fatuous elites blindly following the ambitious leader whereas the righteous and honest ones are being persecuted. But the clever move in Kingdom is to bring in the visually engaging horror theme from popular culture as a metaphor for the hunger of the common people and the oppression from the powerful. The common people suffer so much that they would even kill their neighbors and families for food; the elites are so greedy and ruthless that they would slaughter unscrupulously. Taken one step further, such a metaphor also points at something very contemporary, notably the banality of evil within the power structure defined by Hannah Arendt, and what the Chinese modernist thinker Lu Xun calls the cannibalistic world where the ordinary people prey on a daily basis on each other’s misfortune. 

Different from the Hollywood horror genre which often points to the fear of contemporary terrorism and criticizes the selfishness of the capitalist society, Kingdom asks for the institutional reason of such tragedy, which works well in the context of the East Asian history while also adding a sense of contemporaneity. The female physician played by Bae Doona is smart, persevering, brave, and kind, and is somewhat blunt and nerd-like when being expressed affections. To her, every life matters and is worth saving, whether menial or privileged. Again and again she shows up at the right place and the right time to deliver crucial information or to fulfill the tasks that only her skills can accomplish. She carries the responsibility to find out the truth and the nature of the resurrection plant in a society where this almost always fell, even to this day, to a nerdy male character who is able and expected to identify and grasp all forms of knowledge. The Queen’s ambition in seizing control of the whole country without sacrificing herself or relying on her father, husband, or son, questions the three obediences of women in the dominating Confucian teaching, as well as the patriarchal system both in the past and in the present. The show’s intent, of course, doesn’t aim to express a radically political course, but such plots can plant the seeds that might inspire part of an audience that probably wouldn’t be respond to a more blatantly radical objective.

the physician Seo-Bi played by Bae Doo-na

the Queen Consort Cho played by Kim Hye-jun

To some extent, Kingdom visually achieves a formalistic beauty beyond the cult aesthetic, especially under Park In-je’s direction from episode 2 to 6 in the second season. The infected servants’ blood covered clothes in the palace generate a striking color scheme of white and red, implying that they are all victims before turning into monsters hurting the innocent. There are so many of them but each one is so disoriented and desperate. That color scheme particularly distinguishes itself from the dark and obscure tones which depict the zombies as abstract, terrifying monsters as the enemies of the human kind in most of Hollywood zombie titles. Red is also the color of the court, suggesting that monarchy is in fact made up of the miseries of the common people, just as it is of blood. When the Queen is also attacked and transforms while in her finest costume, what she wears loses all meaning and the two reds blend into one within the figure of the flamboyant zombie Queen.

The idea of zombies in an imperial setting could find its origins in Hong Kong horror movies. In 1979, a movie called The Shadow Boxing first put a Qing Dynasty costume (1616-1912) worn by officials (Gwanbok) on a zombie. Ever since, zombies are often dressed in that fashion in Hong Kong horror cinema. The inspiration is said to have come from the tradition in the early 1900s in China, when wealthy people would be buried wearing a costume similar to a Gwanbok regardless of whether they were officials or not. So when the image enters the screen, the idea was that the zombies are individuals who are buried at the wrong place possessed by the evil or were treated unjustly before death, unable to remain peacefully underground. Instead of biting, their long and contorted fingers are the common weapon that could hurt people and in some cases transform the victims into zombies. Deeply influenced by the local religions including Daoism, Buddhism, and Shamanism, in order to kill the zombie or save the possessed usually requires some sort of ritual objects or performances, since it is the spirit that is at stake instead of the brain of any other anatomical body parts. 

By preserving the imperial connection while adding the infected running zombie, more familiar to international audiences, Kingdom stands as a good example of Netflix globalization and opens a new door to both the historical drama genre and horror in East Asia.

[1] Let’s keep in mind that the king had died then brought back to life by Minister Cho.


In Bloom

There is an experiential valley where beings such as zombies live in between peaks. We healthy humans live on one peak and all the cuter robots on the other. Zombies live in the ‘uncanny valley’ because they ironically embody Cartesian dualism: they are animated corpses. They are reduced to ‘object status’, and mixed with other beings- they have been in the soil.

Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology

Kingdom, a Korean historical-horror drama produced by Netflix, is all about being in between and living the valley life. About finding a narrative breach that allows for time and for the organic to dig trenches through both a conventional use of the court drama and the walking dead tropes that have haunted the 21st century media. Its storyline rapidly clears a path to explanation and resolution in its desire to lead us to an origin story. Watching this series in 2020, as the world experiences the COVID-19 pandemic, much of it immediately resonates, from the ‘parasite’ that lives on the resurrection flower to the outbreak that occurs after having ingested contaminated… flesh. 

For those are vegetarian or vegan, perhaps one of the more frightening elements of the show has to do with the table manners, when the working people get their hands and teeth around some meat. This goes as well for the king who devours a young medical apprentice in the first episode of season 1, and who becomes carrier zero. His corpse is returned home, within a famished community. His infected remains, unbeknownst to the nurse who is always off digging for roots, are fed to the community who rapidly die from the poisoning and just as quickly return to life as flesh eating parasite carrying zombies who care neither for heat nor water. To their good fortune, cold Kim Ki Duk like Autumn mountains encircle them. Kingdom addresses what it is to live within the proximity of a plague in an era of convenience and gig economies.

From the ‘bad food’ delivery that gets the story started to the acceleration of the contamination and resuscitation process (literally no dead time in between), the quest to shake the disease brushes aside the plodding coup narrative that keeps wanting to get in the way. Truly genuine moments of relief are experienced with the actor and actress portraying the perfidious Minister Cho and his daughter the Queen are finally bitten then done away with. Again the series is prescient in its elimination of those who would seize this tragedy to strengthen their hold on power. Speed and economy of means (the repetitive abundance of drone shots, the relative display of the court’s opulence or that of provincial incompetence) create an ‘empowering’ contrast between the slow moving, beaten and tired villagers who transform into lean and tight contemporary jumpers and sprinters once bitten. 

Not having experienced being in the soil, as zombies of old had (those which Morton may have in mind, who hands emerge from cemetery grounds and stand as icons of the uncanny allotted by their strange and disturbing resemblance ), they have never been ‘so alive’ as they distinguish themselves from Romero’s astute political model[1] or The Walking Dead’s anticipation of Trump’s advent and what true horrors would be unleashed afterwards. An army initially created to defeat the Japanese invader that is now ready to eat its own. It’s all there.

The main characters become arrows, the prince, the nurse-slash-doctor, and even the elite tiger hunter responsible for the spread, all turn their backs on the court in order to speed learn the language of flowers, making it a series far smarter than it looks.

[1] In April 2020, a photo taken of Ohio protestors shouting at the doors of the governor’s state building, faces pressed against the glass doors, wearing MAGA caps and no social distancing, was an echo of George Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead (1978), in which zombies attempt to get inside a shopping mall where survivors found refuge. Is there ever a moment which is not a Baudrillard moment?

[2] Y makes an excellent point in referencing Chinese zombies. A subgenre that has much to reveal and to which we’ll return in the coming weeks.


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