Indians are skipping meals. Americans are thronging food banks. Hunger has been one of the most tragic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Thrown out of jobs, furloughed, or forced by lockdowns into vast stretches of unemployment, working-class people across the world have reduced their calorie intake.
Hunger and mismanagement are among the drivers of the South Korean period drama Kingdom, which is being streamed on Netflix. Across two intense seasons comprising 12 episodes, Kingdom explores an appetite for power that is interlinked with an insatiable craving for flesh. The series is crawling with zombies, but its real monsters are humans.
Several films and series have been revisited over the past few months to make sense of Covid-19. These include Contagion, World War Z, Pandemic, 28 Days Later and Virus. Kingdom was premiered in 2019 and the second season came out in March, just as the coronavirus began spreading across the globe. A spin-off episode, titled Kingdom: Ashin of the North, is in the works.
The show’s main conceit of a zombie epidemic whose origin is hidden from the public until it’s too late makes it a worthy addition to this list. But Kingdom is more than a simple allegory. The series explores the true meaning of leadership, the chasm between the rulers and the ruled, the impact of war and conflict on ordinary people and the role played by sycophants and an opaque government in shielding citizens from necessary truths. The zombies supply the gore, while the human characters deliver the lessons about the lingering impact of unjust regimes.
Kingdom has been inspired by the graphic novel The Kingdom of the Gods. Based on a concept by In-wa Youn, written by prolific screenwriter Eun-hee Kim, and illustrated by Kyung-il Yang, the black-and-white manhwa revolves around a young prince who has been forced out of his palace by a scheming unit of soldiers, a warrior-turned-mercenary who is cursed to go blind when it gets dark, and a doctor who is studying the condition she terms “the living death”.
The Netflix series is set in a fictional kingdom in the sixteenth century in Korea, three years after invasions from Japan. There is widespread distress in the countryside, but in the palatial homes of the apathetic administrators, food is aplenty.
In the graphic novel, a lack of food leads to the resurrection of the desperate populace as famished zombies. The prince, the warrior and the doctor make their way back to the palace, only to learn that the zombie apocalypse has originated from there. The monarch’s message for the prince, that “people see food as the stuff of heavens”, gets a nasty twist in the last frame: the king of the undead is the man on the throne.
In an interview included with The Kingdom of the Gods, Eun-hee Kim described the comic not as a zombie story but a “historical epidemic drama”. The Japanese invasions of Korea were periods of “severe plague and drought”, she said. Inspired by the movie 28 Days Later, in which a rogue virus causes a zombie outbreak, Kim imagined the epidemic as “an illness that comes when people are so hungry and so starved they feel compelled to eat even in death”. It didn’t stop there: “What if this sickness was actually concocted by somebody?” she added. “The disease is used to keep the present king in power because as long as he is alive, he retains the right to rule.”
The web series, imaginatively expanded by Eun-hee Kim and directed by Kim Seong-hun and Park In-je, takes the barebones graphic narrative and fleshes it out into an enthralling tale of a political conspiracy with haunting repercussions.
The last frame of the novel becomes the opening sequence of the series. A physician tending to the ailing king cautions his assistant to avert his gaze from his ruler. The boy’s curiosity reveals that the king has become a beast who snacks on human flesh.
The zombie sovereign is a Frankensteinian creation of the powerful Haewon Cho clan’s chief. Cho Hak-ju, whose daughter is the king’s second wife, has revivified the king to ensure that his grandson will occupy the throne.
The novel’s boy prince is now an adult, smarting at being denied the throne. The king’s first-born, Lee Chang, gets suspicious when he is forbidden from meeting his father. Leaflets are being distributed across the capital warning of shady goings-in in the palace. Accused of treason, Chang escapes with his loyal bodyguard to meet the physician and find out if his father indeed has smallpox or something worse.
Starvation plays its part in spreading the plague beyond the capital. At the physician’s clinic, the warrior Yeong-shin spices up the meagre soup of the day by throwing in a human corpse, unaware that it has been infected. The clinic’s patients die one by one and are reanimated as zombies. Yeong-shin and the physician’s attendant Seo-bi escape, later joining forces with the crown prince in his campaign to regain the throne.
Melding elements from several genres – zombie horror, dynastic succession drama, survival film, political critique – Kingdom is never wanting for action or event. The superbly produced series is spilling over with period detail, gorgeous costumes and headgear, locations treated with visual effects, excellent prosthetics, and heart-stopping fights and stunts.
The zombies, who are fleet and resourceful in sniffing out their next meal, are all over the place. But it’s the humans of Kingdom who stand out. Crown prince Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) must overcome self-doubt and his scruples to become a true leader of the people. Noble, valiant, and always camera-friendly even when splattered with entrails and blood, Chang is the moral centre of Kingdom.
Bae Doo-na, who beautifully played an archer in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (also on Netflix), has the next meatiest role as the physician’s assistant who discovers the secrets of the virus. Seo-bi’s intelligence matches her bravery, which endears her to bumbling provincial leader Cho Beom-pal (Jeon Seok-ho). Their interaction is the closest thing to a romance in the series.
Other important characters include Ryu Seung-ryong as the evil puppeteer Hak-ju and Kim Hye-jun as the pregnant queen consort. The queen’s haughty demeanour, silken robes that conceal secrets, and intricately carved hair clips make her a formidable rival to Chang’s ambitions.
Equally memorable are King Sang-ho as prince Chang’s steadfast bodyguard Mu-yeong, Kim Sung-kyu as the lone-wolf warrior with a tragic past, and Heo Jong-ho as Ahn Hyeon, the prince’s wise mentor and ally.
The shape-shifting that is central to the zombie genre plays out in interesting ways in Kingdom. Seo-bi’s medical knowledge of the zombie plague evolves, as do key characters. Loyalties change and palace officials swap sides. Some courtiers scrape the ground in blind servitude while others keep their eyes open to the plotters’ designs. The hordes of zombies clattering about provide the series with its thrills and momentum, while more subtle changes at the palace reveal how the lust for power mutates too, just like a virus.
High on gore as well as emotion, Kingdom elevates a quest for survival into a critique of a corrupted power elite. Hak-ju’s homegrown version of bioterrorism is initially a response to the Japanese invasions but becomes an end unto itself. In this series’s version of the iconic “Power is power” sequence from Game of Thrones, Hak-ju explains his actions to his daughter as they look over a picture-perfect pond. Do you know how many bodies I have dumped in the pond in order to build up to the day when nobody can question me on how many bodies I have dumped in the pond, he says.
Chang frequently reminds bureaucrats reluctant to shelter and feed their subjects from the impending zombie attacks: “The people worship food like god, and the king must serve those people like god.” His evolution from stripling to mass leader is sealed in the moment when he hands over his meagre rations to starving survivors.
For Chang and his posse, restoring the supply lines is as important as staving off the zombie mobs. Food is also a way for the queen to convert unsuspecting residents of the capital into cannon fodder for her power grab. The difference between justice and inequity eventually boils down to the sensitivity of the rulers to the state of their subjects’ larders. The insatiable zombies of Kingdom are terrifying in their depredations but equally pathetic in their plight. All they wanted was a warm meal, and what they got instead was a taste of corrosive ambition.