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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.

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.

the physician Seo-Bi played by Bae Doo-na

the Queen Consort Cho played by Kim Hye-jun


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