From the country that brought you Train To Busan comes another terrifying twist on the zombie apocalypse genre, this time set a couple of hundred years in the past.
I went through a serious Asian horror phase back in the early 2000’s, as I’m sure most of us did thanks to Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer or Audition. I became obsessed with the director and tried to start watching everything he released, but if you know Miike-san, then you know he releases as many movies as he can in one year and it just ends up becoming too difficult to watch everything. His work led me down some of the other avenues of Japanese horror like the incomparable Stacy and Junk, two of my favorite Japanese zombie movies. Shortly after, the Korean master works of Park Chan Wook and his incredible Vengeance Trilogy showed me that there was great horror to be had all over Asia.
Enter the Netflix original series, Kingdom, a zombie horror series that takes place during Korea’s Joseon period. This six-episode series was adapted from popular webcomic series Kingdom of the Gods and tells the story of a mysterious plague sweeping across the entire country. I’ll be honest, initially I thought that a period piece zombie story sounded a little crazy and going in I wasn’t really sure what to expect but figured since I’ve seen plenty of Asian period films and Asian horror films, I’d be pretty well prepared.
Wow was I wrong. The series not only contains a couple of really awesome twists that come sprinkled across all six episodes, but it also takes a very unique approach to the genre in general. The tale starts with the emperor falling ill to a mysterious sickness that starts to create all manner of conspiracies throughout the kingdom. When the Crown Prince, the emperor’s only son birthed from an affair with a local woman decades earlier, decides to check up on his father’s condition at the royal palace, his much younger step-mom stops him at the entrance and forbids him to meet with his own father. This encounter, coupled with rumors that his father is actually dead, and the queen is just stalling until her own child, still in the womb, can be born to claim the throne, causes the Crown Prince to go in search of the kingdom physician for a better explanation.
Meanwhile, back at the local hospital where the royal physician works from, he has returned to a facility overrun with starving patients. Add to that, the doctor has returned with the corpse of his apprentice in tow who has died after an encounter with the emperor while administering treatment. Later, one of the more ambitious patients in the hospital steals the copse of the apprentice and cooks it up in a stew for the rest of the inhabitants in the clinic. Weak form malnourishment and unwilling to look a gift horse in the month, the unwitting patients scarf up the delicious, meaty stew. Almost instantaneously, all the patients start to convulse, spasm, and proceed to start attacking the non-afflicted. Some escape and when the constabulary arrive the next morning, they find only dead bodies scattered everywhere. They bring the copses back to town for proper burial procedures and once the sun sets, the copses rise to attack and feed once again upon the unbeknownst and helpless villagers.
I loved this first detail: zombies that were seemingly dormant during the daytime, then spring to horrifying life once the sun sets. This sets the scene for some real frantic action during the daytime hours as our heroes rush to make preparations and then struggle each night to make it through to morning, a premise that sets the stage for the nightmarish finale in episode six. The other thing that adds to the terror of these apparently nocturnal creatures is the frigging running! I’ve always been from the school that believes running zombies are waaaaaaay more scary than the slow, trudging kind and I‘ll tell you why: A flesh eating creature that can catch you? How is that not scary!? Forget the biological and physiological impossibilities of it for a second, they are fictional creatures after all, and imagine how scared a slow person in this type of apocalypse would feel. One just need watch World War Z or the Umberto Lenzi classic, Nightmare City, to find this to be true.
Once the Crown Prince finally arrives on the scene and recovers the journals of the now deceased royal physician, the true cause of the epidemic is revealed: A rare plant grown only in a location known as the Frozen Valley and revered for its seemingly impossible way of bringing the dead back to life was given to the deceased emperor in the hopes that it would resurrect him. It did, obviously, but not with the results the royal doctor was hoping for. Now possessing the proof necessary to unravel the coup happening back at the capital involving his step-mom, the Crown Prince devises a plan to head back home, only to be diverted time and time again by the locals desperate for help in the rapidly developing epidemic. This is where I feel the best character development happens. We come to find, through various conflicts, that the Crown Prince isn’t out for power by usurping the throne. In all these little moments, we realize he is actually the best one suited to rule as he always puts the people first and oftentimes at the expense of risking his own life. Even by the end of the series, he still hasn’t reached the seat of the empire, although by this time it’s due to the royal puppeteers sealing off the main gates going in and out of the kingdom, leaving the rest of the country to fend for themselves. As I said earlier, it’s in this final showdown with the incoming swarm of infected that a final, terrifying twist is revealed. But, of course, I’m never one to spoil the best parts.
To wrap up, as it is a series of six, hour-long episodes, it’s ripe fodder for a weekend binge, but it also paces more like a series than a film, with a lot of world building and story building coming in the earlier episodes, so be patient. However, there are enough cleverly placed plot twists to keep one sticking with it through the long haul. It’s not overly ultra-violent as some other Asian offerings in the realm of The Machine Girl or Tokyo Gore Police offer, so some gore hounds, like me, may be left wanting more. But there is a decent splattering, pun totally intended, throughout to tastefully underscore the subject matter. And if the ending leaves you on the edge of your seat as much is it did me, then you’ll be happy to know that Netflix has already green-lit a season two.
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