Biweekly Binge: Kingdom: Disease in the time of feudalism
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Kingdom, streaming on Netflix
Some of the set pieces in Korean medieval horror-thriller Kingdom will make Indian masala filmmakers stand up, applaud, and maybe let out a whistle or two. They might even choose to sell their souls to possess half the imagination and vision to put together such moments. It might be surprising to hear that Kingdom is nothing but yet another zombie apocalypse scenario, the novelty wholly coming from the period setting, the beginning of the 17th century soon after the Japanese invasions, as the Joseon period in Korea is getting settled amidst hunger, starvation, economic and social disarray.
Kingdom's season 2 was released on Netflix on March 13 but this article will focus on both seasons. The series begins with palace intrigue where the current king is indisposed due to a mysterious illness and the ministers along with the young queen are hardly transparent with the details. Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), the son of a concubine, is refused an audience with his own father by the Queen. The feudal system slowly unravels itself and earlier in the series, Kingdom (adapted by Kim Eun-hee from her webcomic series, and directed by Kim Seong-hun) teases us into assuming that it is about a quest for power that will focus on the elite players in the palace and high societies. But as the series progresses, we realise Kingdom - in twelve crisp episodes over two seasons - is more than that and it trains its eye from an altogether different perspective.
The Crown Prince travels South in search of his master to gather more information (Ahn Hyeon has been MIA for three years, supposedly in mourning after his mother's death) and to deal with the troubling developments in the capital city in the North - Hanyang. He travels with his bodyguard Mu-Yeong (a delightful Kim Sang-ho who doesn't mind playing the foil), who is more of a friend and confidante, a relationship that's built on trust and humour, Lee Chang ever ready to make Mu-Yeong feel as if the Prince is no different from common folk. That's the view the show takes. As soon as the Prince steps out, he gets a personal tour of the abject poverty and living conditions that people are wading through in the post-war period, something that's in stark contrast to the opulent capital city with its ministers and scholars. Adding to their woes is the plague that spreads all over the South when a victim who got too close to the king is brought to their part of town. The "disease" makes infected people lose their mental stability and hungry for human flesh. We are also told that sunlight keeps them away while they actively seek to satiate that hunger in the night. The Prince unites with Seo-bi (Bae Doona), an intuitive and fearless doctor in Dongnae, and the mysterious Yeong-shin Jein (Kim Sung-kyu) with his own personal history and vendetta, to fight the disease and make life better for the people in the South.
Watching Kingdom amidst the COVID-19 lockdown has its own surrealist trepidation. There are several dialogs about the mission to eradicate the disease, the mutation of the disease due to weather conditions as time passes when they make their way towards Hanyang, and Seo-bi's relentless efforts to discover a cure.
Hanyang is present-day Seoul but it is impossible to look past the North-South dichotomy in the world-building of Kingdom. The North is dictatorial, feudal, and is rife with corruption and violence. In the South, people are more empathetic, even in the time of suffering, and wallow in their state due to the actions and inaction of the North.
Kingdom is quick to shift its point of view and puts the working class as the main protagonists and eschews all bickering among the ruling elite. Minister Cho Hak-ju and the Queen indulge in their respective machinations, but the plague becomes the foremost antagonist of the people. What’s really plaguing the nation is there for all to see.
For a fantasy horror, Kingdom also subverts the usual clichés - it doesn't go after the "chosen one" device. Lee Chang might be at the centre but he has an able and worthy set of partners, all of whom he treats as his equal. He is also not an omnipotent being, he learns on the job and often he is not the most talented or powerful or knowledgeable person in the room.
Those reins are taken over by Seo-bi, a character who is hands-on and crafty, her relationship with the wimpish Beom-pal carefully constructed. She is quick with her mind and feet, and is closest to a ninja-like figure in Kingdom. Almost all the main characters consult her - in deliberate or inadvertent fashion - on several things including the feudal lord at the centre of the conspiracy. Her survival skills are only matched by Lee Chang, but the latter belongs to the upper strata of the feudal society.
The show's lighting and cinematography constantly reinvent, everything from shadows, natural light and tracking shots used with economy and aplomb. Kingdom places character-building above world-building and over the course of two seasons, we begin to see people differently. As does Lee Chang. He has just as much a ringside view as us, one of the show's greatest pleasures.