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Rise of the Korean Zombie Thriller

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Asia Life

Rise of the Korean Zombie Thriller

Mixing symbolic cinematography, imaginative storylines, and harsh societal critiques, Korea has joined the zombie craze.

Rise of the Korean Zombie Thriller
Credit: Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

While not numerous, Korean zombie films and TV shows are drawing international attention. Based on the Kingdom of the Gods webcomic series by Kim Eun-hee, the South Korean period drama Kingdom (킹덤) first appeared on Netflix in January 2019 and received rave reviews from critics. While Kingdom is set on the Korean peninsula during the Joseon Dynasty in the 17th century, it provides an alternative perspective to the political throes in Korean history. 

Kingdom’s plot follows Crown Prince Yi-Chang, played by Ju Ji-Hoon, in his fight for both the throne and his people amidst the mysterious outbreak of an illness in southeastern Korea. The epidemic has unique symptoms, the most notable of which cause the inflicted to crave and feast on human flesh.

Yes, zombies.

Although such a premise sounds like a potential recipe for disaster, the “zombies” populating Kingdom are not referred to as the walking dead, but rather as living people afflicted with an illness. By limiting the characters to discussion of a spreading disease rather than a “zombie” outbreak of the undead, the show succeeds in maintaining the reality of the historical setting alongside its fictional storyline.

While K-dramas (Korean dramas) have long interested foreign viewers, Kingdom plays into the recently growing genre of Korean horror. Kingdom is also not the first to set zombies in Korean history. Rampant (창궐), a period drama also set in the Joseon Dynasty, was released in 2018. Despite stunning choreography and worthwhile fight scenes, a lack of overall character development kept Rampant far from the spotlight. Rampant is limited in its potential to critique Korean society as the film’s plot begins with threats from distinctly foreign powers. As one character later laments: “This all started with a foreign merchant ship.” The first “demon” (zombie) we meet in Rampant is an infected German gun trader, and the outbreak spreads to the peninsula when an infected Korean envoy returns to the palace with guns to support an uprising against Chinese Qing soldiers stationed in Korea. Rampant utilizes the historical context of the Korean king’s support for the Qing Empire to set the scene for not only the outbreak, but also for the king’s succession, the film’s other major conflict. In stark contrast, the origin of the zombie outbreak in Kingdom is directly associated with the Korean royal family, building a more salient critique of those bloodthirsty for power.

Other recent releases in Korean horror’s zombie troupe include Train to Busan (부산행), an international sensation that boasts a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Train to Busan originally debuted at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and was praised for its direct commentary on contemporary issues of growing disparities in socioeconomic class in South Korea, showcasing zombie flicks are not solely slaughterhouse horror. Train to Busan tells the story of passengers on a train from Seoul to Busan in the midst of a zombie outbreak in modern day South Korea. We primarily follow Seok-woo, played by Gong Yoo, a successful fund manager who has largely neglected his family to pursue success in his career. Seok-woo and his young daughter Su-an, played by Kim Su-an, must work together to survive alongside other passengers, revealing societal preconceptions of who deserves to live and die. Unlike Rampant, the origin of the zombie outbreak in Train to Busan is unknown and assumed to be domestic.

Kingdom is also not shy in critiquing societal hierarchies. The first scene of the first episode begins with our introduction to the current king as he groans behind a bamboo screen, is served soup mixed with blood, and — spoiler alert — attacks the young attendant serving him. If this depiction of royal bloodthirst wasn’t clear enough, one character declares the direct metaphor between hunger for power and hunger for humans while being interrogated for treason: “Who are the real traitors of the nation? Through the spoils system and extortion, the evil family of the Queen is busy feeding themselves… [They] are but insects that are sucking the blood of the people.” 

Similar to Train to Busan, Kingdom also comments on the social hierarchy, namely between the core groups of the peasantry and the noblemen. Epidemics — and even more so, zombies — provide a poetic setting for a commentary on social inequality as they do not discriminate in terms of who is infected. In the case of zombies, the producers emphasize their willingness to attack any living being, regardless of wealth or previous familial connection (as we watch mothers attack daughters and sons attack elderly fathers). Rather, groups are disproportionately affected by their access to resources and protection. 

Despite the chaos of the situation, Kingdom presents several scenes where characters in power choose to assert and maintain the societal hierarchy over helping others. In one episode, a city magistrate is deciding how best to dispose of a large group of zombies. When he suggests burning or beheading the corpses, which are the only reliable ways to effectively “kill” the infected, he is interrupted by a noblewoman whose son has turned into a zombie. She claims the bodies of noble birth cannot be desecrated and must instead be disposed of properly. The noblemen decide the best course of action is to differentiate the nobles from the peasants based on their clothing; those wearing silk must be nobles, and those in rags, peasants. Those in rags would be eliminated, and those in silk would be otherwise still “alive,” despite the safety implications. Other scenes evoke similar questions around privilege and power that are applicable to both the setting of Kingdom and modern day society.

In addition to these plot elements, Kingdom’s period drama setting provides a space for intricate costumes, the Korean landscape, and choreographed fight scenes, making the show as visually stunning as it is psychologically engaging. The cinematography similarly complements the metaphors within the storyline, decorated with shots like that of the queen’s bloodstained slippers as she watches her husband feed on the corpse of one of their servants.

In the midst of the saturated zombie thriller genre, Kingdom and Train to Busan hold their own amongst top-notch international competitors. Following Netflix’s recent announcement that Kingdom has started shooting its second season, international producers and zombie enthusiasts are looking East in anticipation of Korea’s next creation. 

Kingdom’s six-episode first season is now available on Netflix. Train to Busan and Rampant can both be streamed on Netflix but may be subject to geographic restrictions.