Kingdom is a 2019 South Korean television series. It was written by Kim Eun-hee and directed by Kim Seong-hun. There are six episodes in season one, of which this is the first. The primary cast are (from Wikipedia):
Ju Ji-hoon as Crown Prince Yi Chang
Kim Sang-ho as Moo-young
Heo Joon-ho as An Hyun
Jeon Seok-ho as Beom-pal
Kim Hye-jun as Queen Consort Cho
Jung Suk-won as Cho Beom-il
Prince Yi Chang, crown prince of the Kingdom of Great Joseon, would seem to have an enviable lot. Not so. His father’s new bride, Queen Consort Yo, is pregnant with a child who might well take Yi Chang’s place. Queen Consort Yo’s clan, the Haewon Cho, have seized control of the nation’s bureaucracies.
Ten days earlier, the King fell ill. Try as he might, Yi Chang cannot get past the wall of Haewon-paid courtiers clustering around his father. What is the true state of the King’s health? The courtiers lie. He cannot tell.
Someone puts up posters declaring that the King is dead and that Yi Chang should be declared king in his father’s place. Yi Chang didn’t do it, but only he knows that.
Chief State Councilor Cho Hak-jo believes the logical suspect is the person who stands to gain the most from deposing the king, which is to say the Crown Prince himself. Acting on an anonymous tip, Cho Hak-jo has eighty-nine scholars arrested and tortured, hoping that one of them will confess to writing the posters and implicate the Crown Prince. The Chief State Councilor is of course a relative of the Queen Consort: finding a pretext to arrest, try, and convict the Crown Prince is very much in his clan’s interests. However, if the king is actually dead, then the Crown Prince could side-step the investigation by becoming king.
Yi Chang takes the bold step of sneaking into his father’s palace to examine his father himself. Yi Chang does not find his father. He does overhear a conversation that suggests that his father is missing. He also sees the silhouette of some monstrous beast wandering the palace. He is spotted by his enemies and forced to retreat without any answers.
Yi Chang blackmails his retainer Moo-Young into stealing the journal kept by his father’s physicians. The journal is incomplete, as though the authorities were trying to conceal something. Yi Chang resolves to track down Seo-bi, the last physician to record in the journal, to question him in person. Alas, following the sudden death of his assistant, Seo-bi has left the imperial city for an isolated facility far from the capital.
Although he is unfamiliar with the harsh world outside the imperial palaces, the Crown Prince decides to set off across Korea to interrogate the doctor. It’s a good time to leave the capital: the same anonymous source that put up the posters pointed the authorities at a letter implicating the Crown Prince in treason. Staying in the capital might well be suicide. Particularly since the Crown Prince is every bit as guilty as his enemies paint him.
Hundreds of kilometers away, the broken physician has returned home with the remains of his assistant. The doctor refuses to say anything about the manner of the boy’s death. However, whatever did it left bite marks all over the body. Prudence and custom dictate that the corpse be disposed of with all due ceremony. Prompted by a local famine, one of the doctor’s subordinates finds an entirely different use for the body.
Korea’s problems have suddenly become much worse.
First, a complaint. I watched this with subtitles. The people who do subtitles don’t seem to be all that concerned with legibility: I missed long stretches of conversation when letters appeared on backgrounds of the same colour. Ensuring the subtitles can be read doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult problem.
One lesson I take from this episode is that Joseon culture was home to an impressive assortment of awesome hats. Also that the Joseon bureaucracy seemed to be focused on sparing the aristocracy direct knowledge of what was happening in the nation as a whole. Officials are prone to killing and torturing messengers who bring unwanted news, I was not surprised to learn that Joseon suffered two disastrous defeats in recent wars. Presumably anyone who dared to point out that the national strategy was flawed was beheaded1.
Another insight: lots of Korean films and dramas feature comic servant sidekicks2. The retainer Moo-Young can be blackmailed into committing theft because … wait for it … he’s been filching the Crown Prince’s more delectable desserts. Moo-young exists to provide comic relief as well as give the Crown Prince worldly advice that the Crown Prince will ignore.
(I rather hope that he lasts the series. Alas, he’s a supporting character in a story that I suspect is going to have a high body count.)
I note that the creators of this series seemed to be laser-focused on the travails of the high-born. Patient zero for the zombie plague is the head of state. The plague only spreads to the general population thanks to the efforts of a determined young man who isn’t going to let mere convention get in the way of doing what’s necessary to deal with an immediate crisis.
The first episode of a series must establish the setting, introduce the characters and their conflicts, and hint at the grander plot (if there is one). Episode One does all of these.
Kingdom is available on Netflix.
1: Cho Hak-jo isn’t just an evil vizier. He (and presumably his clan) are convinced that Joseon is being badly led and are determined to save the nation by grabbing control of it. Bit of a pity that they are inadvertently facilitating the zombie apocalypse, but eggs and omelettes.
2: Not just Korean media: media from many hierarchical societies reproduce hierarchy by turning servants into buffoons. For instance, the Bollywood film Raja Hindustani; Shakespeare’s Falstaff; Baldrick 😊