FIEND OR PHO
Director: Seong-hun Kim
Screenplay: Kim Eun-hee
Starring: Doona Bae, Ji-Hoon Ju, Seung-ryong Ryu
Review: David Stephens
The genre had a surprise international hit in 2016 with the excellent South Korean horror “Train to Busan”, which had overwhelmingly positive reviews, as well as breaking all kind of records for a film made in that territory. It showed that an intelligent zombie film could still break boundaries, regardless of cultural or language differences. So we shouldn’t be surprised that more of the living dead have risen from Korea. However, this time it comes to us via a classy TV series, that has as much political intrigue and power struggles as it does reanimated corpses. Think of a South Korean “Game of Thrones”, but with “28 Days Later” zombies instead of White Walkers (and no boobs or dragons obvs), and you’re getting close to the tone of the show. Set in Korea’s medieval Joseon period (equivalent to the Chinese Ming dynasty), this 6-episode first season is actually adapted from a web-comic series called “The Kingdom of the Gods”. The subtitled series is directed by award-winning filmmaker Kim Seong-hun, and is only the second original Korean show to be funded by the streaming giant Netflix. Whilst the cost can’t really be compared fairly with GOT, the show did reportedly overspend on its budget quiet seriously, with each episode allegedly costing more than $1.78 million. With Season 1 now showing in its entirety in the US and UK, YGROY takes a look at these medieval dead on the small screen.
During the medieval era, the lower-classes of Korea are struggling under the rule of the current King. Recovering from war with Japan and crippling taxes, much of the population is in the grips of a famine. This isn’t helped by the ruler having taken a member of the corrupt Cho clan as his Queen, giving her father Lord Cho (Seung-ryong Ryu) almost full power of the country as his Chief Councillor. However rumours that the King has contracted small pox and died, gives hope to a rebellion that a “new wind” will take control and help the suffering populace. This “wind” takes the form of Crown Prince Chang (Ji-Hoon Ju), the bastard son of the King’s concubine, who realises that he will be assassinated once the pregnant Queen gives birth to her son. As he tries to investigate the condition of his father, he breaches a wall of secrecy and gradually realises that the Cho clan have done something terrible to hold onto power. Meanwhile, a mutilated corpse from the King’s palace reaches a medical settlement where the brave female physician Seo-Bi (Doona Bae from “The Host” and “Sense8”) resides. A well-meaning-but-totally-gross action by a hunter creates a perfect storm which unleashes a plague of flesh-eating zombies across the country and threatens to engulf the entire Kingdom, with Chang seemingly it’s only saviour in uniting its people to fight them.
As long as you’re not one of those people who are subtitle-phobic and you’re open to well-made period genre… then this is great. However, if you are tired of the multitude of zombie films or shows… then suck it up, because this is still great! Rather than just bolting a undead apocalypse onto a medieval setting and leaving it at just that, the narrative weaves it intrinsically into a realistic (NB: Well… we assume it’s realistic, we’re not exactly qualified on that front) historical background. The whole undead plague starts because of foul political machinations, something cleverly shown in the opening credits. It grounds the plot in a surprising way, seeing as it’s not been caused by the usual toxic or extraterrestrial reasons, but human greed and unwise decisions. The actual nature of the living dead has been changed enough to make it more interesting than your average undead pot-boiler. Without giving too much away, the “infected” have much in common with the “28 Days” antagonists or vampires, with nocturnal habits and behaviour. This leads to gruesome scenes of massed entwined crispy “corpses” jammed underneath floorboards or rocks. They also act like the “World War Z” critters with one bite being enough to turn someone within a matter of seconds, contorting into bone-cracking flesh-eaters almost immediately after a significant chomp. As you can probably guess, the periodic setting makes for some interesting images and confrontations. Fiends creep behind paper walls like grotesque shadow-puppets and multiple heads are swiftly lopped off with Katana swords and other assorted weaponry. There’s also a clever visual gag involving a pair of convicts in stocks, and a single female victim held upright in death as she’s surrounded by a growing mass of zombies.
But as noted before, the series works well because it blends this well-realised undead apocalypse within a compelling story. The 6 episodes underline the evolution of Chang from a pampered chancer to a true champion of the people, as he sees first-hand the injustices that the ruling classes have lumped onto the population and poverty-stricken villagers. Whilst it’s initially difficult to get a handle on the motivations and traits of some characters (something which could be aimed at several genre shows anyway), it soon becomes obvious who should be (literally) wearing black or white hats. Kim Hye-jun as Queen Cho could certainly give Cersei Lannister a run for her money in cold-hearted scheming and aloofness. The way in which certain characters change during the events also gives some extra depth to the story. The nice thing though is that there’s a real pace to the storyline that is often missing from some historical genre, and things move pretty quickly without sacrificing atmosphere. It allows for some spectacular cinematography with villages aflame and mist-covered valleys. There are also some great “action” sequences with a tense chase with a broken wagon through a forest, and a cracking fight sequence set in a wheat-field during the night.
There are a couple of ill-advised comedy moments, mostly an obsession with beef pancakes and a declaration of love being interpreted as a dose of gonorrhoea, but the tone is mostly on point. Given the pace and scale of events you do wish that the first season had been given over to more than just 6 episodes. And like many series these days, be warned that the final episode of “Kingdom” ends on a cliffhanger, but at least it does include a couple of humdinger revelations that could change everything. Season 2 is due to start filming shortly, so hopefully if you do get hooked, you won’t have too long to wait to see what happens. As it stands though, even if you have zombie fatigue this is a cracking series that deserves praise. It may surprise with the quality of the imagery, historic attention to detail, and willingness to adopt new lore for its flesh-eaters. The social messages around class divides and the treatment of refugees couldn’t be timelier either. Once again Korea qualifies its credentials as far as our favourite genre goes. Catch it and spread the word.