SEOUL, KOREA – “Kingdom” has been trending online worldwide for two weeks now. And even big Korean stars made time to show their support for the Netflix Original Series at a red carpet premiere held here recently.
Some of the Korean actors who showed up at Lotte World mall in Gangnam and earned bragging rights to have watched the first episodes of the series way before the rest of the world were: Gong Myung, Ryu Hyun-kyung, Kim Hyun-Jun, Oh Seung-hun, Kim Sae-ron, RiSabae, Seol In-A, Yoo Da-in, Lee Jehoon, and so many others.
The fans waited hours before the event began, not minding trooping to the venue even when temperatures outside dropped to 3 degrees. Indeed, everyone was excited over the mystery thriller that was in production for many months albeit secretly as the cast and crew shot scenes in several locations across the country.
Early that day, journalists from all over Asia got to interview actors Ju Ji-hoon, Bae Doona, Ryu Seung-ryong; and creators Kim Seong-hun (director) and Kim Eun-hee (writer) at the Intercontinental Seoul COEX. Of course, way before we were flown in, Netflix already disclosed that “Kingdom” is set at a time defeated by corruption and famine. Then at a crucial juncture, a mysterious rumor of the King’s death spread, as does a strange plague that renders the infected immunity from death while they grow hungry for human flesh. The crown prince, fallen victim to a conspiracy, sets out on a journey to unveil the evil scheme and save the people.
Kim Eun-hee revealed that she started writing “Kingdom” in 2011, after chancing upon a record in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty about countless people dying of a mysterious disease.
“I thought that by taking the mysterious disease in the annals to tell a story of zombies, which are not dead or alive, I would be able to create something interesting that can also portray the sufferings of the people of the time,” she said.
“Ultimately, I wanted to tell a story about hunger. I wanted to portray people who were mistreated by those in power struggling with starvation and poverty through the monsters.”
The creatures may be the stuff nightmares are made of – sharp teeth, blood all over the mouth and all, with faces lit mostly by torches and candlelight – but for Kim Eun-hee it goes beyond the physical. She said the transformation of the people into monsters “carry an emotional weight.”
“It’s all about sorrow,” she said. “Also, I thought that the characters in the story would be unsure of what these creatures are at first, and therefore, they would see the monsters as patients to cure, instead of creatures to kill.”
Parallel to that, Kim Seong-hun was intrigued and challenged by the prospect of creating a harmony between Asian and Western culture.
“We brought together zombies, which are horrific and dynamic creatures, and Joseon’s world of static beauty,” he said. “One of the show’s aesthetic strengths is the tension between the two contrasting aspects.”
As example of how big “Kingdom” turned out to be, a key scene on the series was filmed between Pocheon in Gyeonggi Province and Gochang in North Jeolla Province with the collaboration of a total of around 1,300 actors and filming crew!
Korean superstar Ju Ji-hoon, who belongs to the country’s “10 million ticket sales club,” plays the crown prince named Lee Chang. He said he immediately agreed to do the project upon learning the people on board.
“I love director Kim Seong-hun and his works. And I was also excited to work with my fellow actors on the show. When you’re on the set with good people, you can still stay positive and energized in challenging situations…”
He liked Lee Chang’s transformation from helpless, weak prince to a strong leader.
“Lee Chang begins as a passive character,” was how he put it. “The reason why he was worried about his father’s health and safety was because his life largely depends on his father’s well-being. But after he comes face to face with the people that have turned into something horrific due to a plague, he realizes that something is wrong. After that realization, he starts to become determined to take on the responsibility to solve all the situations. Before he realizes it, he grows as a person who thinks and makes decisions on his own. Constantly faced with situations where he has to accept his responsibility, he learns how to embrace it and grows as a person.”
Bae Doona, who is Seobi on the series, a physician investigating into the cause of the plague, shows a side never before highlighted in characters she had played before.
“There was no reason for me not to take on this project,” she said. “One concern for me, though, was the fact that it’s historical drama, and I thought to myself, ‘Can I do this well?’ Most of the characters I’ve done were modern. I was a bit worried at first, thinking, ‘Will I affect this project in any negative way?’
“But I decided, in the end, that it was a worthwhile challenge. I was happy to join the project and had so much fun playing the character. It was an opportunity for me to learn a different style of acting, including developing my own way of executing a tone suitable for historical drama.”
Amusingly enough, Bae Doona will remember fondly even the “little things” about “Kingdom” years down the line.
“Not having tried the Korean traditional hairdo where the hair is tied back into a low bun, I wasn’t sure if this hairstyle would work for me. But towards the end of shooting, it felt natural to me.
“I also didn’t try to adopt a special acting method or technique, but I put in a lot of thought into the tone of voice appropriate for historical drama. I try to sound as natural as possible when playing a character in a modern show/film, but for “Kingdom,” I focused on enunciation. I put in effort into speaking in a traditional manner.”
Ryu Seung-yong is Cho Hak-ju the leader of the Hae-won Cho family and the Chief State Councilor.
“‘Cho Hak-ju’ has more power than the King. He’s someone who realizes his desires even though his means and process are morally wrong. I found the character of ‘Cho Hak-ju’ quite intriguing as he expresses the hidden human nature,” he said.
What are the strengths of “Kingdom,” we asked.
“I think the harmony between Asian and Western culture created by combining a very Western theme with Korea’s historical drama that involves Kings and power struggles is the key strength. In fact, the series incorporated the beauty of Korea with the art direction, including the traditional garments and the filming set for the palace. The story itself transcends time and space as it is about those in power and power struggles. As the series explores universal human desires, audiences across the world will be able to relate to the story. And as the story unfolds across a series of episodes, a long narrative that cannot be covered in a movie, was fully developed in episodes whose quality is outstanding.”
Also in the “Kingdom” main cast are Kim Sang-ho, Heo Joon-ho, Kim Sung-kyu, Jeon Seok-ho, Kim Hye-joon, Jin Seon-kyu. (All photos from Netflix)