Tag: TV

PITB Reviews: Kingdom of the Gods

Just when it seems like the zombie genre has run its course, a handful of visionary Korean storytellers come along to remind us there’s still life left in the undead genre.

First there was 2016’s record-setting, multiple award-winning Train to Busan, a film about an overworked father taking his young daughter to her mother’s house in the titular city just as a zombie plague tears human civilization apart.

Together with a core cast of affable characters — including a pregnant woman and her overprotective husband, and members of a youth baseball team — dad and daughter try to survive in a uniquely claustrophobic setting where simply running from the undead isn’t an option. Train to Busan wasn’t just a hit for its horror and action elements — the film packs a surprising amount of social criticism into its one hour and 58 minute run time, turning its lens onto modern Korean society and, by extension, modern life around the globe.

The movie has a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and sparked a bidding war for its US rights. A remake set in the US is currently in production by New Line.

Then there’s Kingdom, a Netflix series also called Kingdom of the Gods in Korean, that takes a zombie plague and drops it over a story about political intrigue and power struggles in the Joseun feudal era.

The series picks up at the beginning of the 17th century, when the kingdom of Joseon is three years removed from the second of two brutal Japanese invasions. Poverty is rampant, the common people are starving and the queen consort’s Haewon Cho clan has consolidated power, effectively insulating the king from his closest advisers, friends and family.

The country is desperate for leadership, but the king has disappeared after falling ill with smallpox.

His son, Crown Prince Lee Chang, tries to intervene and find out what’s happened to his father, but he’s repeatedly stopped by the pregnant Queen Consort Cho, who refuses to allow Chang into the royal palace.

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Jeoha: Crown Prince Lee Chang, wearing the distinct dragon robes of Joseon kings and crown princes, tries to gain access to the royal palace to see his ailing father, the king.

Chang is in an extremely precarious situation: Although he’s the Crown Prince and the king’s beloved only son, his mother was a concubine. If Queen Consort Cho gives birth to a son, the boy will be considered the true heir and Chang will be hunted down and executed so there can be no competing claims to the throne.

With the king missing, Crown Prince Chang knows his time is limited and if he doesn’t act, he could be arrested and put to death by the queen’s orders at any moment.

So Chang and his bodyguard/friend Mu-yeong devise a plan to steal the king’s patient journal from the royal palace at great risk to themselves. When they find bizarre entries about doctors administering a “resurrection plant” — and no subsequent entries about the king’s health — they set off south in search of the king’s physician, the one man who can tell them what really happened to the king.

What follows is a spectacular adventure fueled by gorgeous cinematography, an energetic cast of actors who go all-in on the premise, and a historically accurate look at Korea as it existed under a dynasty that lasted for half a millennia.

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Ryu Seung-ryong plays the scheming top minister Cho Hak-ju, father of the queen consort. The double-swan embroidery on his robe indicates his status as a powerful government official. Credit: Netflix

The zombie plague itself may be the stuff of George A. Romero’s nightmares, but the attention to historical detail in Kingdom is second to none, from the costumes to the historic palaces and the strict adherence to tradition among Joseon’s bureaucrats.

It turns out the real leaders of Joseon did have many of the same dilemmas their counterparts on the show do: Kingdom’s author was inspired by historical accounts of an unprecedented deadly plague that swept through the Korean peninsula after the second Japanese invasion, piling fresh misery onto a population already reeling from Japanese invasions and hunger.

The social order compounded the misery for those at the bottom. The Joseon dynasty was marked by strict divisions between social classes, making traditionally aristocratic societies in the west look almost like pleasant meritocracies by comparison.

Everything a person wore — robes, hats, embroidered designs on their chests and backs — were indicators of class, rank and occupation. Government ministers, who were nobles, dressed in fine silks with intricately embroidered rank badges in animal motifs.

Peasants wore rags and straw hats, while the more fortunate among them wore modest clothes.

Nepotism and corruption were rampant, and the nobles, ministers and administrators who held power saw their positions as conferring privilege, not responsibility.

When a group of aristocrats and government ministers of one region take the last barge out of a doomed city, leaving thousands of vulnerable commoners behind to be eaten and turned by the tidal wave of undead, it seems unspeakably cruel and cowardly until you realize that this is a feature of the society, not a bug.

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Ju Ji-hoon, center, as Crown Prince Lee Chang, with Bae Doona, left, as the physician Seo-bi and Kim Sang-ho, right, as Chang’s trusted bodyguard Mu-yeong.

When the aristocrats abandon peasants to the zombies, Crown Prince Chang and Mu-yeong risk their lives gathering a small force to protect the people and usher them to the safety of a walled stronghold.

Later, when a group of villagers bury a group of undead, unaware that they’ll rise at sunset and trample the nearest towns, the Crown Prince and his followers head out just before dusk to stop them, knowing they’ll be outnumbered and may not return.

The Crown Prince’s many kindnesses to peasants and children, and his willingness to risk his own life to protect them, draw the notice of characters who become key allies — including a member of the legendary Chakho tiger hunters, and Lord Ahn, a military hero and governor credited with expelling the Japanese during the invasion three years prior.

Crown Prince Chang set off initially to solve the mystery of the king’s disappearance and to protect himself from the scheming Haweon Cho clan, but as he sees the poverty, desperation and vulnerability of his people first-hand, he dedicates himself to a more pressing and noble cause in protecting the people of Joseon from the seemingly unstoppable plague and starvation.

In that effort, he unites people of different classes and backgrounds who fight fiercely and loyally for him, seeing hope for a brighter future if he survives and becomes king.

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The physician Seo-bi, played by Bae Doona, attends to a man’s wounds.

The show never misses a chance to show social disparities: The upper classes do everything they can to protect themselves, everyone else be damned. They hide behind walls and ignore thousands of commoners — including women and crying children — who pound on the gates, begging to be let in. They abandon the peasants, and in many cases count on the lower classes serving as a human shield to allow the upper classes to escape danger.

“Are you sure this is okay?” one minister asks his sycophantic assistant as they take the last barge out of a doomed city, leaving throngs of peasants on the docks.

“You and the other nobles are the backbone of the city!” his assistant assures him. “You must survive so you can rebuild.”

As a result, the first waves of undead are the people on the lowest rungs of society. As the virus spreads to another city, a group of confused aristocrats can’t believe what they’re seeing.

“Those peasants are attacking nobles!” one incredulous man in ornate clothing says as undead in rags storm through Dongnae (modern day Busan).

Peasants attacking the upper class was unthinkable in Joseon, and by the time the aristocrats in that scene realize there’s something very wrong, it’s too late.

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As the plague spreads, the ranks of the undead grow to include aristocrats in fine robes as well as peasants in rags.

Before long, the legions of undead include just as many people in fine silks and ornate embroidery, finally uniting the classes of Korea in a state of undead purgatory, their reanimated corpses hungering for the flesh of the still-living.

Eventually, though, Chang must confront the Haewon Cho clan and its patriarch, the powerful minister Cho Hak-ju.

Of course the show wouldn’t be a hit if it didn’t provide something for action and horror fans, and it more than delivers on its promises.

The action sequences in Kingdom are spectacular, and the show gives viewers lots of them, from outnumbered warriors holding a narrow pass from the undead, to zombie hordes laying siege to citadels, to close-quarters sword fighting.

The beautifully-shot sequences put shows like The Walking Dead to shame. Whereas the latter show often gives the impression that the money men behind the franchise are counting pennies, Kingdom‘s lavish sets, epic set pieces and impeccable special effects are the kind of thing viewers would expect from a summer blockbuster, not a television show.

Kingdom isn’t all action, and it takes time to breathe with quiet character moments between the narrow escapes and thrilling battles. The series is a period drama just as much as it falls within the action and horror genres. We see the inner workings of a society markedly different than anything most Westerners are familiar with, but driven by the same human ambitions.

The story is also effective thanks to actors Hye-jun Kim and Seung-Ryong Ryu, who play the Queen and her father, high minister Cho Hak-ju. They’re villainous and power hungry without seeming one-dimensional, and both succeed in becoming focal points of the audience’s anger as they commit one despicable act after another.

Cho Hak-ju manipulates the court with the savvy of Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger and the brutality of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator. The other government ministers are terrified of him, and as the man who ostensibly speaks for the king, his word is effectively law.

The Queen, meanwhile, puts in motions schemes that would make Thrones’ Cersei look amateurish in comparison.

Kingdom’s got two seasons under its belt and a stand-alone special episode, Kingdom: Ashin of the North. Fans are eagerly awaiting the third season. It stands out as one of the best historical epics in recent memory.

Buddy’s verdict: Five paws out of five!
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Big Buddy’s verdict: Highly recommended

PITB Reviews: Archive 81

Title: Archive 81
Showrunner: Rebecca Sonnenshine
Genre: Drama, horror
Medium: Netflix streaming

Archive 81 arrived just in time to help us through a content dead zone.

The Witcher’s excellent second season helped tide us over last month alongside Amazon’s not-so-great adaptation of The Wheel of Time, and critically-lauded The Expanse ended its six-year run on Jan. 14. Meanwhile, if network TV is your thing, the last few weeks of January through early February are filled with nothing but reruns as networks are loath to put any original content up against the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl.

Enter Archive 81: A story that promises mystery, Lovecraftian horror and a heavy dose of 90s nostalgia.

Our protagonist is Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an analog enthusiast who makes a living restoring vintage media (VHS, cassette, Betamax and anything else pre-DVD), and spends his off hours crate-digging for rare recordings.

We meet Dan as he’s looking through recently-acquired VHS tapes at a street vendor’s stall in Manhattan.

“You know last month you sold me 16 hours’ worth of a T-ball tournament, yeah?” Dan asks.

“Yeah. But also, I sold you an uncut version of Phantasmagoria off channel 7,” his street vendor friend says. “That’s unreleased and very rare.”

When Dan balks at buying a box of random tapes, his vendor friend appeals to the hobbyist in him.”Look,” he says, “I know you love the hunt.”

“The hunt” he’s referring to is the obsessive drive that prompts collectors of all types to sift through yard sales, estate auctions and abandoned storage units. It’s the thrill of opening the unknown with the knowledge that most of it will be junk, but every once in a while a nondescript box will hold a rare gem.

It’s the thrill of the hunt that leads Dan to accept an archiving gig from a secretive company despite concerning red flags.

The job is to restore an archive of video cassettes scavenged from the charred ruins of a Manhattan apartment building called the Visser that burned to the ground in 1994. No one survived the building-consuming fire, and Dan’s employers believe the tapes could shed light on how the fire started as well as the people who lost their lives.

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Dan finds himself increasingly invested in the story of Melody Pendras, who lived on the Visser’s fourth floor before the building was destroyed by fire. Credit: Netflix
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Dan is hired by a company to restore fire-damaged cassettes that could contain important clues about a 1994 fire that destroyed an apartment building in Manhattan. Credit: Netflix

The company offers Dan a particularly generous fee for restoring and digitizing the footage, with the caveat that for the duration of the project he has to work out of a company-owned compound in the Catskills, a few hours’ drive north of New York City.

Dan accepts and it doesn’t take long for him to become engrossed in the content of the tapes he’s restoring. The collection of cassettes was shot by a young woman named Melody Pendras who moves into the historic and creepy Visser Building, ostensibly to interview its residents for a dissertation she’s doing on the strange history of the high rise.

With each cassette Dan restores and digitizes, a new chapter of Melody’s time at the Visser is revealed, and it becomes increasingly apparent that something is very wrong with the building and the people who inhabit it.

Think Ghostbusters and 55 Central Park West, also known as “Spook Central.” In the 1984 hit, 55 Central Park West’s bizarre design choices came courtesy of an architect who was heavily into the occult, and he built the high rise to serve as some sort of supernatural antenna for spirits from another dimension. The Visser has similar origins, although the details are best left unspoiled.

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There’s something creepy going on in the Visser’s basement community room. Credit: Netflix

As Dan becomes increasingly invested in Melody’s story he begins to feel the effects of isolation, living in the brutalist compound that houses the repair studio and a cavernous living space. He’s not allowed visitors, as the content of the tapes are supposed to be confidential, he doesn’t get cell service and he begins to suspect the landline is tapped.

With a history of mental illness, Dan isn’t sure if he’s imagining things when he realizes someone else may be in the compound, and his paranoia is stoked by the discovery of journals that indicate he wasn’t the first archivist to work in the isolated building.

To make matters worse, he begins to experience vivid dreams in which he’s speaking directly to Melody — and she’s clearly in trouble, calling for help across almost three decades.

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As Dan restores the damaged video tapes, he unravels more of the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi). Credit: Netflix

Archive 81 is guilty of the so-called “mystery box” narrative format popularized by JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof with Lost. The pair provided a template to string viewers along by unraveling just enough of the central mystery in each episode to keep viewers hooked, but as Lost proved, the mystery box form only succeeds in pissing the audience off if there’s not a solid pay-off at the end.

While Abrams and Lindelof dragged out Lost’s narrative and winged its conclusion to much derision, Archive 81’s Rebecca Sonnenshine clearly mapped out her story from start to finish. Momentum builds over eight roughly hour-long episodes until things escalate quickly toward the end. While I’m still not sure how I feel about the way things concluded, Sonnenshine’s story provides answers to most of the burning questions that pop up over the season’s run, and leaves just enough of a cliffhanger for a potential sequel. (And judging by the show’s several-week run atop Netflix’s charts, we probably will see at least another season.)

You could argue that mystery is baked into the genre: Archive 81 is a drama with elements of horror, but it doesn’t rely on jump scares. It avoids many of the latter genre’s most worn-out tropes while embracing others, layering the narrative with an ever-increasing sense of dread. It’s a clear attempt at high-concept horror.

There’s not much in the show to dissuade the squeamish and the writers are more concerned with exploring their characters than trying to freak viewers out. All the same, whether you enjoy the series or not probably depends heavily on how you feel about the genre. If you’re game for something a little dark, Archive 81 isn’t a bad way to spend a week’s worth of frigid January or February nights.

Buddy’s Verdict: 3 1/2 Paws Out Of Five:

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Big Buddy’s Verdict: Recommended