TV Series Review: Kingdom (S2), Kingdom Hasn’t Lost Its Bite

My friend is going to ‘kill’ me if he reads this. At a chanced meeting at our coffeeshop, he told me he was disappointed with S2 of Kingdom because of the lack of zombie action. There is nothing wrong with that observation. As a matter of fact, he is right, but I am reminded of one of the tenets of great storytelling – it is not the what, it is the how. Kingdom is a Korean period zombie story set in the Joseon Dynasty, but it isn’t content with just populating the historical landscape with humans fighting zombies with antique weapons using archaic battle strategies. If Kingdom had catered to just the action junkies, it wouldn’t be transcending into cult status. Yes, I believe Kingdom is destined to be a cult classic.

S2 benefits from an uncanny release date that feels like a grim joke. The world is presently in the deathly grip of the COVID-19 pandemic and mankind is probably in the midst of undergoing a major system reboot. Seeing the protagonists of Kingdom watching wide-eyed with disbelief written on their faces as the zombies rampage towards them in broad daylight takes on a different meaning. Reel life becomes real life. The anxiety hits really close to home.

S2 starts immediately from the cliffhanger of S1 and it doesn’t let go of its grip. Replete with rich people sitting in ivory towers watching poor folks run and die, an undercurrent of classism runs through it. The central spine is still about a prince becoming a king and a female doctor coming into her own in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. S2 is relentlessly paced. Gone is the meticulous setup of place and characters, the shackles are gone. It’s get-busy-living-or-get-busy-dying time. It does a great job of painting a world drowning in hopelessness, populated by humans across the spectrum. Even when faced with a common enemy, people are still selfishly looking out for themselves. Court intrigue, power struggle, double crosses still run in tandem with the zombie apocalypse, but these side-plots never bogged down the main thrust of the story.

Sandwiching the story of a crown prince becoming a true king of his people, not through status but by action, the zombie action is spectacularly riveting. There is still a macabre sense of humour embedded in certain bloody scenes where characters are dispatched in ridiculous ways that made me guffaw. Scenes of zombies swarming the landscape is jaw-dropping and inventive. The science of how the zombies work and ultimately destroyed is well-explained. In short, if you love your zombie action, this one has it in spades and in bloody refreshing ways.

I particularly enjoyed how they closed out Crown Prince Lee Chang’s arc. In any narrative, what he has done through two seasons is more than enough to make him become the king twice over, but such is the way of a man who has learned benevolence and kindness that he understands the throne is an obstacle in showing love for his people. That would have been a fitting ending, but Kim Eun-hee, the writer of Kingdom, fast-forwards the story a few years later and sets up an enticing promise of S3 with some clever expositions ending with a mouth-watering cameo.

And thus begins the long wait for S3. I have mixed feelings with that not because I don’t want to see how the story will progress, but it means Kim Eun-hee will have her hands full and probably won’t have time for Signal S2, my favourite TV series of 2016. I will just have to be patient. Right now, I am rubbing my hands in child-like glee to see what will happen in S3.

Rating 4 of 5

4 / 5

TV Series Review: Kingdom (S1) (2019), Abra-cadaver…This Korean Period Zombie Series Hits a Bone Run

Prior to watching this my wifey and I saw Rampant, also a Korean period zombie movie set in the Joseon Dynasty. This one bored us to death. It made us so sleepy that we turned in at 1030pm. That NEVER happens.

Then we gave Netflix’s Kingdom a whirl because I read that it is written by Kim Eun-hee who wrote the compelling Signal (2016), one of the best things that happened that year. A few minutes into it we realised the story is practically the same as Rampant – court intrigue, some power hungry scumbag wants to rule the kingdom, a prince who is still wet behind his ears; all this right smack in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. But the similarities end here.

Kingdom does everything right. The humour never feels forced, characters lift off the screen and those damn zombies are the killer. The great zombie movies always know how to capture a microcosm of society, from the cowards to the heroes, and make it fun. Kingdom has that in spades. Every episode shows you the basest of human behaviour and also the best.

The visuals are great. The locations are stunning. The zombies are incredible to behold. The premise of how they come to be is horrific. To tell you more is to spoil the fun for you.

I enjoyed the crown prince’s arc. Like the prince in Rampant, he gradually learns the ways of a good king by caring for the weak and developing a mind of a military strategist.

The scenes of zombie carnage are superbly set-up and shot. Pathos is never in short supply and unlike Rampant we actually care for the characters here.

However, the zombies rightfully take centrestage. The physics of their movement, the singularity of their feral desire and their physical look, all outstanding.

There are only 6 episodes in the first season and it ends with a cliffhanger that gives the saturated genre a good kick in the butt. 

You know I can’t recommend Rampant at all, but watching it before you see Kingdom will show you how everything can go wrong even if you have an amazing story premise. Then you will begin to understand and marvel at the mechanics in the crafting of a good zombie entertainer.

Rating 4 of 5

Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019), A Deeply Humane Film About an American Icon

There are two types of narratives that always hit me like a thunderbolt. They don’t even need to reinvent the wheel; they can just revel in all the clichés and I am a goner. The first is an underdog-sports genre film and the sport doesn’t matter – a ragtag team that can’t work together have failed so many times they don’t know which way is up. In comes a coach, with his personal demons, who will transform the team and himself in the process. The last act is practically carved in stone – it’s the final game, but they have lost the first half miserably. The coach delivers a half-time pep talk that gives everyone a helluva adrenaline shot, and with a great swell of music the team wins the game by a hair’s breadth. The second movie genre that I have a soft spot for is a father-son story. Give me Like Father, Like Son (2013). Give me Field of Dreams (1989). Give me Big Fish (2003). And I show you a grown man who totally loses it. These are stories that feel like they were written for me. I know that because my breath is caught in a hitch, my heart is soaring and my tears are welling up by the last act.

I say all of that as a preface because I have a feeling I may be biased in how this review will turn out. I will attempt to be strict but as I am pondering over A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood my eyes are already glistening, just so you know.

Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod (Mathew Rhys). After the jaded magazine writer (renamed as Lloyd Vogel for the movie) is assigned to write a 100-word profile of Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America’s most beloved neighbour.

I grew up with the likes of Sesame Street and Electric Company, and had no idea there was another American venerable mainstay in children’s television in the form of Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood. Hence, watching the opening scene of a sugary mild-mannered man in a red cardigan donning his sneakers and offering homilies was curiously fascinating.

Director Marielle Heller didn’t do a straight-up biopic of a celebrated personality. As soon as Tom Hanks’ Fred Rogers is done with singing the theme song of a typical episode of the television programme, he introduces us to Lloyd Vogel. An unfaltering photograph of Vogel is presented and the story shifts its perspective to Vogel’s. Before long, you will realise that Rogers is not the main character. We see Rogers through Vogel’s cynical eyes which is the surrogate of people like me on this side of the screen. How can there ever be a person with not a single bad thought, bad bone and bad deed in his being? Apparently, there is and his name is Mr Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is not much of a biopic. It uses a narrative framework to tell a story of how Mr Rogers affected generations of people, young and old. Tom Hanks does a splendid job as Mr Rogers, capturing not just his simple mannerisms, measured speech and patient eyes, but the essence of the man. This is a man with such simple gestures, possessing a Zen-like vibe, who offers us a blueprint of how a world can be like if we all do the simple things, like loving everyone in your neighbourhood, well. His innate ability to relate to children and his uncomplicated view of the world, remarkable to the point my heart threatens to explode in a flurry of rose petals. Some of the scenes feel fabricated for pseudo-nostalgia, especially the one where random people on a subway train see Rogers and start to sing the theme song (it’s in the trailer). Later, I would read Tom Junod’s article and found out it did happen.

Vogel’s story arc is the ubiquitous storied history of a man wounded by his father who abandoned him and his dying mother. Stop me if you have heard this one before – his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) comes back wanting to reunite with the son. The father is sick and doesn’t have long, but the son finds it impossible to forgive him, but eventually with some help finds closure with his father. We have seen this story template numerous times, but Vogel’s emotional arc is empathetically satisfying. Through interviewing Rogers, Vogel got “interviewed” instead by Rogers with his never ending questions in his soothing cadence of a voice. When Vogel’s arc is complete, I never felt cheated with an act of convenience, but felt moved that with the help of good old Mister Rogers he could face his demons with a big heart of love. This is a wonderful storytelling device – we may not have gotten a full tour of a delightful man and his ideas, but we get to experience his kindness, honesty and philosophy. I don’t know about you but with the state of the world as it is now, we could all use a bit of Mister Rogers.

It leaves me to enclose Tom Junod’s article Can You Say… Hero? A 100-word puff piece that became a thesis on a kind soul and how Rogers’ simple philosophy of life changed him. It’s long, but it is a rewarding read. My advice is to read it after you have watched the movie. Your skepticism of the man will melt away as the words cascade into your consciousness and hopefully into your heart.

Rating 4 of 5

TV Series Review: Hotel De Luna (2019), A Hotel You Need to Check in at Your Earliest Convenience

The following is a musing on my Facebook that I shared on two separate occasions. It’s very candid and written on the spur of the moment. I thought I will just reproduce the two FB posts which will serve as a review of this excellent Korean drama…

We are late to the party for this Korean series, Hotel De Luna. The buzz is so good we thought we should give it a shot.

4 episodes in, it is easy to see why this gets so much love. It’s very creative – imagine a hotel that exists in between time and space of which the guests are ghosts. These are ghosts with unfulfilled wishes and they are lost on the road to Afterlife. So they will wind up here for some respite. The world building is super cool – it doesn’t lay everything out in one episode; every episode will have an element on the world, it’s why and how, explained in an interesting manner.

This being a Korean drama, also expect a romance of the fantasy level. There is the owner of the hotel, Jang Man Wol, since God knows when because time has stood still for her. She is a tyrant, a hard as nail woman, who always gets her way. Then there is a human man, Goo Chan Seong, who reluctantly becomes the manager (there are only so many things a spirit can do in a human world). This is what the Koreans are good at – the push and pull between them is so exquisitely calibrated. On my side of the screen, we can’t wait to see the clash of lips and eventually the collision of bodies, but on the other side of the screen the writers make sure they take their time. Every episode brings them one step closer. If this is Hollywood, they are probably in bed after one episode. Their relationship is also hilariously depicted.

We also love the side-plots that run in tandem to the main romantic narrative spine. This being a hotel means there are lots of stories about the ghosts that work there and the guests. We just finished the one about a ghost bride, which has a beautiful twist. Who says ghosts can’t teach you one or two things about being human?

We are going to take our time with this 😍

Choo and I checked out of Hotel De Luna last night. It was an immensely satisfying and wonderful two-week “staycation”; one of those “holidays” that is so refreshing and yet so bittersweet because the magic disappears like wisps of smoke the moment we stepped out of the hotel. What’s left are the enchanting memories to be cherished forever.

It sounds like I am describing something perfect; it isn’t. Depending on your tolerance for romantic mushiness, the entanglements (and disentanglements) can be extremely sappy and grates on the nerves. There was also one reveal concerning Gu Chan Seong’s back story right at the end that for Choo and I wasn’t well-handled. That said, everything else felt like the perfect “stay” – an explosion of feels and catharsis. It wasn’t just the impeccable cast, set design, CGI, soundtrack, fashion and compelling storylines, for both of us it is the life lessons that we gleaned from the series that made it so unforgettable.

Death is not the end. This drama espouses not only that notion, but how we end it here in this lifetime matters. A hotel that hosts ghosts and spirits still bearing unfulfilled desires and deep grudges offers a treasure trove of stories. I want to share so many but I would do you a huge disservice if I do that. Some of the story ideas are so creative – imagine a magical telephone that allows the dead to make one last phone call to a person who is dreaming. In comes this father and son who were killed by a truck driver; they request a phone call to the driver who rammed into them. The eventual phone conversation not only surprised me, but brought on tears and a wave of euphoria because I picked up an important life lesson.

Throughout the 16 episodes, the writing duo, Hong sisters, maintains a deft balance between the horror, fantasy, humour and drama elements. Thematically, this one hits the bullseye. Fate versus choice, it feels like everything that happens is preordained, but Ma Go always gives the principle characters a choice. Chan Seong could have spent a lifetime with a younger Man Wol when he goes back in time, but does he? What is love? The themes of love (in all its beautiful guises), hope and forgiveness are well-examined in refreshing ways. I particularly love the life lesson of letting go (please don’t cue the music of Let It Go) which ultimately will set a person free, even a ghost. Grudges and hate imprison us, stopping us from being the best of ourselves. The sage adage of “if you love someone set them free” (don’t cue Sting please) is epitomised here to great empathetic effect. Some episodes carry a few seemingly disparate storylines, but in the last act all of them will dovetail together, serving up a superb dish of feels. What meticulous writing!

All the best writing is laid to waste if the characters are not compellingly drawn. Led by IU and Yeo Jin Goo, Jang Man Wol and Goo Chan Seong are drawn with a sure hand. We want them to be together, but we know it is impossible. Their love story is bittersweet; parting is such sweet sorrow. I love how their back stories are teased out slowly and when the full picture is finally revealed you will understand why they are the way they are in this lifetime. Not forgetting the back stories of the staffers at the hotel too. Why would Mrs Choi want to see out the death of a family line before leaving for the Afterlife is especially compelling.

If you have not checked into Hotel De Luna, I urge you to do so at the earliest convenience. It’s not Hotel California, you can check out anytime you like and you can leave even if you don’t want to, but my bet is that you will not only be entertained but will learn so much. Forgive, let go and move on. Leave a legacy of kind acts. Love yourself, others. This is one of the best TV series of 2019.

Rating 4,5 of 5

TV Series Review: Crash Landing On You (2020), Winsome Chemistry and Fascinating World-Building Make this a Must-See

The late 1970s to early 80s were my adolescent years, my formative years. My ideas of love were gleaned from watching countless Taiwanese mandarin movies on Saturday nights, featuring Brigette Lin (林青霞), Chin Han (秦汉) and others. Most of the storylines either fell into terminal-illness-of-the-week or the universe-doesn’t-want-the-couple-to-be-together narrative trappings. I learned that a girl will get pregnant if a guy kisses her or if they share an umbrella in a storm. I learned that it’s true love if you love the other person more than yourself and you should sacrifice your life for your significant other in the greatest demonstration of love. The image of a trickle of blood running down one’s corner of the mouth as the one you saved weep for you is the sexiest look ever. What a load of crock! But I think back to those movie nights with my family fondly. One of the most important lessons in love I have learned through those mandarin movies is that it isn’t true love if the journey of love isn’t arduous. Korean drama Crash Landing On You has lots of scenes of the principal couple taking bullets for each other and putting their lives in constant danger for the sake of the other, and their passage of love takes them from North Korea to South Korea in one of the most testing journeys of love ever.

The “what-if” is brilliant – a tornado sends a paragliding self-made young South Korean business woman and heiress Yoon Se-ri (Ye-jin Son) into North Korea. She then falls into the arms of a North Korean army captain Ri Jeong Hyeok (Hyun Bin). The typical Korean drama narrative strategy is then to make them gradually fall in love and to make it fraught with difficulties and danger. You can bet your entire fortune that only at the final episode will they truly be together and you look at your love life wondering why it isn’t as spectacular as theirs. That’s the game plan, the broad strokes, the Spark notes version.

The really great ones know how to make the seams disappear and make you so vested in their journey of love you don’t ponder on the implausibility of it all. Se-ri and Jeong Hyeok’s love story is impossible on paper. Think about it – one is a CEO in the south and one is an army captain in the north. It’s doomed from the start. It’s Romeo and Juliet all over again and we all know how that ended. But as great love stories go… theirs is fraught with many eleventh hour twists and dangers, but they stand firm. Jeong Hyeok loves her so much he wants her to go back home and he comes up with many outrageous plans to make that happen. A storyline like this can’t last sixteen 85-minute episodes and thankfully the story shifts to the south at the halfway mark.

Love stories soar or plummet on the chemistry of the leads. Here, it soars like a seraph to the heavens, which is not a surprise because I have seen Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin in The Negotiation (2018) and they were excellent. Incidentally, due to the popularity of Crash Landing On You, the movie is showing again in the cinemas. Cast against type, Hyun Bin actually plays a villain and dammit… he is so good. But in Crash Landing On You Hyun Bin plays Captain Ri in a nuanced and reserved manner, his mild-mannered reticence belies an unfathomable depth. When he looks at Se-ri, he sees into her soul. His broad shoulders not only offer comfort, they shield her from all manners of harm. Son plays her character as a feisty force of nature always wanting to stamp her opinions on any issue. But as days pass, her hard exterior melts away showing us a softer side. That’s how love works – it changes you; it makes you want to be a better person. How their characters are drawn is the classic opposites attract master-stroke. They are on two ends of the romance line and you are counting down the moments when souls will connect, lips will touch and bodies will collide. Cue the fireworks when it hits.

As much as I find the love stories endearing, I am in awe at how the series paints the world of North Korea. Movies with North Korea as the backdrop typically portray it as the nexus of evil, its citizens barely surviving in a totalitarian regime. Here, the writers take a nuanced stance and present a world filled with complex characters. The four lovable underlings of Captain Ri display distinctive character traits and are memorably portrayed. I particularly find the wiretapper’s story compelling and his character arc well-drawn and by that I mean I was crying my eyes out. I dare you to not giggle at the antics of the busybody ajummas (aunties) of the military village, each of them bringing something new to the plate. At times you will laugh at them, but sometimes you wonder why your community can’t be like theirs.

The last episode broke the records for viewership in Korea and I must say it nails the landing. The closures for the myriad characters are sublime, Jeong Hyeok and Se-ri earned their ending. A sigh of sublime relief permeated the air and it was time well-spent. Is it the best I have seen? Nope, not by a long shot, but it is up there with the best. For a while, I have lived a lifetime with these interesting characters in a world I can never and want to go. All this in the comfort of my living room which has become a cocoon of love. This one ticks all the boxes and then some.

Rating 4.5 / 5

Review: The Invisible Man (2020), A Worthy Reboot and Relevant in this Age

A little context first… over the weekend we saw two movies that stopped way short of being great. The first was Jeethu Joseph’s The Body (2019), a Hindi remake of Oriol Paulo’s El Cuerpo (2012). What should have been a twist-galore suspense-driven thriller turned out to be a turgid affair because of the necessitated song and dance numbers; a case of death by cultural traditional practices. We followed that up with Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018), an uncomfortably tragic and elemental revenge tale let down by an unsatisfying and bloated to-and-fro final act. Then we made a trip to the cinema to catch The Invisible Man and our faith with great storytelling is restored. This, in my humble opinion, is the first awesome film of 2020.

Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) is escaping from the grip of her abusive boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a scientist. Freed from him, Cecilia starts to rebuild her life, but her nightmare is just beginning when weird things begin to happen around her that only she can perceive.

Time and time again, H.G. Wells’ classic novel of the same name is revisited by Hollywood. The narrative track is usually one of two (or both) – it portrays either the perks or tribulations of becoming invisible. The first cool thing Australian writer-director Leigh Whannell does is to frame the ubiquitous storyline as a riveting domestic thriller making it thoroughly relevant in this #MeToo era.

The opening sequence is a symphony of gradually swelling music, thrills and spills with nary any exposition of the explicit kind. We have no idea what is going on, but it is so effective we are eagerly clutching at every detail. I love it when a storyteller respects the intelligence of the audience who can connect the dots.

A lot of the story is told from Cecilia’s point of view and in Elizabeth Moss who has a knack for playing strong female characters, we have our perfect guide into a nightmarish world of extreme stalking. Her glazed and terrorised eyes can convey a world of crazy. Her unhinged acting will draw you in. The concept of invisibility is not just a literal concept, it is also a metaphorical one. Being consistently abused by a sociopath, Cecilia is always haunted by shame, anguish and pain even when the tormentor is not around (or is he?). Her mind takes a beating by an invisible force – is Adrian tormenting her or is it post-traumatic stress? It all feels relatable and real.

The camera work is simple but effective. At times, it pans to an empty space and stays there for an eternity, and we sense a presence that isn’t there. The special effects is of a high calibre and it serves the enraging story. The science behind the invisibility is niftily presented and the movement of humans getting plummeted by an unseen brute force is downright scary.

Above all else, it is the nail-biting tension that is deftly maintained from the first scene to the last that is a high-wire act. The twist of an ending is thoroughly earned and cathartic, and in Moss we have the ultimate portrayal of a female heroine gradually finding a latent power within her to strike back at a seemingly insurmountable force that threatens her very being. This is worth the risk of sitting among a cinema full of patrons with the threat of the coronavirus hanging in the air.

If all my words are not enough, try this on for size. That night, after we came home from watching the movie, the missus had one nightmare after another. If that’s not a huge thumbs up, I don’t know what it is.

Rating 4 of 5