arts

'Kingdom' creator Kim Eun-hee is leading South Korean drama into a new era

Published 26th October 2021
'Kingdom' creator Kim Eun-hee is leading South Korean drama into a new era
Written by Liz KangJane Sit, CNN
The first time Kim Eun-hee tried to write a love story, the film flopped. "I realized that romance wasn't working for me," she said.
It's not surprising -- the South Korean screenwriter famed for historical zombie epic "Kingdom" has a rather pessimistic take on love.
"Doesn't all love expire at about three years? Does true love even exist? I think this way quite a bit," she told CNN. "I don't think I can write screenplays that make people's hearts flutter."
Now, more than 15 years after her attempt at a romantic movie, Kim's job as a television writer is about offering a sort of "catharsis" to her audience. But, she said, "I don't want to give too much false hope that appears in dramas."
She is talking about the genres and tropes many Korean TV shows are traditionally known for -- romantic comedies and melodramas that some say include rather unrealistic depictions of love.
Kim's stories tend to be around societal issues, including crime, class divide and politics. "I want to write about how vice is punished ... poetic justice," she explained.
Her 2019 Netflix series "Kingdom" explored those themes with a 15th-century zombie twist. Against the backdrop a zombie epidemic in South Korea's Joseon dynasty, "Kingdom" features the epic journey of the crown prince as he searches for the cause of the outbreak.
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According to its director Kim Seong-hoon, stories like "Kingdom" have changed Korean dramas, bringing the thriller genre into the mainstream.
Korean filmmaking has a long history of domestic success but in recent years it has become increasingly popular with international audiences. In 2020, the movie "Parasite" became the first non-English language film to win best picture at the Oscars, and the growth of streaming services has provided a platform for Korean shows to make their way into living rooms around the world.
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Netflix brought Kim Eun-hee on as one of its first creative partners in South Korea, and the streaming service says it has invested nearly $500 million in Korean content in 2021 alone. "She is the tip of the spear," said Keo Lee, Netflix's director of Korean original series. "What I admire most about her is her belief in the strength of a good story."

A "frightening imagination"

Kim's storytelling prowess has long been recognized in South Korea and roles in her shows are coveted. Actor Jeon Suk-ho credits "Kingdom" as a turning point in his career. "It seems to show exactly what the power of writing is," he told CNN.
That sentiment is also shared by popular actors Ju Ji-hoon and Gianna Jun -- both leads in the "Kingdom" series, as well as Kim's latest drama "Mount Jiri."
Kim's shows often feature an ensemble of characters with individual stories, which combine to make her work complex and compelling. "Kim Eun-hee's writing is very difficult to act as an actor," Ju said. "Though her scripts are easy to read, the roles are not easy to act," he added, because of their many layers.
Jun said that while she's always enjoyed watching Kim's shows, some of the "scary and brutal scenes" surprised her when she started working with Kim. "Whenever I look at her, I think, where could that frightening imagination possibly come from?"

"Anyone can write a script"

Released in October 2021, "Mount Jiri" depicts the lives of mountain rangers and hikers on South Korea's second-tallest mountain. Researching the script, Kim tried to climb the mountain to better understand why people go there. It didn't turn out as she had hoped.
"I am afraid of heights, scared of bugs, and also I have a weak body, so I ended up in distress in the middle of the mountain," she recalled. "Eventually, I ended up spending a night at a shelter nearby. I had a very hard time, but seeing the night sky full of stars gave me confidence about writing this script."
Writer Kim Eun-hee attends the "Kingdom" premiere with the cast on January 21, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea.
Writer Kim Eun-hee attends the "Kingdom" premiere with the cast on January 21, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea. Credit: Woohae Cho/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images for Netflix
For Kim, the dedication she puts into her work can be seen in the details, and while the job can sometimes be challenging, she feels rewarded when viewers compliment her shows. "This kind of feeling is very addictive."
Despite her own global success, Kim believes anyone can become a screenwriter. "I didn't get good grades as a student, and my social skills were also not that great. I really wasn't good at anything," she said. "If you are interested in people, whether you are a man or a woman, you can become a great screenwriter."
An earlier version of the video above identified "Parasite" as the first international title to win an Oscar for Best Picture. This has been changed to clarify that "Parasite" is the first non-English language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.