The highly entertaining Kingdom franchise returned with a special episode, Kingdom: Ashin of the North, that served as a prequel to the main narrative as well as offered us more information about the likely big bad in Kingdom season 3.
Trigger Warning: This review of Kingdom: Ashin of the North mentions sexual assault. Be cautious.
If you are into well-written zombie shows, you need to watch the South Korean show Kingdom on Netflix. Set during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, three years after the Imjin War, you can describe this piece of media as a political period horror story with zombies. It was adapted from the manga series The Kingdom of the Gods (authored by Kim Eun-hee and drawn by Yang Kyung-il).
The first season, which debuted back in January of 2019, followed Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) getting to experience the dangerous undead. The first two seasons saw Lee Chang and his allies, including Physician Lee’s assistant Seo-bi (Bae Doona), trying to fight zombies, learn more about the resurrection plant, and survive the political machinations at play to undermine Lee Chang’s right to the royal throne. Yes, seeing humans trying to survive numerous running zombies is fun. But the real strength of the Kingdom series is found in the political stuff and well-written characterization. The themes of greed and corruption are quite obvious. The narrative themes even relate to certain real-life issues.
The second season, which debuted in March of 2020, ended on a cliffhanger by introducing a mysterious woman played by famous South Korean star Jun Ji-hyun (also known by her English name Gianna Jun). While she only appeared for a few seconds at the end of the finale, we got to learn a lot about her during Kingdom: Ashin of the North. And having watched the special episode, I can’t wait for Lee Chang and Seo-bi to face her.
The special episode opened years before the events of the first season. We are shown a young Ashin (played impressively by Kim Si-ah), learning about the resurrection plant while exploring the forbidden Pyesa-gun area. Ashin’s from a border village where she lives with her father, an ill mother, and a little brother (or a cousin. I’m not really sure). There is a troubling history involving Joseon and Ashin’s tribe. Her father’s loyal to the kingdom and yet he and his community still haven’t been given any official status from the government. They are treated as lowborn.
With the Pajeowi becoming stronger, tensions are high in Joseon. Matters are made much worse when 15 dead bodies of Pajeowi Jurchen people are found in the forest of Pyesa-gun. As to not cause a war, Min Chi-rok (actor Park Byung-eun reprising his role from the second season), the Deputy Commander of the Chupajin group, tries to cover the incident by blaming it on a tiger attack.
From there, things continue to escalate. As I have already mentioned, zombies are featured in Kingdom, but it’s primarily about politics.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North is a story featuring betrayal, grief, and revenge. We get to see how a young Ashin is transformed into a self-reliant woman who goes down the route of burning everything to the ground to get justice for what happened to her people. In my opinion, writer Eun-hee Kim did a good job of taking us deep into Ashin’s psyche. The best villains in media are the ones you can understand (and even sympathize with a bit). You don’t have to agree with their methods, but you get why they act in a certain manner. Ashin’s such a villain. It’s quite engrossing to see her evolution from a curious little girl into a fierce and angry warrior.
I liked the humanity the creative team gave Ashin. There’s a particular scene later on in the episode where an adult Ashin breaks down in tears and is faced with making an incredibly difficult decision. While Gianna Jun delivered in every scene, she was exceptional during that specific moment. Every person has a threshold of pain and trauma they can handle. Said moment played a huge role in making things change drastically for an adult Ashin.
While I didn’t like the limited dialogue adult Ashin got, it made sense narrative-wise because no one was really interested in talking to her. Even Chi-rok looked at her as an effective tool to fulfill certain spying missions. With Ashin quite likely being the big bad for Kingdom season 3, I hope to hear her talk a lot and learn more about her thoughts after causing a whole lot of trouble over the years. Having said that, Gianna Jun conveyed a lot of emotion without speaking a word during numerous scenes.
My biggest gripe was the sexual assault they added into the story involving an adult Ashin. While it occurs offscreen, I could have done without it. I don’t know why Ashin didn’t complain to Chi-rok the moment it happened. I get he didn’t care for her much as a human. But he valued her as a spy. He could have put a stop to it. I think.
As for the visuals, there were a lot of wide shots detailing the land and harsh weather around Ashin. Scenes took place in lush forests and barren lands which served to showcase nature’s ability to give and take life. Everything felt dangerous and lonely yet attractive at the same time. Just like Ashin.
While I continue to wait for the third season of Kingdom, I do think that Kingdom: Ashin of the North helped quench my thirst for new Kingdom content, even if just for a while. Coming in at approximately 90 minutes, the latest offering made me excited to see more of Ashin in the upcoming season. Here’s to hoping Lee Chang and his crew are prepared for her. I can’t wait for Ashin to meet Seo-bi. I want to see how an adult Ashin interacts with women, especially knowledgable ones like Seo-bi.
Other thoughts and questions:
- The zombie tiger was cool. It rightfully ended up being faster and more ferocious than a human zombie.
- Is the zombie infection not passable from infected animals to humans and vice versa?
- The transition between a young Ashin growing up into her adult version was impressively done.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North was released on Netflix on July 23, 2021. Go watch it! And if you already have, let me know what you thought!
Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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