Kingdom: Ashin of the North Delves Into the Despair of a Doomed Zombie World
Jun Ji-hyun makes for an unlikely villain. But make no mistake, the superstar stunner has come a long way from My Sassy Girl and breathes cold, vengeful life into Ashin, the mysterious figure encountered by Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-Hoon) and Seo-bi (Bae Doona) at the end of the Kingdom second season finale. Kingdom: Ashin of the North is a sidequel to events in the series and a revelatory prelude to the zombie outbreak.
Showrunner Kim Eun-hee felt that it would be more “audience-friendly” to tell Ashin of the North as a separate tale. “When you look at the story behind Ashin,” she explains, “it is a very long and complex story. Because it is a story with a long timeline [as it follows Ashin from childhood].” She felt it would be better cinematically as a standalone tale.
To its credit, the film certainly works on its own, perhaps even better without prior knowledge of the series. The 92-minute special episode follows the story of Ashin, a young girl belonging to a Jurchen tribe—think Mongols—that resides just inside the border of the Joseon kingdom. Her tribe, labeled the Seongjeoyain, is shunned by the Jurchens for having lived inside the borders for so long and yet are treated as lower-class citizens by Joseon.
Kim took a special interest in that particular tribe while researching for season two. “The resurrection plant has these certain cold properties in the plant,” she says, “and so I naturally looked into the northern areas of Joseon. That's when I came across the people that were referred to as the Seongjeoyain, who are the marginalized people of the time who didn't belong anywhere.”
Just as Kingdom is essentially sociopolitical commentary wrapped in zombie finery, Kim deftly puts the focus on the oppression and suffering of some ethnic groups, not coincidentally a real issue that still exists today. Part of the brilliance in Kim Eun-hee’s writing in Kingdom is how she balanced the story between the horror of human behavior and the horror of the undead. With Ashin of the North, Kim loses this balance somewhat and tilts more toward showing the atrocities of man.
Visually, the film is stunning. Set in the northern provinces, the cinematography is a breathtaking resplendence of ashen gray and blue. But the story’s pace is just as glacial as the wilderness it’s set in, and there’s not much zombie goodness beyond a chilling opening sequence with an unfortunate deer and the zombie-fueled vengeance at the end.
The escalating conflict between the kingdom and the semi-nomadic tribes outside its borders set the stage for Ashin’s spiral into darkness. Ashin’s father, Ta Hab, is the leader of her tiny village and a Joseon sympathizer waiting for an official government appointment that was never going to come. A backwater settlement of little significance to either faction and not truly accepted by either side, the Seongjeoyain become a casualty of war and Ashin is the only known survivor.
During the press con, Jun Ji-hyun was asked how she prepared for the role, and she responded that it wasn’t so much the physical aspect that challenged but the internalization of a uniquely Korean concept. “I tried to focus mostly on how to interpret the personal anguish and hurt, which we in Korea refer to as han and how to interpret that emotion into wanting to exact vengeance on the whole land of Joseon,” she says.
Han in simple terms is sadness, but is quite possibly impossible to define outside the Korean experience. It’s a sort of collective feeling of sorrow or grief that has been defined as running in the blood of all Koreans. It is a palpable, romanticized melancholy, a uniquely Korean cultural concept, that accurately encapsulates not only the character of Ashin but her origin story.
Most of the film revolves around Ashin’s growth into an angry, bow-wielding spirit of vengeance. Taken advantage of, raped, betrayed, lied to … Kim threw in every conceivable trope to concoct the perfect stew of han, a recipe for revenge. But the experience is less Death Wish and more true crime documentary as there’s surprisingly little to no catharsis when Ashin puts her plan into motion.
In fact, the whole film is suffused with han, an inescapable feeling of despair, a separation from family and loved ones such that the single most powerful scene in the film is han—and Ashin—in a nutshell. This was Kim’s favorite scene, an extremely poignant and sorrowful scene toward the end of the episode with zombies. She says, “It was very tough to write that particular scene and also a scene that I really wanted to see come to life.”
That scene is director Kim Seong-hun’s favorite, as well. “It's tough to talk in detail about the scenes [to avoid spoilers],” he says, “but I believe that it is a scene that the entire 90 minutes is really running toward. I would say it's a truly sad, tragic but immensely charming scene.”
Charming is relative. Despite the lovely Jun Ji-hyun in the role, Ashin is every bit as monstrous as the zombies, if not more. Deadened by her experiences, she is as cold as the landscape and problematic to cheer for. Her knowledge and discoveries of the resurrection plant make her dangerous, but combined with her scorched earth approach, she’s terrifying.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North isn’t as enjoyable an experience as the series. It’s slower-paced with fewer zombies and lacks a true protagonist to root for. However, it carries much of the same spirit. As Kim Seong-hun explains, “When you compare it to similar works in the genre, the Kingdom story incorporates human history, the hunger, the greed for power, as well as the concept of han or anguish or sadness.”
Han. The beauty of sorrow. At the very least, Kingdom: Ashin of the North succeeds in drawing viewers into the deep despair of its doomed world. And there’s a certain beauty in that.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North is now streaming on Netflix.