Kingdom: Ashin of the North (Special episode review)
To tide us over until the arrival of Season 3 of Kingdom, Netflix offers Kingdom: Ashin of the North, a short prequel that sits somewhere in between special episode and feature-length film. As the world of Kingdom is expanded, we get a look at other regions, characters — and a peek at the genesis of the zombie apocalypse itself.
SPECIAL EPISODE REVIEW
There’s nothing more fun than a rich fictional world that offers endless opportunities for story, and a historical Joseon era zombie apocalypse is no exception. Kingdom: Ashin of the North tells the story of the eponymous Ashin, of whom we got a glimpse at the end of Kingdom Season 2. Who is she? What is her story? What part does she play in the bloody mayhem? These are the questions that are answered for us in the drama special.
We meet ASHIN as a young girl, first played by Kim Shi-ah, a relatively new child actress. She’s part of a clan that’s ostracized by everyone and lives on the outskirts. Ashin’s father, though, has been faithfully serving Joseon and regularly reports to MIN CHI-ROK (Park Byung-eun), and under his real-life cover of a trader/butcher, he works as a double agent. It’s in the middle of this that we catch up with their family and the mayhem that’s happening in the country.
Beyond the tribal hierarchies and political contention, there’s a far more disturbing problem. When a group of villagers are discovered slaughtered in a forbidden territory, Joseon officials start an elaborate cover-up. The lie is that a tiger is responsible for the slaughter, not another group of people, and it’s the job of Ashin’s father to spread the story.
In addition to worrying about her father’s safety, Ashin also has a dying mother to care for, and it’s this that sends her to the old ruins outside their village. The glyphs tell of the resurrection flower, which brings people back to life — but with consequences. We see Ashin curious about this flower; though we don’t see much of her family we know she seems willing to take the risk.
When Ashin returns to her village one day, it’s been pillaged by another tribe — actually, “pillaged” doesn’t do it justice. The small village is burnt to ash, and everyone is hung from poles for all to see. Ashin is alone, and full of rage.
She finds Chi-rok and begs him to avenge her father and what was done to her village, and his total lack of decency and loyalty only grows her own hatred. This is a particularly strong scene in the drama, with Kim Shi-ah giving a great performance. It also highlights the total grime and ruggedness of this entire production — aesthetically, tonally, and thematically. Often, scenes are so dark you can hardly make out what’s happening. The villages and homes are drained of color. Everything is dark, dirty, and absolutely unforgiving.
Ashin settles in this Joseon village, living in a barn and barely scraping together enough to keep herself alive. It’s here that we have our time jump, organically inserted into her daily struggles to stay alive, and Jeon Ji-hyun takes over as Ashin.
The role is incredibly unglamorous — so kudos to her for that — but I was hoping for a bit more of Jeon Ji-hyun as I watched the episode. Not only is she only on screen in the latter half of the production, but her role is a very quiet one. We follow Ashin as she lives, plotting revenge, but we don’t actually hear from her that much, or see inside of her either. We understand that hatred, rage, and heartbreak have basically come to define her, but there’s a lack of emotional connection to Ashin throughout the episode, making it much less enjoyable than it could have been.
Whether purposeful or not, our lack of connection/closeness to Ashin does give us a sizable reveal later on. Although we know Ashin wants to take down everyone responsible for the death of her family and the massacre in her village, we don’t see her plan, nor know what’s going on in her mind. It’s not until after, at the story’s climax, that we see the fateful steps she took.
When Ashin learns the truth behind her father’s death, and reads the logs of the Joseon officials that explicitly reveal their plan from the time of the tiger incident, it’s enough to push Ashin over the edge. Enter, zombies!
Indeed, by the time we reach our zombie apocalypse, it feels like we’ve been waiting the entire episode to get them. And that would be true, because the large, single chunk of zombie action in Ashin is a part of its culminating moment — when Ashin lets a horde of zombies loose to do what they do best. We anticipated that Ashin was the mastermind behind this revengeful mayhem, but we don’t see how she actually got there until this point. Then, all is revealed: how Ashin did employ the resurrection flower when she was still a young girl, how she learned very quickly about its power, and how she — almost inadvertently — created a zombie army.
Carnage in a zombie movie is a thing, for sure, but the story leaves many questions unanswered as it draws to a close. Ashin might have been responsible for the genesis of the zombies, but how does she manage to keep them all in check? What was it like when she learned the power of the flower? How did she keep herself safe, and keep the zombies hidden, for so many years? Is she somehow immune? Is that why she can stand on the roof with her bow and arrow watching zombies destroy the entire town without a flicker of feeling?
While Ashin might answer some juicy backstory questions about the world of Kingdom, it does introduce many more. It also ends with what feels like a stopping point that’s meant to lead directly into Season 3 — which is a good thing, because the more we see of Ashin and reach the present day, the more we want to see how the stories converge, when the characters might meet, and what will happen when and if that occurs. There’s a long wait until the rest of the story is told, but in the meantime, we’ve got a good piece of backstory to chew on.