The latest addition in the zombie thriller set in historical Korea, Netflix special Kingdom: Ashin of the North dials down the zombiefest we’ve come to expect. Instead, it delivers a powerful, tragic backstory of a girl named Ashin. A standalone prequel to Kingdom (킹덤), Ashin of the North answers all those questions back in season 2, and sets the precedent for a blockbuster season 3. The unfolding story of the Joseon kingdom, Pajeowi tribe and Boundary village weave emotional brilliance, intense-tragedy, and bloodlust betrayal, before delivering a shock and awe climax. This review is spoiler-free.
KINGDOM ASHIN OF THE NORTH
TITLE KINGDOM: ASHIN OF THE NORTH (킹덤: 아신전) PLATFORM NETFLIX SPECIAL SCREENTIME 93 MINUTES YEAR 2021 GENRE THRILLER COUNTRY SOUTH KOREA DIRECTOR KIM SEONG-HUN, PARK IN-JE CAST JUN JI-HYUN, PARK BYUNG-EUN, KIM SI-A
joseon, pajeowi and the tiger
Joseon is in a troubled state: the south left in ruins after an invasion by Japan, and the Pajoewi – a fearsome tribe of Jurchen people, merciless and barbaric – settling beyond Amnok river which separates China and Joseon. Their growing presence and movements have the Joseon army on alert as tensions mount, one that Royal Commander Min Chi-rok wants to avoid boiling over to unfathomable death.
A group of Pajeowi settled in Joseon for over a century, live as outsiders in the Kingdom, close to the Amnok river. Among them is the father of Ashin who hopes to become an official head of the Boundary village, hoping to be recognised for his loyalty and services by spying on the Pajeowi tribe. But as patrolling soldiers gaze over the forbidden area of Pyesa-gun where wild ginseng grow, they see a pit filled with 15 bloodied Jurchen marked by their tattoos. The unknown origin of the Jurchen deaths set a bloodied future on the cards, and seals Ashin’s fate of terror.
We see a glimpse of the mysterious plant in the beginning, said to bring the dead back to life – which we know from the Kingdom series it’s the root cause of the zombie plaguep – infecting a deer after eating the plant, before being viciously killed by a wild tiger. It leaves deep into the forest, but we all know it’ll go crazy and appear again. The mysterious plants, and the tiger are actually sidelined until later on, with the story following the rifts and developments between Ashin, the Pajeowi, the Joseon army and the Boundary village Jurchens.
It’s a tale rife of empty promises, brutal reality and shocking twists that make this Kingdom addition so captivating. Condensing this deeply conveyed narrative in the 90 minute screen time compared to the episodic format of the Kingdom seasons is noteworthy. There are few but intensely crafted action scenes which inject pace to jolt the movie, managing to avoid tedious dialogue. It usually marks the storm after the illusive calm.
ashin’s twist of fate
Ashin’s tragic development twists a once pure heart into a cold-blooded, heartless assassin seeking revenge. We empathise with Ashin’s grieving after all these years as she bites her tongue surviving in an unaccepted country (due to her origin), humans showing their inhumanity and the revelation of her Jurchen people. Something breaks inside of her and when all dust settles, hell begins to surface.
Her struggles capture the discrimination, isolation and class society as Joseon onlookers treat Ashin despicably. The director Kim Seong-hun masterfully knows which scenes to show on-screen and which not to, leaving moments of a soldier rushing out of Ashin’s pigsty home with Ashin behind the door playing vivid in the viewer’s mind, knowing what had happened, yet unspoken. This kind of act fuels Ashin who trains constantly to master the bow & arrow, eventually doing so as we see her transition from a girl to woman with many years assumed to have passed by. Artistically, the transition is nice as she runs up a fallen tree trunk before doing a 360 to headshot an arrow through a rampaging warthog… or some sort.
But, there’s a little continuity gap as Ashin visibly ages a lot, yet those surrounding her in the village still look exactly the same. On a technical note, this stood out to me straight away and felt disjointed at first before eventually accepting and moving on. We never know how many years have passed so it’s passable but definitely certain events make you question it as some look conflicting.
Speaking on that note, Ashin is a conflicted protagonist consumed by hatred and sees only darker red as time goes on. We try to accept Ashin’s motive for seeking revenge – a natural human instinct after all – until it’s pretty clear that exact lust is unbounded: she wants to kill every Joseon person on Kingdom soil. Little Ashin is no longer who she was. She rekindles memories of her Boundary village Jurchen people and family, wishing to be reunited once again with recurring dreams planted time and time again.
The supporting cast are largely bit-part roles, but end up playing a significant memory trail as their ignorant actions to Ashin end up paying the price… but not just any price, a barbaric, torturous and heinous price. This clever device as what we think are forgettable end up not, but instead are pivotal moments which incur Ashin’s wrath.
ending set in motion
The climax of Ashin of the North is rife with constant action, bringing a pure 10-minute sequence of relentless massacre. It’s brutal, visceral, and unforgiving, representing of the hatred seen in Ashin’s eyes. Not only this, but we finally see how the deadly plants drop back into the narrative for a conclusive climax, ready to set Kingdom season 3 ablaze. There’s an excellent scene which captures Ashin’s state of mind – psychologically broken, disturbed and warped by her grieve. It’s unsurprising, but in parallel very, very, disturbing. I’ve kept pivotal moments in the dark to keep this spoiler-free, but there are incredibly saddening moments that cry of Ashin’s pain, worthy of accolades and recognition.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North manages to stray away from the mind-numbing zombie action we’re used to seeing in the first two seasons, instead weaving them into a clever narrative that runs deeper than we could possibly have imagined. It executes a tragic protagonist turned antagonist emphatically, and explores unchartered forests of Kingdom to bridge the unanswered questions of season 2. Kingdom: Ashin of the North is a must-watch for Kingdom fans and viewers seeking a beautifully crafted historical thriller narrative.
An immersive standalone prequel that follows Ashin, the origins of the mysterious plant plaguing Kingdom and gripping tragic moments that sets the blockbuster for season 3.