The Netflix special Kingdom: Ashin of the North, the next installment of the zombie thriller set in medieval Korea, tones down the zombie fest we’ve come to expect. Instead, it tells the narrative of Ashin, a young girl with a tragic past. Ashin of the North is a stand-alone prequel to Kingdom, which addresses all of the problems raised in season 2 and sets the stage for a blockbuster season 3. Before delivering a shock and awe climax, the Joseon kingdom, Pajeowi tribe, and Boundary village weave emotional brilliance, profound tragedy, and bloodlust betrayal.
Joseon is in shambles, with the south ravaged by Japan’s invasion and the Pajoewi – a savage and brutal Jurchen tribe – moving beyond the Amnok River, separating China and Joseon. The Joseon army is on high alert as their presence and movements escalate, a situation that Royal Commander Min Chi-rok wants to avoid boiling over into unfathomable death.
A tribe of Pajeowi who had lived in Joseon for almost a century now live as foreigners along the Amnok River. Among them is Ashin’s father, who aspires to become the Boundary village’s official head, expecting to be recognized for his allegiance and services by spying on the Pajeowi tribe. Patrolling troops, however, notice a pit filled with 15 bloodied Jurchen marked by their tattoos as they look over the prohibited area of Pyesa-gun where wild ginseng grows. The unexplained cause of the Jurchen deaths foreshadows a bloody future for Ashin and seals his fate of horror.
In the beginning, we see a peek of the strange plant that is claimed to bring the dead back to life – and which we know from the Kingdom series is the core cause of the zombie pandemic – infecting a deer after it eats the plant, before being cruelly slaughtered by a wild tiger. It disappears deep into the jungle, but we all know it will reappear. The unusual plants and the tiger aren’t mentioned until later in the show, which focuses on the rifts and advancements between Ashin, the Pajeowi, the Joseon army, and the Jurchens of the Boundary village.
This Kingdom addition is gripping because of its tale of hollow promises, terrible realities, and startling turns. Compared to the Kingdom seasons’ episodic approach, condensing this thoroughly conveyed narrative into a 90 minute screen time is notable. There are a few well-crafted action scenes that provide a shock to the film while avoiding tiresome talk. It usually heralds the arrival of the storm following the temporary calm.
Ashin’s terrible transformation turns him into a cold-blooded, ruthless killer seeking vengeance. After all these years, we understand Ashin’s grief as she bites her tongue, surviving in an unaccepted country (due to her background), humanity demonstrating their inhumanity, and the discovery of her Jurchen people. Something inside of her snaps, and as the dust settles, hell emerges.
As Joseon bystanders treat Ashin with contempt, her hardships embody discrimination, loneliness, and class society. The director Kim Seong-hun brilliantly chooses which events to show onscreen and which to leave off, leaving situations like a soldier racing out of Ashin’s pigsty home with Ashin behind the door fresh in the viewer’s mind, knowing what had happened but not saying it. This kind of act motivates Ashin, who trains diligently to perfect the bow and arrow, eventually succeeding as we watch her grow from a young girl to a mature woman after many years have gone by. As she rushes over a fallen tree trunk before executing a 360 to headshot an arrow into rampaging wrath, the transition is pleasing to the eye.
However, there is a continuity gap. While Ashin appears to be aging rapidly, people around her in the village seem to be unchanged. This immediately stuck out to me on a technical level, and I felt disconnected at first before embracing and moving on. We never know how many years have passed, so it’s acceptable, but certain circumstances make you doubt it because they appear to be contradictory.
On that note, Ashin is a confused protagonist who is obsessed with hatred and grows increasingly fiery as time passes. We try to understand Ashin’s motivation for wanting vengeance – it is, after all, a natural human instinct – until it becomes evident that her hunger is unbridled: she wants to kill every Joseon citizen on Kingdom soil. Little Ashin is no longer the same person she used to be. With reoccurring dreams planted time and time again, she rekindles memories of her Boundary town Jurchen people and family, wanting to be reunited once more.
The supporting cast is mainly in small parts, yet they leave a lasting impression due to their careless behavior against Ashin. But not just any price; a price that is brutal, agonizing, and terrible. This intelligent strategy works because what we believe will be forgotten turns out to be critical moments that earn Ashin’s fury.
The climax of Ashin of the North is packed with action, culminating in a 10-minute scene of ongoing slaughter. It’s violent, visceral, and unforgiving, mirroring Ashin’s wrath. Not only that, but we finally get to see how the deadly plants are reintroduced into the story for a satisfying conclusion, ready to set Kingdom season 3 on fire. A great scene really illustrates Ashin’s mental state: psychologically shattered, troubled, and deformed by her grief. It’s unsurprising, but it’s also deeply problematic. To make this spoiler-free, I’ve kept important scenes hidden, but some very terrible moments cry out Ashin’s sorrow and are deserving of praise.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North manages to steer clear of the mind-numbing zombie action of the first two seasons, instead weaving them into a creative story that goes much deeper than we could have expected. It emphatically executes a sad protagonist turned antagonist, and it explores the Kingdom’s uncharted woodlands to fill in the gaps left by season 2’s unsolved mysteries. Kingdom: Ashin of the North is a must-see for Kingdom fans and anyone looking for a well-made historical thriller.