Through two acclaimed seasons, Netflix’s South Korean smash hit Kingdom has undoubtedly proven to be the best zombie television series on air thanks to its immersive blend of period political intrigue, grand action set-pieces, gorgeous cinematography and visceral undead horror (sorry, The Walking Dead). On top of that, the show harkens back to the kind of allegorical storytelling pioneered by George Romero’s classic zombie films, using the “Living Dead” as metaphors for humanity’s insatiable greed and the class divisions of the Joseon era.
All those qualities and more are present in this riveting prequel special. Screenwriter Kim Eun-hee and director Kim Seong-hun return to the world of Kingdom to delve into the origins of the purple resurrection plant, the zombie plague, and a mysterious villain’s heartbreaking motivations. With a 93-minute runtime, it’s as long as a feature film, and feels as epic and tragic as one.
Beginning decades before the series, Ashin Of The North stars Jun Ji-hyun (or Gianna Jun) as Ashin, a mysterious character we briefly glimpsed in season two’s finale. We first meet her as a little girl (played by Kim Shi-a) living in a border village between Joseon and their fierce enemies across the Manchurian plains, the Jurchen people.
Although her tribe, the Seongjeoyain, are technically Jurchen, the fact that they’ve lived in Joseon land for so long means that they’re shunned by their own people as traitors. Unfortunately, due to their racial roots, everyone in Ashin’s village is despised as second-class citizens in Joseon as well. With the country in shambles due to the Japanese invasion in the south, Ashin’s border village becomes ground zero for a brewing conflict in the north, as Jurchen warriors realise that Joseon forces are stretched thin. When a dispute over hunting territory threatens to instigate an all-out war, Ashin’s family and their neighbours are caught in the crossfire.
Left orphaned and alone, our distraught protagonist is tempted to use the mythical resurrection plant, saengsacho, which grows naturally around the area, to save her loved ones. After stumbling upon an abandoned shrine deep in the woods, and learning about the plant’s effects from ancient murals carved in the surrounding stone, Ashin is convinced that legends about the magical herb are not tall tales. Fueled by furious grief and spurred by dangerous knowledge, young Ashin enters adulthood, honing her fighting skills and concocting a diabolical plan to avenge the Seongjeoyain and wipe out both Joseon and the Jurchen.
Ashin should probably be considered a villain in the grand scheme of Kingdom’s saga (considering the death and destruction seen in the main series), but Kim Eun-hee does a fantastic job of plunging the viewer into Ashin’s mindset through the twists and turns, allowing us to not only empathise and admire her tenacity, but root for her bloody revenge. This is an emotionally engaging antihero journey that leaves you feeling as enraged as its protagonist. But when the full scale of her vengeance becomes clear, even the most sympathetic viewer will be horrified by the depravity of Ashin’s scheme.
Visually, Ashin Of The North’s new locales also allow director Kim Seong-hun to play with a wide variety of fresh geographic palettes not seen in the Kingdom series. From the majestic Manchurian expanse, to deep and dark coniferous forests, to dazzlingly white snowscapes – the bleak and lonely northern scenery only deepens the depiction of Ashin’s sorrow and despair. Staying true to its parent series, Ashin Of The North retains Kingdom’s ravishing aesthetic eye, framing rugged terrain, kinetic battles, detailed period costumes, and even grimy poverty with finesse.
Barring very minor plot holes and logic issues, Ashin Of The North is a well-paced and utterly enthralling entry of the Kingdom franchise that does much to deepen its fascinating mythology, set up a compelling antagonist, and expand its world far beyond Crown Prince Lee Chang, Seo-bi and Yeong-shin. Taken in a vacuum, Ashin Of The North functions fantastically as a thrilling movie that can be enjoyed even if you’ve never seen Kingdom. But in a broader sense, the seeds planted here open up a myriad of exciting narrative directions for Kingdom’s upcoming third season, and even potential spin-offs.
Kingdom: Ashin Of The North is streaming now on Netflix