It’s not only the undead populating Kingdom’s Joseon who have a craving for blood and guts. For two seasons now, members of the Haewon Cho clan have proven themselves to be the scarier ghouls — also drawn to carnage, but never thoughtlessly or rampantly. Just ask Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), whose proper right to rule is something they must extinguish. It is that slice of palace intrigue, human in concept and execution, that has been key in rendering the brilliance of this Korean Netflix series. With that much to offer, there is much excitement and pressure riding on (the hopefully forthcoming) Season 3 — or before that and in this case, a feature-length episode subtitled Ashin of the North. What a delight to say it serves up everything Kingdom devotees love and then some.
Remember the stranger who lives in a ruined village and ties bells around the zombies’ ankles in the Season 2 finale? Her name is Ashin (Gianna Jun, Kim Si-ah as her younger self). As the direction of Kim Seong-hun and script-work of Kim Eun-hee — all original players — will show, she is not of royal blood, but to the community she is a beacon for positivity and is much beloved, something her father Tahab (Kim Roi-ha) knows best. But, as fate would have it, Ashin is a commoner — perhaps even lesser for she is a boundary-village Jurchen. This is the subtitled designation of the actual Jianzhou Jurchens, or Jurchens who have lived in Korea/Joseon for a long time. In Ashin of the North, writer Kim has characterised them as traitors to ruthless Pajeowi Jurchens encamping just beyond the river and as parasitic outsiders to Joseon “my class is higher than yours” denizens.
From this, the series’ commentary on social status not only makes a comeback but is also expanded. The division hosts and hatches its own risks that when entertained will guarantee a bloody revenge. As that is the special’s theme, Ashin will find herself in one, assisted not by justice in the form of Royal Commandery archer Min Chi-reok (Park Byung-eun) — a Season 2 returnee — but the worm-laced lilac flower that can resurrect corpses. Yes, Ashin may be our lead, but she is no paragon. But how can she be that? In a thought-provoking contrast to Lee Chang, coupled with Jun’s affecting and poignant eyes, Ashin is not someone who has everything and is then diminished — she starts out diminished and then emptied out. It makes her tragic. Dangerous. It legitimises her bloodlust. Parallel to the idea of how a small flower can cause widespread plague, director Kim devotes one grand sequence with the character orchestrating chaos that blends top-tier archery and screeches of the mindless. Sure, it doesn’t have the novel factor of an earlier zombie-tiger hunting set piece, but all the prior buildup and presence of primal emotions here are a great reminder of the series’ incredible comfort in mixing zombie fiction into historical fact.
By the way, that big cat bit? CGI is involved — perhaps for the first time in the series, if not then surely the most intensive usage of it yet — and could have used a tad more polish. Thing is, the tiger here answers the buzz, truly doing what Army of the Dead believes it had done.
But whether you respond more to the undead-centric action or the human-bound schemes, through Ashin of the North, Kingdom further cements itself as a bloody banger of a grim world for you to chow down on. Or snack on while we wait for a Season 3 where there will certainly be more of Ashin and the head of the Pajeowi Jurchens, Aidagan (Koo Kyo-hwan).
Kingdom: Ashin of the North is now available on Netflix