Fans of the popular zombie series, Kingdom, there’s something for you to look forward to this weekend. Kingdom: Ashin of the North, a special spin-off episode, premieres on the streaming platform from 23 July, Friday, with what’s set to be a compelling story on the origins of the resurrection plant and our mysterious protagonist Ashin, played by actress Jun Ji-hyun.
Back in Season 2, the story left us with more questions than answers, as the camera slowly panned to a lone woman who greeted us with a knowing smirk. Good news, then, that this 92-minute episode answers some of our burning questions: how did the plague start; where did the resurrection plant, the herb that enables dead people to become undead, come from; and how does Ashin’s origin story tie in with the rest of the Kingdom universe?
Directed by Kim Seong-hun and with a screenplay by writer Kim Eun-hee, who both helmed the past two seasons of the Netflix original series, Kingdom is unlike any of the rom-com k-dramas we’ve encountered — instead of mafias, CEOs and sweep-you-off-your-feet romance, we’re embroiled in an epic period drama set during Korea’s Joseon dynasty, where a strange plague causes the emergence of flesh-eating undead. The show features horror elements, stunning visuals and arresting performances by the cast, for sure, while I’d say that the show subverts even the zombie genre, by introducing a rich historical setting alongside its commentary on corruption and power.
“The Kingdom series incorporates human history, the hunger, the greed for power, as well as the concept of “han”, or anguish and sadness. I believe it creates a beautiful harmony that leads to a type of unique chemical reaction that’s the key to why it’s loved by so many fans in the world,” said director Kim Seong-hun at a virtual press conference.
Actress Jun Ji-hyun, or Gianna Jun, is also especially fond of the series, both as a fan and a cast member. “It’s based on an immaculate script, amazing direction, and fascinating art — Kingdom can be referred to as a total or comprehensive art on its own. It’s truly an honour and brings me great joy to think that something like Kingdom is created in Korea, and is brought to the entire world.”
Ahead, we hear from actors Gianna Jun, Park Byung-eun, as well as director Kim Seong-hoon and writer Kim Eun-hee, on some major points you’ll need to know before diving into the special episode. No spoilers, of course.
1. The special episode unveils more about the lore and origins of the resurrection plant.
“It’s the story of the beginning of everything,” said writer Kim Eun-hee in a featurette about the special episode, where director Kim Seong-hun later adds that this is “her best writing yet”. If that’s not compelling enough for you, there’s more.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North takes place in the less-explored border area of Joseon, a place called Pyesa-gun, a frontier region near the Amnok River. This was a place that writer Kim came across and took interest in during her research. “I was curious about abandoned outposts in the north and thought about how the resurrection plant could have grown somewhere like that,” she said, adding that she was also keen to explore the “marginalised people” who lived there at the time.
Additionally, director Kim Seong-hoon said that the setting allows for “beautiful otherworldly scenes”, which span across vast landscapes and misty coniferous forests. From the production stills provided by Netflix, this seems to set the mood for epic battles, as well as the mystifying origins of the saengsacho herb.
As for why they’ve decided to dedicate Ashin’s story to a special episode, Kim Eun-hee said: “When you look at the story behind Ashin, it’s a very long and complex story. It’s such an overarching story with a long timeline, when you look at the chronological aspect of it, rather than incorporate it into the third season, it would be more audience-friendly and conducive to higher-quality content if we were to provide it in a special episode.”
2. Played by Gianna Jun, Ashin’s story is one of revenge, anguish, and great pathos.
During the press conference, the Korean concept of “han”, or “haan”, came up a couple of times, particularly in reference to our female protagonist, Ashin. The term refers to a feeling of deep sorrow, grief or resentment, and though there’s no equivalent for it in the English language, it’s a feeling that Gianna Jun wishes to convey onscreen, which would hopefully resonate with audiences. “I tried to focus mostly on how to interpret the personal anguish and hurt that we Koreans refer to as “han”, how to interpret that into wanting to avenge for the whole land of Joseon,” she said of her enigmatic character.
“Being able to participate at a later point in time for a series that I love so much, I have to say that there was quite a significant amount of pressure for me,” she continued later. “I didn’t want to make it look like I was just enjoying the ride that was already propelled by what was already a great show before I joined, so in that aspect I tried to focus more on bringing everything that I had to the series.”
You might be familiar with the actress in other prominent roles from series such as The Legend of the Blue Sea and My Love From The Star, and for being the original Girl in My Sassy Girl. For Kingdom though, Gianna sheds her likeable onscreen persona for a darker, vengeful character. So, is she a villain, a hero, or just a broken character? “I want this character to be a warrior with pain deeply rooted inside,” summed up Kim Eun-hee.
3. You’ll learn more about Min Chi-rok, the head of the Royal Commandery we met in Season 2.
Respected actor Park Byung-eun reprises his role in Kingdom, describing a man who’s a loyal servant that’s “ready to give his all for his nation”. As of now, we’re not entirely sure how his story will tie in with Ashin’s, though Park did provide some helpful context during the press event. “Unlike in season two when my character did a lot of killing and getting rid of the undead, this special episode focuses, not so much on the action, but his relationship to the story and character of Ashin.”
He also elaborates on a particularly memorable scene for him, which depicts a young Ashin kneeling before Min Chi-rok. “Shi-a’s performance was absolutely amazing. It was very fascinating and I loved her performance in that particular scene. She gave such a great performance and energy that in turn, it provided me and my character a similar energy to create that scene. It allowed me to completely immerse myself in the role and think what would this character do, how would he feel. It would be great for the audience to look into that scene and think about how the relationship between these two characters change and what kind of stories then unfold,” he said.
4. Come for the zombies, stay for the feels. Don’t expect it to be super action-packed — instead, the story focuses on strong emotional beats of and between the characters.
This was a point emphasised by both the actors and writer Kim Eun-hee. Like all standout shows, Kingdom has been able to successfully thread between both stunning, plot-driven action scenes, and captivating characters and backstories that people care about — the special episode continues along the same vein.
Said Kim Eun-hee: “I do feel that for this special episode, for those fans who are looking forward to a lot of action, they might think it’s not what they expected. But I hope we can successfully convey the intention of what we wanted to create, the character of Ashin, and how we depicted the far Northern lands.”
Kingdom: Ashin of the North premieres on July 23, 3PM SGT, on Netflix.
All photos, courtesy of Netflix.