Kingdom season two left me, and I am sure many like me, with a major cliff-hanger when it ended with Crown Prince Lee Chang (Joo Ji Hoon) and Seo Bi (Bae Doo Na) in the north pursuing the origins of the resurrection plant after fighting and successfully warding off the horrendous zombie invasion that had afflicted them for two seasons. But shortly after arriving at a seemingly empty village, and come face-to-face with Ashin (Jun Ji Hyun), who’s seen standing among locked up zombies.
At the end of season 2, the abrupt appearance of a mysterious character left me with many unanswered questions, guessing, and thirsting for more. I wrecked my brain wondering who and what she was; if she was a friend or foe; whether she was also searching for the origins of the resurrection plant, and if she would join hands with the Crown Prince and Seo Bi to save the world, or was she motivated by something else completely -- so many questions and thankful Kingdom: Ashin of the North answers most of them while at the same time leaving me wanting more. But it is fair to say that many of the questions left from seasons 1 and 2 get answers with this prequel.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North takes place in the northern region of Joseon-era Korea, where the Pajeowi tribe and the Seongjeoyains reside. The Pajeowi tribe is of the East Asian Tungusic ancestry, also known as the Jurchen. They did not consider themselves Koreans, as they lived within the borders of China, Korea, and Japan. The other tribe featured are the Seongjeoyains, also Jurchens, but despite having lived in Joseon-Korea for over 100 years, they were not considered Koreans. On the contrary, they were shunned for being low-born. During this time, the Joseon-Korean began to fear that the Pajeowi tribe has been gaining power, have their leader Ai Da-Gan (Koo Kyo Hwan) to keep an eye on them by using the Seongjeoyains and, in particular, Ashin's father, Chief Ta Hyeop (Kim Roi Ha), which brings us to the story of the life of young Ashin (Kim Shi Ah) and the Seongjeoyains.
When I first heard of this special episode, I wasn't sure what to expect, since it focused on the life of Ashin and her tribe. The synopsis described the episode as a prequel to the events in 1 and 2. I naturally assumed it would tell the origins of the zombie invasion. But it does more than that; it gives us a glimpse into the tragedy, betrayal, and mysterious discovery that fuels a woman's vengeance for losing her tribe and family, which eventually sweeps through Joseon and changes its history. Reading screenwriter Kim Eun Hee's thoughts on the fact that “Kingdom: Ashin of the North” was written to emphasize the nature of Ashin's character, the episode focused more on her emotions and the origins of her need for revenge, rather than an action-packed depiction sums it up beautifully.
The opening scene of the Pyesa-gun mountain on the northern border of Pajeowi and Seongjaeyain clearly articulated that. At first, I thought the Pyesa-gun was a forbidden area because of the resurrection plant, but the reality of why was even more horrific than I imagined. When Military Commander Min Chi Rok has Ashin's father (Park Byung Eun) travel to the Pajeowis region to spread rumors that a tiger roaming the woods of the mountain was responsible for the killings of Pajeowis who snuck into the mountains, I doubt he imagined the story would actually turn true. The fact that it was the lies and choices the Commander made thereafter to protect the wicked, sacrificing a whole tribe, spiraled into what Ashin of the North became changing and affecting countless lives was dynamically painful to watch. But I think what was even harder to watch was what happens to Ashin when she finds that tragedy and betrayal had befallen her family and tribe, and the sacrifices and humiliation she had to endure because she decided to believe the Joseon her father so loyally believed in would avenge him was heart wrenching.
Most of what we observe in the prequel is carefully developed and put together. While the first two seasons showcased majestic Joseon's elegant beauty and scenery, Kingdom: Ashin of the North explored the vast and desolate northern region, famed for its harsh winters, which fit perfectly into what we know of the Kingdom series. Whoever has watched seasons 1 and 2 of the Kingdom knows the resurrection plant, and by default, zombies thrive in blistering cold temperatures. The bleak and lonely expansive land, with deep and dark forests and a stark white snow landscape when winter comes, reflects Ashin’s deep suffering and complex emotions.
While somber, the cinematography is a poetic depiction of Ashin and her trials and tribulations, delivering a different type of energy, which Jun Ji Hyun portrays so fabulously: the grief, rage, humiliation, betrayal, the lies, and most of all, the total disregard to human life—turning the evil into monsters to attain some measure of justice seemed hardly enough. I especially loved what she does to those who disgustingly humiliate her and her father for many, many years. What she does to them is nothing compared to what they did to her and her village. A literal case of vengeance best served cold.
Kingdom remains one of my favorite k-drama series, and I cannot wait for season 3. I commend Kim Eun Hee for her creativity and constant innovation, and the director (the cinematography is impressive). And, of course, the whole cast, especially Kim Shi Ah as little Ashin, Park Byung Eun, Kim Roe Ha as Ta Hab Ashin's father, and everyone else, for bringing me nostalgia with this well produced, written, directed product.
On other Kingdom related news, it has been reported that Netflix is currently in the production phase of a follow-up second special episode, Kingdom: Crown Prince, which will showcase Crown Prince Lee Chang's journey, who was born as a son of a concubine and was named Crown Prince as the sole heir to the then King. He was at one point accused of treason and flees the Kingdom seeking the truth behind the happenings of the royal court, but ends up embroiled in a fight against the survival of Joseon against a zombie invasion. The second special episode is expected to start filming at the end of the year. For anyone who hasn't watched Kingdoms 1 and 2, this prequel is the perfect start to the series' journey. I wait with feverish anticipation for the second special episode, and more to the next chapter of this masterfully done drama. Watch Kingdom: Ashin of the North here, and Kingdom series 1 here, and 2 here.