How ‘Kingdom: Ashin of the North’ expands the K-zombie show’s universe

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The Kingdom Universe expands further north as it introduces the origins of Ashin, the resurrection plant, and the outbreak. Photo from NETFLIX

Over the course of two seasons, “Kingdom” has shown great range and depth in tackling social inequalities, politics, and the horrors it comes with.

In the show's story, the undead were just part of the universe of the lore — just another means of spreading the intended message of the series.

The special episode, “Kingdom: Ashin of the North,” expands the “Kingdom” Universe further through the character of Ashin, played by Jun Ji-hyun. After a brief appearance at the end of the second season, the role she plays in the whole scheme of things also happens to unravel more about the origin of the resurrection plant.

Jun Ji-hyun stars as the mysterious Ashin who expands her role from the season end tease of “Kingdom.” Photo by KIM YOUNG BAE/NETFLIX

The actress, known for her iconic roles that led to not one, but two Hollywood adaptations of her movies (“My Sassy Girl” and “Il Mare”), takes on a very different side — one that personifies the unique Korean concept of “han.”

“In terms of physique or stamina that the character required, I was ready before I got into playing the role of Ashin, so I tried to focus mostly on how to interpret the personal anguish and hurt,” the actress shares during the recent virtual press conference for the show.

As the first two seasons focused on the spread of the virus, the special episode digs into what caused it and how it happened. For existing fans, it provides an enlightening background outside of Dongnae and Hanyang. For new ones, it gives a chronological perspective of events (although you don’t really need to watch the first two seasons of the show to watch the special episode).

The writer-director tandem of Kim Eun-hee (also the writer of the webcomic the show was based on) and Kim Seong-hun, who worked together for the first season and the first episode of second season, reunited for the special episode.

“I was lucky enough to read the first treatment of the script. I thought to myself, ‘I knew she was a great writer, but was she this great?’ So I decided that the fastest way for us to really bring that to life was for me to do it together,” he says. “I also don't think there is any director who would say no to any opportunity to direct something that Jun Ji-hyun would be starring in,” he adds.

Actress Kim Si-ah plays the younger Ashin in the show. Photo by KIM YOUNG BAE/NETFLIX

The story of Ashin plays a larger part in the “Kingdom” Universe, especially as her people are like modern-day immigrants in search of a better life. As Kim Eun-hee tried to dive deeper into the cold properties of the resurrection plant, she came across the story of naturalized settlers in Northern Joseon. “The Seongjeoyains (Jurchen people who settled in Joseon) were the marginalized people that didn’t belong anywhere, and in taking an interest in that process, the character Ashin was crystallized,” she says.

“Rather than incorporate her story into the third season, I felt that it would be more audience-friendly and conducive to higher quality content if it were in a special episode,” she adds.

None of the main characters from the series would appear in the special episode, but Park Byung-eun, who plays the Head of the Royal Commandery Division Min Chi-rok, is shown to have an important part in Ashin's story as well. Previously shown as a dedicated public servant, and not just one who blindly obeys the powers that be, he differentiates the tone between the series and “Ashin of the North.” “Rather than focusing on action, the episode builds on his relationships — him and Ashin, him and the resurrection plant, and how all of that ends up unfolding in this outbreak in Joseon,” he says.

Like the writer-director combo, this was a reunion for Jun Ji-hyun and Park Byung-eun, who previously worked in the movie “Assassination,” a period piece about a plot against a pro-Japanese group set in the 1930’s. During the Netflix press conference, the two shared about their experiences behind the scenes.

Park Byung-eun on the set of “Kingdom: Ashin of the North.” Photo from NETFLIX

“Jeju was pretty much our primary location for shooting the episode. I didn’t know which to focus on more, because while I’m supposed to be working on my acting skills, these people drove me out to sea to be fishing for more yellowtail and cuttlefish,” says Park.

“When we were shooting before, he was boasting about his fishing skills, but I never really got to taste what he caught,” shares the actress. “We all begged him to bring the catch he had, and we were able to enjoy the results of his wonderful fishing skills. He’s definitely a better fisher now.”

Park also shares his experience with the actors who play the zombies in the show. “It would be very late at night, the zombie actors would be wearing fake blood on their bodies and faces, and sometimes I would spot them having a meal underneath a huge tree in the dark woods. It was startling at first, but seeing them on their cellphones and talking to their friends and family, calling and saying ‘Hey mom, what’s up? Remember to sleep tight!’ It was such a new experience. It really made me think how on the verge life and death is.”

Jun Ji-hyun, a self-confessed fan of the series, shares that her excitement was borne from seeing these actors face-to-face. “When I got there on set, I realized how much trouble they were going through to present themselves as convincing zombies. I also begged them for pictures so I can brag about it to my friends and family.”

It should be noted that the zombies of “Kingdom” aren’t your regular “walkers.” In fact, their being more agile brings forth a different dimension that attracted many viewers, in the same way that movies like “Train to Busan” and “Parasite” had those elements seamlessly melded into a commentary of society.

Sageuk, or what we refer to as historical dramas, delves further into the origins of these inequalities, and how psychocultural concepts like “han” can be depicted while sharing the experiences that hone their being. It’s the ultimate flex — showing one’s status as a cultural powerhouse and not being embarrassed by the darker parts of history and embracing it as part of their identity.

“When you compare it to similar works in the genre, the ‘Kingdom’ stories incorporate human history, the hunger, the greed for power, the concept of han, or anguish or sadness, and I believe it truly creates a wonderful harmony that leads to a unique chemical reaction that I think was the key why it was loved by so many fans around the world,” says director Kim Seong-hun.

Park Byung-eun continues his role as the Head of the Royal Commandery Division Min Chi-rok for the special episode. Photo by KIM YOUNG BAE/NETFLIX

Park also plays his role alongside the young version of Ashin, played by Kim Si-ah. “My scenes with young Ashin were very special and memorable because Si-ah’s performance was absolutely amazing. I was able to completely immerse myself in the role and really think about what this character would do, how he would feel with this little girl asking all of these things.”

The young and adult versions of Ashin almost split the time on screen, in what is a brilliantly-executed character study of the anti-hero story that brings about the outbreak seen in the series. It is what director Kim Seong-hun calls “a most concentrated and profound form of a base emotion” by writer Kim Eun-hee.

“For fans that were really looking forward to a lot of action, they might slightly think it’s not really what they expected,” says the writer. “However, I truly hope that we can successfully convey the creative intention behind it, the character that is Ashin, and how we depicted the lands and backgrounds of the far northern lands.”

“Now that many people are watching globally, more effort was put into meticulous investigation of historical correctness and each of the props,” the director adds.

Having actual physical sets looking exactly the same as they did centuries ago not only saves time and resources on production, but also allows the cast and crew to share moments and experiences on set. Photo from NETFLIX

For a seasoned veteran like Jun, getting the chance to participate in a series like “Kingdom” was still a new experience. “My personality is one that does better under pressure. I think I deliberately tried to feel that positive pressure to do better, I didn’t want to make it look like I was just kind of enjoying the ride that was already propelled–what was already a great show before I joined. In that aspect, I really tried to focus on bringing everything that I had into the series,” the actress says.

“Kingdom: Ashin of the North” may have been set centuries prior, but it feels just how things are like today. It’s not a diversion from what is happening around us, but a deep and riveting journey of how one copes with the horrors of life. Through Ashin, we are shown a unique sense of vengeance, one served with spicy 'han.' It’s a thrilling, riveting, and oddly satisfying journey, one that leads us back to where “Kingdom” all began.

“Kingdom: Ashin of the North” is now streaming on Netflix.