The terrific South Korean web series Kingdom on Netflix ended on a cliffhanger. A special spin-off episode too concludes on an ambiguous note, leaving us wiser about the trigger for the events in Kingdom but also hungering for more.
Over 2019 and 2020, the two seasons of Kingdom explored the connections between a grab for the throne in ancient Korea and a zombie outbreak. The king of the land has become a zombie, and the reins of power have passed on to a powerful clan headed by a malevolent nobleman whose daughter is the king’s second wife. The king’s first-born son heads out into the countryside to look for answers, running smack into an escalating pandemic of the undead.
The sharply political series used its hordes of revivified souls to examine the manner in which despotic rulers cause hunger and deprivation among the populace, leading them to become monsters. The show benefitted from excellent production values, sharply written characters, enthralling action set pieces, and countless fast-footed and perennially starved zombies.
At the end of the last episode of the second season, the crown prince and his companions stumbled upon a border village where a lone woman controlled a bunch of zombies. The spin-off episode works both as a back story for how the dead were resurrected with the help of a mysterious plant as well as for the woman Ashin, played by Korean star Jun Ji-hyun.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North has a mostly new set of characters and actors. Jun Ji-hyun appears 50-odd minutes into the special episode. Her younger self (played by Kim Shi Ah) dominates the opening portions, which trace a territorial conflict between the Joseon kingdom and two factions of a tribe, one of which wants to invade Joseon.
Ashin belongs to the group that has been recruited by the Joseon military to keep an eye on trouble-makers. Her father has been loyal to his masters despite being treated as an outcast. His betrayal transforms Ashin from grieving daughter into bloodthirsty avenger.
Soldiers are more dangerous than monsters, Ashin’s father says. Written by Kingdom’s creator Kim Eun-ee and directed by Seong-hun Kim, the spin-off episode once again fruitfully provides a ground-up critique of power structures, the cost of empire-building, and the consequences of discriminating against perceived outsiders. The creators skilfully reveal the manner in which ordinary people are turned into cannon fodder in the battle for control.
Ashin’s terrible actions match the cruelty with which her tribe is treated. Like the zombies in the original series, Ashin too is a product of an insatiable appetite for power.
Despite some complicated exposition about the ethnicity of the tribes and pacing issues, the episode works adequately as an expansion of the show’s ideas. Beautifully filmed amidst sun and snow and forest and field, Ashin of the North fills in some of the blanks, but leaves enough unsaid to merit further adventures. As a 93-minute pitch for a third and possibly fourth season, the makers couldn’t have done better.
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