The Weekend Binge: "Kingdom: Ashin of the North"

Updated: Mar 19

Netflix's Kingdom: Ashin of the North tells the tragic life of a Seongjeoyain Jurchen woman (Kim Shi-a / Jun Ji-hyun) consumed by revenge. What could have prompted her to wield a biological weapon and vow to kill “every living thing on Joseon and Jurchen soil?"

Set before the events of Kingdom Season 1 (2019) but considered a “sidequel” to Kingdom Season 2 (2020), the 2021 horror, thriller, and political sageuk (historical show) was written by Kim Eun-hee (Signal, 2016; Kingdom Seasons 1 and 2) and directed by Kim Seong-hun (A Hard Day, 2014; Kingdom Season 1).

 

The Plot

Joseon-Jurchen Border (Photos from Netflix and The Swoon)

When a young Ashin (Kim Shi-a) sneaks into the forbidden Joseon territory Pyesa-gun to cure her mother, she stumbles upon an abandoned shrine with inscriptions on how a mysterious plant can revive the dead—at an impossible price. To demonstrate the mural, a deer is shown eating a violet-flowered plant infected with white parasites. It soon dies, but is later resurrected, then attacks a tiger, and is finally killed.


Deputy Commander Min Chi-rok (Park Byung-eun) dispatches Tahab (Kim Roe-ha), the Seongjeoyain Jurchen head, to convince the Pajeowi Jurchens a tiger killed 15 Pajeowi men in Pyesa-gun. However, the skeptical Pajeowi led by Ai Da Gan (Koo Kyu-hwan), ruthlessly attacks Tahab’s boundary village inside Joseon. Ashin, Tahab's daughter, successfully finds the resurrection plant but comes home to a lifeless village. She stays in Chupajin, a military camp guarding the northern Joseon border. Many years later, the grown-up Ashin (Jun Ji-hyun) infiltrates the main Pajeowi military base and discovers a heart-breaking, decades-long secret, leading her to exact her revenge.


In Uiji, at the northern border, she meets the Joseon king’s physician. Outside the city, she shoots an arrow towards Ai Da Gan and the Pajeowi.

The Review

Meeting the royal physician sets off the first season events, but attacking Ai Da Gan is believed to be the jump-off point for the next episode or season. While complementary, Kingdom: Ashin of the North is independent of the first two seasons of Kingdom.


Although class struggle has been explored in the first two seasons, the special episode adds sexism and the racial divide into the conflict. Ultimately, according to writer Kim Eun-hee, this episode is “anchored on the Korean concept of Han.”


“Han is the unforgettable feeling of anguish and hurtfulness. It’s kind of like getting a cut in your gut. Yes, I always wanted to write a story about the feeling of han. And in the previous seasons, it’s usually focused on the dominating power such as Prince Chang [the Crown Prince played by Ju Ji-hoon who battles the zombies in Kingdom Season 1 and 2] and the established people who lead the story. And then I came to think of the northern part of Joseon and the ones who these people actually dominate. So regardless of whether it is Joseon or another country, I think the people who are dominated have that same feeling (of han),” she expounded.


Joseon's Machiavellian treatment compounds the poverty of the Seongjeoyain Jurchens: the boundary villagers are used as pawns to insulate Joseon against a probable discord with the Pajeowi. (Joseon must avoid conflict at all costs even though it was the foreigners who violated Joseon laws. This is because of escalating tensions in the south with the Japanese and the power of the Pajeowi in the north.) Although they are Jurchens, they are despised by their Pajeowi relatives for settling in and pledging loyalty to Joseon. On the other hand, immigrants are treated with disdain, ranking low in the Joseon social hierarchy. Practically without allies, they can depend only on themselves, holding on to the loose hope of government representation. Can they even escape the poverty that led them to cross the river and settle in a foreign land? Is it their fault they are deprived of identity? This is the reality of Ashin's people, their "han."


Suddenly an orphan, Ashin is forced to be of service to Chi-rok and all other soldiers by extension. A heart-rending incident with a Chupajin soldier, the first of many, clarifies how dire her situation is: no matter how smart and capable she is to defend herself, because she is a woman, she is a prime target for predators even more fearsome than the zombies. Add to that the fact that she is an orphan, is lowborn, and is an immigrant—never has she been treated a part of Joseon, or Chupajin, for that matter. How much more "han-filled" can she get? Apparently, so much more, as a soul-crushing revelation awaits upon her infiltration of the Pajeowi camp.


Shunned by society, the survivor in her eventually realizes that she holds dominion over nothing—except over a zombie horde. And that would change everything.


Historical Notes

To help with spatial orientation, the border map above and the explainer video on the left, "Kingdom Explained: Ashin of the North," introduce the geography of Joseon and its surrounding territories.


The Pajeowi Jurchens, considered as treacherous or enemy Jurchens by Joseon, were hunter-gatherers. They lived in Manchuria (modern northeast China), but many later settled near the river border with Joseon. In the 15th century (a century before the episode timeline), Joseon used a three-pronged strategy to pacify its northern border: military campaigns, trade, and cultural influence. Trade posts were opened, and some tribal leaders were awarded titles. On the other hand, the Seongjeoyain Jurchens, referred to as defensive or boundary Jurchens, were encouraged to marry Korean women and assimilate into Korean society.


At the end of the episode, we see the beginnings of a Japanese invasion after failed negotiations with the Japanese (most probably the Jeongyu Second Disturbance (1597-98). In 1591, King Seonjo of Joseon did not permit passage through Joseon and the invasion of Ming (modern-day China) by the military forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second “Great Unifier” of Japan. This prompted the Imjin Japanese Disturbance (1592-96), resulting in famine, among others. China, Japan, and Korea have contradicting accounts for these invasions, events so significant that they changed the trajectory of history for these three territories. Japan toppled China as the leader in Asia, China's Qing dynasty eventually fell, and Korea was invaded by Japan.

 

Stream if: You are hungry for an epic tale of revenge led by a woman who successfully triumphs over the patriarchy, the ruling class, the Joseon kingdom—and the zombies! Though Jun Ji-hyun (Gianna Jun) appears only at the 50-minute mark or more than halfway into the 92-minute episode, her impact is just as powerful. Available on Netflix


Skip if: The warning below applies to you.

Trigger warning: gore, violence, animal death, and suggestions of sexual abuse and torture

 

References

Seth, Michael J. "The Neo-Confucian Revolution and the Choson State." A Concise History of Korea: From the Neolithic Period through the Nineteenth Century. Google Books, Google https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=Qe4PoOd89XIC&pg=PA138&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Tomada, Nathalie. “Ashin of the North Is the 'Beginning of Everything' for Kingdom Universe.” Philstar.com, The Philippine Star, 23 July 2021, https://www.philstar.com/entertainment/2021/07/23/2114338/ashin-north-beginning-everything-kingdom-universe.

Wang, Q. Edward, and Sun Weiguo. “The East Asian War of 1592–98: International Perspectives-Introduction.” Taylor & Francis, Taylor & Francis Group, 13 June 2019, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00094633.2019.1606646.

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