Biweekly Binge: A disjointed special with Jun Ji Hyun
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Kingdom: Ashin of the North, now streaming on Netflix
We met Ashin at the end of Kingdom’s second season. It was more than the usual cliff-hanger to give us a whiff of a third season of the South Korean show set during the Joseon era. It worked in the obvious fashion with the events of the two seasons of the political medieval era zombie thriller continuing and the happily-ever-after ending taken away from the audience within seconds. But we were also introduced to Ashin. More importantly, the show revealed to us that Jun Ji-hyun will be an important part of the events to come. You don’t dangle the possibility of Gianna Jun appearing in your show and then leave her out till the final parting shot. Now we have a special that acts as a bridge between the second and a possible third season — Ashin of the North — with Jun Ji-hyun playing the role. It’s not a bridge of time but more of an origin story.
Ashin of the North has everything Kingdom does but without the scale. A strength in theory for a special and weakness in practice. Like the protagonists and heroes of Kingdom — apart from Ju Ji-hoon’s Crown Prince — Ashin too is a lowborn left to wallow, but at the northern edge of the kingdom. They are Jurchens but live close to the warring Jurchen tribes on the other side of the river — the Pajeowi. Ashin, her father, her ailing mother and the rest of the town belong neither here (Joseon) nor there and are treated as the lowest in the class hierarchy. They get only the blood and innards for food. Ashin’s father, a butcher, makes a practice out of pretending to unintentionally touch the meat, which is then discarded by the feudal family members. And that’s how Ashin’s town gets to party.
One of the issues with Ashin of the North is that it is a backstory, and it has its own backstory. We spend a lot of time with young Ashin, who is resourceful and discovers the resurrection plant and inscriptions about it in a cave. Since this is set long before Kingdom’s first season, we witness the first zombie transformation, and it feels like more of the same. The special only kicks off with the kind of rousing moment that the show has come to be known for. If Bae Doo-na had a great masala moment in the last season, Gianna Jun gets one here. As the now orphaned Ashin trains all by herself to exact revenge, we see her outrun a wild boar, climb a fallen tree trunk and turn around to transform into the grown-up version played by Jun before firing the lethal arrow.
The special continues the class war that is at the forefront of Kingdom. It introduces a new hero in Ashin but it also leaves us guessing about our loyalties. Now she’s not only resourceful, but she is also a self-made killer with the knowledge of the resurrection plant and the undead. How all this ties to the larger story of the Kingdom and against the forces of Seo-bi and Lee Chang is still the major mystery. In that regard, Ashin of the North does not work like a film with a proper structure, it gives us an outline but remains a disjointed part of the universe without its own satisfying beginning and end. Yes, it deals with grief and an act of revenge that is still simmering but there is some way to go before it joins Lee Chang’s journey. Hopefully, the still nascent third season, which won’t be suffering from length issues, makes it up in terms of a more epic storytelling a character like Ashin deserves.