Written by Dyami Millarson
Kingdom: Ashin of the North (킹덤: 아신전), which is a sidequel to season 2 of the Korean drama series Kingdom, is set in Joseon. It is during a time of tensions in the South with the Japanese and tensions in the North with the Jurchens, who are the ancestors of the Manchus, who would later form the Qing Dynasty and give China its name – additionally, as this is a blog that is spreading awareness about languages and cultures, I should note briefly that Manchu is an endangered language nowadays. In the sidequel, there is a group of Jurchens who settled in Joseon and who are loyal to the Korean monarch. This group living on the Korean border is shunned by Jurchens and Koreans. We get to know a girl and a father from this group. The girl is Ashin. Her father is the village chief.
This sidequel, which allows one experience a credibly Jurchen atmosphere, is special in that it makes you fascinated with Jurchen culture. This feeling makes one wonder about all the traditions of the village that Ashin lives in. It creates a bond with the characters and their traditional culture. I recently wrote an article in Dutch about dorpsgevoel village feeling and this sidequel illustrates that concept well in a historical context, the village that Ashin lives in is credible and the story of the village definitely struck a chord with me.
Ashin, whose back story this sidequel explores, wanders off into the forest and finds an ancient abandoned shrine. She discovers something about a plant there that can bring the dead back to life. Ashin’s mother is very sick and she hopes to heal her. When she tells her father about the shrine, he tells her that there is no such shrine and that she should not talk about it, lest she be punished for it. Her dad is eventually put in a situation where he has to bring bad news to the Jurchens who are living outside Joseon. He has to lie to them about why some of their men were killed. Ashin doesn’t want her dad to go on this errand, but he informs her that Joseon has been good to them and their ancestors, he cannot betray Joseon. Her dad tells her to look after her family (this family extends to all villagers). Ashin watches him paddling off into the distance in a small boat.
Back in the village, Ashin is confronted with her mother’s worsening illness. She sets out to find the plant that could bring the dead back to life. When she is away, the village is being attacked by Jurchens. They kill all the villages. Ashin finds her family and friends dead. We find out later she resurrected them using the plant. She went to the Joseon commander who gave her father the ominous errand and that led to this dire situation. She said that she didn’t care about why the Jurchens killed off the villages. As the sole survivors, she just wanted this man to avenge her father. She said that she didn’t care whether it took a year, two years, a decade or more. All she wanted was that Joseon avenged what had happened to her village. She wanted to do whatever it took so she could help Joseon and make sure that her father and her village could be avenged.
Ashin got taken in after the commander saw her determination. The place where she gets to stay is one of the worst places. She sleeps with the swines. She gets treated badly. Nevertheless, she endures. As a child, she was weak. Over the years, she trains to become a skilled archer. She also manages to keep abusive men away from her who want to take advantage of her as an outcast girl. Eventually she sets out on a mission to learn what the Jurchens are up to, she sneaks into the settlement of the Jurchens and there she finds that her father was still alive all this time and tortured for many years. Her father asks her to kill him. She waits until the next morning and finally fulfils her father’s wish. Feeling betrayed, she is determined to figure out why her village was killed. After violently entering a building, she browses through some scrolls and reads one of them that appears relevant. She then discovers the truth. To her shock, she learns that the Jurchens had taken revenge on her village based on a lie that the commander had told the Jurchens, he had framed her village for the murder of the Jurchen men while in fact these Jurchen men had been killed extrajudicially by Joseon soldiers. From that moment on, Ashin wants revenge.
Ashin sows death and destruction in the settlement where she had stayed for years. She shoots arrows left and right as an angel of destruction, and brings the dead back to life using the power of the plant that she had learned about in the abandoned shrine as a child. This is how a zombie plague spreads in the settlement. The determination to get revenge reminds me of the final scenes of the Odyssey where Odysseus, the main character of that Ancient Greek epic, gets to kill all the suitors who have been trying to take his wife and kingdom away from him. Ashin’s rage is relatable, because we got to see her culture and her village. We can see how she had struggled all these years while only harbouring one wish. Her moment of rage seemed all the more sensible knowing that everything was taken away from her. She is a very relatable character, and her background story has been well-developed. Ashin, with whom we can sympathise, does have the villain role of spreading a zombie plague, and that makes the unusual historical Korean drama Kingdom, of which Ashin’s story is a sidequel, all the more exciting.
The plot can develop in so many different ways and it appears there are going to be twists and turns. I think the writers of this sidequel did an amazing job at creating something original and it is well-executed despite some minor issues I had with it such as Ashin sneaking unnoticed into the Jurchen village and then making a lot of noise upon discovery of her father, which is when I thought she should have been caught. The writers put an original spin on the zombie trope that seems quite exhausted by modern horror movies, TV series and novels. The sidequel does certainly capture the attention and it makes one wonder about what will happen next, what will come of Ashin? Will she remain a villain, essentially an angel of destruction, throughout the drama Kingdom or will she finally be redeemed? What will come of the zombie plague that she unleashed upon the world in her wrath? How will her relationship with the people of Joseon and the Jurchens develop? I do think this sidequel as a stand-alone episide is worth watching as it sets up an interesting character, which makes one very curious to watch how the plot surrounding this intriguing character unfolds in the show Kingdom. I should however give a fair warning that Kingdom and this sidequel are very graphic as can be expected from a zombie-themed show, so it is not for the faint of heart.