Cover Story

There’s always been a huge market dedicated to audiences with an appetite for any form of zombie content around the world. From 28 Days Later to The Walking Dead era, down to cult classic Train to Busan, there always seems to be some type of story out there about post-apocalyptic adventures of people just desperately trying to survive. But these had always been modern scenarios, with haunting images that can so easily be placed in our present-day or near-future nightmares.

For this reason, when Kingdom entered the arena with a period piece set in the great Korean dynastic kingdom of Joseon centuries ago, and with Netflix’ muscle bringing it to the fore and flexing it to an international audience, the game has completely changed—a disruption the world has always craved for.

Rightfully so, even before the show, global fans have already been taking note of South Korea’s masterful storytelling productions, neatly packed in its wealth of offerings in various genres, including horror/thriller evidenced in Train to Busan‘s international success. So, when Kingdom came along as one of the first original K-Series on Netflix, people were understandably curious to see what more the country can offer in this regard.

Now, two seasons down the line and it still is one of the most successful Netflix Korea originals that have graced our screens with production, acting, and a core narrative that continue to surprise and thrill its rabid global audience.

With everything that has been unveiled in the series’ second season, it powered the team with the perfect opportunity to throw it back majorly before diving deeper into the franchise for season three.

Writer Kim Eun-hee and director Kim Seung-hun. Photography by Kim Young-bae

In comes Kingdom: Ashin of the North, a special episode dedicated to investigating the outbreak’s origins with a young woman named Ashin as the key to unlocking this gruesome tragedy that spread across Joseon—a link to an even richer narrative of the show, but to its legions of fans, a momentary sigh of relief while eagerly awaiting for the return of the beloved series.

Kingdom writer Kim Eun-hee, at the highly-anticipated episode’s regional press conference revealed that the character and story actually came forth during the middle stages of writing for season two. In the process of developing directions yet to be taken for the series’ narrative to grow even further, Kim followed the resurrection plant’s cold properties to the northern areas of Joseon, where the interest on the marginalized people of Seongjeojain, the rural citizens in Joseon who didn’t belong anywhere, grew.

“Throughout that process, this character Ashin was crystalized,” she explained.

Writer Kim Eun-hee. Photography by Kim Young-bae

The decision to tell Ashin’s story in a special episode instead of a full season, or an incorporation to upcoming seasons, was also down to the team’s commitment to serve high quality storytelling without compromising the current timeline.

“When you look at the story behind Ashin, it is a very long and complex story. Because it is such an overarching story with a long timeline, when you look at the chronological order of it, I felt that rather than incorporate her story into the third season, it would be more audience-friendly and conducive to higher quality content, if we were to provide it in a special episode,” writer Kim furthered.

In fact, a big comparison between the special episode and the original series is that while the latter is known for its thrilling action scenes and heavy-impact emotions, the former focuses more on the Korean word “han.” This is a uniquely Korean term that the cast and crew believe perfectly wraps up the emotion of Ashin of the North, which depicts the internalized feeling of deep anguish, anger, and sorrow.

But of course, while the episode promises more of an emotional journey, the terrifying zombie scenes will also come in strong after Ashin does the accidental deed of activating the resurrection plant. This all comes in through her profound desire to avenge her people, which was tragically failed by the government.

Gianna Jun. Photography by Kim Young-bae

Jun Ji-Hyun, known as Gianna Jun, who played the part, emphasized that on top of preparing her physique and stamina for the role, much time and energy was required in depicting such complex emotions. “I tried to focus mostly on how to interpret the personal anguish and hurt emotions to wanting to avenge for the whole land of Joseon,” she expressed.

An industry juggernaut in her own right, Jun has long been a staple in the Korean entertainment scene with some of the most iconic female characters ever that piqued global interest.

From films like My Sassy Girl that spawned a Hollywood counterpart, to Windstruck and Assassination, to hit television series My Love From Another Star to Legends of the Blue Sea, Jun’s celebrity has exploded to unspeakable heights but still, to her, the hunger to take on big challenges to further beef up her already commendable repertoire of roles continues. With Kingdom, the big shoes to fill on an already established series is a welcome challenge as an actor, but at its core, she is a fan who wanted to give justice to the beloved series with much verve and fire.

Director Kim Seung-hun. Photography by Kim Young-bae

Director Kim Seung-hun, who commended her performances also quipped: “I don’t think there is any director who would say no to the opportunity to direct something that Gianna Jun would be starring in.”

As for Kingdom veteran Park Byung-eun, who plays Head of the Royal Commandery Division Min Chi-rok in the original series, he also stressed how he focused more on emotional impact in this particular story. He heeds the audience to pay attention to his relationship with Ashin, the resurrection plant, and how it all ended up to the outbreak that took over the undead.

He also hinted at something else that connected his character to these tragic events. “In season 2, you might have seen my character very well adept with the bow and arrow, and if you look at this particular special episode, you will also notice Ashin being a very skilled archer. So, I think another good point to focus on is why all the archery.”

Park Byung-eun. Photography by Kim Young-bae.

Pushing forward with such an intense story with, quite literally, the world, in eager anticipation, it’s no surprise that the cast and crew feels some sort of pressure to deliver the material well. But Director Kim, in his answer to Rank Magazine, said that at this point of the game, it is an immense responsibility for the people behind the series to take in the pressure in a more positive form.

“A positive excitement, if you will,” he shared. “This is not just about me, but the entire staff, all of the crew that worked on Kingdom, because we know so many people are waiting for the series globally. I think more effort was put into meticulous investigation of historical correctness, and also creating each of the props. I would say that it had a very positive impact on the entire team.”

Jun also shared in that positive nervousness, revealing that she’s actually someone who thrives best when under pressure. On top of Kingdom being such a global phenomenon, the fact that she’s a major fan herself added to the pressure, but also the overall excitement she felt joining the project. She actually begged the zombie actors for photos while on set to brag about to her friends and family, she cheekily shared.

“Every time I was shooting those scenes [pertaining to the resurrection plants], I felt like that was really penetrating through the entire Kingdom series, so as a fan myself, I really enjoyed shooting those scenes, and I really got chills down my spine in those particular scenes.” 

Park Byung-eun. Photography by Kim Young-bae.

Kim Si-a. Photography by Kim Young-bae.

While filming the special episode, Jun admitted to getting chills down her spine and goosebumps whenever she realizes how impactful her scenes were to the series that she loves so much. And it’s really clear how much she respects and adores Kingdom as a franchise as she gushed over the series as a piece of art:

“I would say that Kingdom is not a series or a particular piece of work that can be changed, or depends on one or two stars or members of the cast. It is based on an immaculate script, amazing direction, fascinating art. I would say Kingdom, in and of itself, can be referred to as a total or comprehensive art in its own form. It’s truly an honor and it brings me great joy to think that something like Kingdom is created in Korea, and is brought to the entire world,” she expressed.

Now that the episode is within our midst, we’re looking forward to seeing some of the cast and crew’s favorite moments as well. Especially a particular scene at the end with all the zombies that writer Kim, director Kim, Park Byung-eun and Jun Ji Hyun all teased to look out for. Park Byung-eun also quipped a particularly moving scene with young Ashin, played by genius kid actor Kim Si-a.

In Director Kim Seung-hun’s words, the Kingdom franchise is a special type of “zombie” series particularly because it incorporates human history—the hunger, the greed for power, as well as the concept of han or utter anguish and despair. All this together creates a beautiful harmony that he believes is the key to why so many fans love the series so much, and the whole team is proud to share Ashin of the North to the world with the same ethos.

With the weather in the Philippines growing more somber and darker as the rainy season then pummel us with new world realizations, the special origin story in Kingdom‘s thrilling saga is the perfect accompaniment to a cold evening of hiding under the blankets and scaring ourselves into insomnia. But not only will it give us nightmares to wake from, Kingdom: Ashin of the North also promises hard-hitting emotions that goes deep into the human experience. And we can’t wait to lose sleep over what that entails.

Kingdom: Ashin of the North is now streaming globally on Netflix