Ashin of the North is the ‘beginning of everything’ for Kingdom universe

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
Ashin of the North is the �beginning of everything� for Kingdom universe
Gianna Jun of My Sassy Girl and My Love From The Star fame plays the title character — a ‘warrior with internalized pain’ — in Netflix’s Kingdom: Ashin of the North. The zombie period series’ special episode premieres today.

Kingdom: Ashin of the North unravels the origins of the zombie apocalypse in Netflix’s megahit Korean original series Kingdom.

Considered as a landmark production showcasing world-class Korean filmmaking, the Kingdom universe returns to retrace what led to the rise of K-zombies in the period thriller drama set in the Joseon era.

To refresh the memory, Season 1 started with Prince Lee Chang, the exiled son of the King of Joseon, finding himself on the frontlines in the fight against the spread of the infected in the southern end of Dongnae, also known as present-day Busan. In Season 2, the story moved up north to the royal palace in the capital city of Hanyang.

Ashin of the North continues this upward move to the chilly, northern regions as it reveals who Ashin is. The mysterious woman appeared to Prince Lee Chang and his gang at the end of Season 2, teasing viewers as to whether she was going to be a friend or a foe. Turns out, it is Ashin who accidentally discovers the resurrection plant which, as Kingdom fans would know, has been used to turn the dead to the “undead,” leading to catastrophic consequences.

Park Byung-eun, the head of the Royal Commandery Division Min Chi-rok in Kingdom Season 2, provides the ‘story continuity’ in Ashin of the North

Director Kim Seong-hun (A Hard Day, Tunnel) and writer Kim Eun-hee (Signal, Once in a Summer) have teamed up anew for this special episode, which starts streaming today (July 23). The STAR was given an exclusive interview with the creators ahead of the premiere to talk more about what to expect from Kingdom: Ashin of the North.

Director Seong-hun said that if Season 1 was the “cornerstone,” he would describe the side sequel as the stepping stone to Season 3 in the Kingdom universe.

He told The STAR: “So through Kingdom Seasons 1 and 2, topics like thirst for power, hunger, bloodlines were covered. And in order to leap to Season 3, I thought something new was needed.”

“Ashin of North, the special episode, goes back to the entire reason of why these themes occur. Through new characters and new situations, new conflicts arise, and I think that is what motivates us to go to the next season and that’s why I said it was like a stepping stone.”

A young Ashin (Kim Si-a) accidentally discovers the resurrection plant, which has the power to turn the dead into the undead.

Writer Eun-hee also defined the episode as “the beginning of everything, the root of it all,” particularly inspired and anchored on the Korean concept of Han.

She explained, “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 and the established people who lead the story. And then I came to think of the northern part of Joseon and the ones who are actually dominated by these people. So regardless of whether it is Joseon or another country, I think the people who are dominated have that same feeling (of Han).”

A scene from the episode or side sequel, which was mainly fi lmed in Jeju Island.

The idea of Ashin came to her while she was midway into writing the second season. With the cold properties of the resurrection plant established, the writer did a deep dive into the history of the northern areas of Joseon. She learned about these people called Seongjeoyains, who were living at the northern border region at that time; they were poverty-stricken and marginalized because they didn’t belong to any one group.

“I decided to take interest in that aspect and throughout that process this character Ashin was crystallized,” Eun-hee said.

Why it had to be a stand-alone story and not part of any season, she said, “When you look at the story behind Ashin (the character), it is a very long and complex story. Because it is such an overarching story with a long timeline, when you actually look at the chronological aspect of it, I felt that rather than incorporate it into the third season, it would be more audience-friendly and conducive for higher quality content if we were to offer it as a special episode.”

Director Kim Seong-hun (leftmost) and writer Kim Eun-hee (second from right) with Kingdom: Ashin of the North main cast Kim Roi-ha, Kim Si-a, Gianna Jun, Park Byung-eun and Koo Kyo-hwan.

When he learned about the special episode, director Seong-hun immediately came onboard. “I was lucky enough to read the first treatment of the script, a part of it, which was written by writer Eun-hee. When I read it, I thought to myself, I knew she was a great writer but was she this great? And I decided that the fastest way for us to bring that to life was for me to do that myself.”

He added, “There was great joy in doing something that I was already familiar with and rejoining the staff and crew once again. There was also the aspect of great excitement for the evolved story, as well as introducing new characters.”

With Hallyu superstar Gianna Jun taking on the title role, the director said, “I don’t think there’s any director who would say no to the opportunity to direct anything that Gianna Jun will be starring in.”

Gianna Jun or Jun Ji-hyun transforms into Ashin who grows up as one of the ostracized and discriminated Seongjeoyains. She suffers the loss of loved ones, and as seen in the trailer, is driven to live by her inner rage and hunger for revenge.

Eun-hee said Gianna was cut out for the lead character.

“Jun Ji-hyun is an actor who can express inner pain and suffering. I don’t think there’s an actor better suited for the Ashin role than Jun Ji-hyun,” she said.

Another cast member is Park Byung-eun, the Head of the Royal Commandery Division Min Chi-rok who provides the story continuity. He defended the royal palace alongside Crown Prince Lee Chang in Season 2. In Ashin, which is set at an earlier period, Chi-rok is a soldier who, while defending Joseon’s northernmost borders, meets Ashin, a fateful encounter that stands “at the root of all tragic events that unfold.”

Rounding out the main cast are Kim Si-a in the young Ashin, as well as Kim Roi-ha as Ashin father Tahab and Koo Kyo-hwan as the Pajeowi chief Aidagan who threatens to take over Joseon’s northern areas.

According to Seong-hun, Ashin of the North presents a whole-new world, with open lands and bluish-black forests, never-before-seen in the preceding seasons.

Because filming could not take place in the immediate vicinity of the Amnok River, they had to seek out compelling spaces and recreate the salient features of the epic series.

He told The STAR: “Unlike Seasons 1 and 2, the special episode is set around the northern regions of Joseon and because that place is located in North Korea, we cannot actually go and film at that place. So ironically, although the scenes are set in the northern part, we went to the very southern island of Korea, which is called Jeju Island. There’s very thick forest and canopy so I thought that was quite similar to the Amnok River.”

The creators were also asked during a separate virtual presscon with Asia-Pacific media if they were feeling the pressure of expectations brought about by the global success of the first two seasons.

Eun-hee said, “I would be lying if there’s no pressure. Pressure is inevitable at this point. However, I do feel that it is nearly impossible to create something that, if you show the content to 100 people, all of them love it. And I do think with this special episode, for fans who are looking forward to a lot of action, they might slightly think that it’s not really what they’ve expected. However, I hope we can successfully convey what we wanted to create, the creative intention behind Ashin.”

As for director Seong-hun, the expectations motivated them to put in more effort into Ashin, such as the research and historical correctness. He said, “Rather than (thinking of the) pressure in a negative sense, it was more of a positive feeling, positive excitement if you will, because now we know how many people are waiting for the series globally.”

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