Kingdom: Ashin Of The North: Exclusive Interview With The Cast And Crew
Netflix's Kingdom returns back for a special episode with Kingdom: Ashin of the North that explores the story of the resurrection plant and the mysterious character, Ashin. The highly popular historical zombie drama amassed a cult following when it was released, thanks to the unique blend of historical and horror aspects, back by stunning visuals, dramatic storyline and amazing performances.
The special episode will finally answer some of the fans' most burning questions, through Ashin's story and relationship with the resurrection plant and how ties in with the overarching story of the Kingdom universe.
Together with the press conference and in a separate exclusive interview with Tatler, Gianna Jun (better known as Jun Ji-hyun), Park Byung-eun, director Kim Seong-hoon and writer Kim Eun-hee on the special episode, Ashin's character, zombies and what they love about the Kingdom story.
How do you feel about Kingdom being back again and why did you decide to direct this special episode yourself?
Director Kim: When we were working on the second season, I was lucky enough to read part of the script and I thought to myself, “I knew [scriptwriter Kim] was a great writer but was she really this great?” I knew the fastest way we could bring this to life was for me to do it myself so I decided to direct this myself.
There was great joy in the familiarity of meeting with something I already knew about and also rejoining the staff and crew once again. And there was also the aspect of great excitement for the evolvement of the story and introducing new characters. Also, I don’t think there’s any director who will say no to direct something that Gianna Jun will be starring in.
Speaking of Gianna Jun, is there a special reason you chose to cast her for the role of Ashin?
Director Kim: Because this is a special episode, I really wanted it to be very special and that means we had to have the best cast and thinking of Ashin. I couldn’t think of a better person that’s more suited for the role than Gianna Jun.
How is this special different in terms of directing/writing than a full season?
Director Kim: As a director, unlike the seasons which have longer runtime, this was a 92-minute episode, I wanted to direct it in a way that’s more dense and concentrated.
Writer Kim: Unlike the previous seasons, a lot of the major characters are absent from the special episode and we have new characters, new backdrop and we go to the Northern region so I had to do a lot of studying and it was a little bit tiring. But after it was all finished, I was very happy that Kingdom could be expanded in such a way.
Why did you decide to write this as a special episode? Was Ashin always part of the storyline or something that came as the seasons unfold?
Writer Kim: During the early to mid-stages of the second season when I was looking for what kind of storyline to bring for the latter part of the season, I thought of the resurrection plant and its certain properties. Naturally, I looked into the Northern areas of Joseon and that’s when I came across the people that were referred to as the "marginalised people" of that time that didn’t belong anywhere, so I decided to take a look at that aspect. And throughout that process, this character Ashin crystalised.
When you look at the story behind Ashin, it’s a very long and complex story. It's such an overarching story with a long timeline and when you look at the chronological aspect of it, I felt that to incorporate the story into the third season, it would be more audience-friendly and conducive to provide it in a special episode.
How did you prepare yourself for the role of Ashin?
Gianna Jun: In terms of physique or stamina, I was ready before I got to play the role of Ashin. I tried to focus more on how to interpret the personal anguish and hurt (in Korean, referred to as “Han”), to incorporate and interpret that into vengeance for the whole land of Joseon.
The character Ashin is also a very skilled archer so I had to do a lot of practice shooting the arrow. I mentioned this a couple of times in my interviews but I tried to deliberately feel a certain amount of pressure because there are so many fans of Kingdom worldwide and myself being a fan too, I tried my best to make my joining the series feel as natural as possible and wouldn’t cause the series any harm.
Park Byung-eun: To play the role of Min Chi-rok, the head of the Royal Commandery Division for season two, I actually went to the Korean National Forces Association to learn archery and that was when I fell in love with archery because I was amazed at the power of the bow and arrow. It was to a point where I realised with a single arrow, you can bring down a wild hawk so I had to do a lot of practice and sword practice for season two. As for this special episode, I had to focus on the relationship between the character and Ashin, as well as how to maintain and restrain my emotions as I had to work with both the young and grown-up Ashin and how to emotionally react to the scenes.
What’s it like to reunite again after Assassination (2015)?
Jun: I was really happy to see him again and one thing I can say for sure, he’s a better fisherman now. Back when we were shooting Assassination, he was really boasting a lot but I never got to taste what he caught, so this time I asked for him and we all begged him to bring the catch he had, and we were able to enjoy all of the results of his wonderful fishing skills.
Park: When we were both working in Assassination, that was the first time we met Gianna and that time, we weren’t close, there was a little bit of awkwardness between us but when I heard we would be working side-by-side for this special episode, there was great excitement. I really looked forward to the chemistry that we could create on-screen. I think she’s an amazing actress and it’s such an honour and joy working alongside her at such a wonderful place of working created by an amazing director, writer, and also a talented crew together. I’m just so thankful.
Were you scared of the zombies on set?
Jun: No, not at all. Even before we shot it, one of the things I’m most excited about is coming face-to-face with the actors dressed as zombies. When I got there on set, I saw the troubles that the actors had to go through to present themselves as convincing zombies. I asked them for photos and showed them to my friends.
Park: For me, I have experience in working with the zombies, the undead for the second season. One thing I went through in season two, is we would have these scenes late at night in the forest, the zombie actors would be wearing fake blood on their bodies and faces and sometimes, I would spot them having a meal under a huge tree so as you can imagine, I was really startled to see those scenes.
But because I’m an experienced actor this time, I didn’t really have that on set. But one thing I realised this time was that I would see these zombies wearing their full makeup with blood and all and they would be on their phones, talking to their friends or families. It’s so realistic too, everyone calling someone, and saying “Hey mom, remember to sleep tight” and things like that. Seeing all of that kind of made me think that on the verge of life and death—what are zombies and the undead. It’s kind of an unfamiliar and new experience.
What are your favourite scenes and what do you love about Kingdom?
Director Kim: I love Kingdom because we created it together. But when you compare it to similar works in the genre, the Kingdom story and series incorporate human history: the hunger, the greed for power as well as the concept of hurt, anguish or sadness. I believe it truly creates a wonderful harmony that leads to a type of chemical reaction that I think that's the key as to why it was well-loved by fans all over the world.
Park: The scene where the young Ashin is kneeling before Min Chi-rok was very special and memorable for me, because Shi-a’s performance was absolutely amazing. It was very fascinating and I loved her performance in that particular scene.
She gave such a great performance and energy that in turn, it really provided me and my character in order to create that scene, it allowed me to completely immerse myself in the role and think what would this character do, how would he feel if this character, this little girl is kneeling in front of him, before him and asking him for these things. It would be great for the audience to look into that scene and think about how the relationship between these two characters change and what kind of stories then unfold.
Jun: Because my character Ashin is a woman who knows the secret of the resurrection plant, so there were certain scenes that continued to hint that that fact. Every time I would shoot those scenes, 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.
And why do I love Kingdom? It’s not a series for a particular piece of work that can be changed or that depends on one or two stars or members of the cast. It’s based on an immaculate script, amazing direction, fascinating art—Kingdom itself, can be referred to as a total or comprehensive art on its own. It’s truly an honour and brings me great joy that something like Kingdom is created in Korea and is brought to the entire world.
Gianna Jun as Ashin (Photo: Kim Young-bae for Netflix Korea)
Park Byung-eun as Min Chi-rok (Photo: Kim Young-bae for Netflix Korea)
Kim Si-a as young Ashin (Photo: Kim Young-bae for Netflix Korea)
Director Kim Seong-hoon and writer Kim Eun-hee (Photo: Kim Young-bae for Netflix Korea)
Being loved by fans worldwide and has a massive fan base around the world, was there pressure in creating this special episode?
Writer Kim: I would be lying if I say there’s no pressure. Pressure is inevitable at this point. However, I do feel that it’s nearly impossible to create something and show it to 100 people, all of them love it. I do think that with this special episode for those fans looking for a lot of action, they’ll think it’s not what they’ve expected. However, I hope we can successfully convey the intention of what we wanted to create, the character that is Ashin and how we depicted the lands of the Northern areas.
Director Kim: I would say pressure in a negative sense, it’s positive excitement if you will. This isn’t just me but the entire staff and crew that worked on Kingdom because we know how many people are waiting for this globally, more effort is put into the meticulous investigation of historical correctness and also each of the props so I’d say it’d have a positive impact on the entire team.
Park: Rather than being too nervous or daunted by the pressure, I tried to focus on what I really needed to do. I think it’s a positive type of pressure because that’s what helps actors be better performers, that’s what drives the best performance out of you. It’s also the role of an actor to bring that kind of energy into a good performance.
Jun: Being able to participate at a later point in a series that I loved so much, I have to say there was a significant level of pressure for me. But my personality is that I worked better under pressure, so I tried to deliberately feel that positive pressure and I could do better. I didn’t want to make it look like I was just enjoying the ride that was already propelled by the show before I joined, so in that aspect, I tried to focus on everything I have in the series.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North premieres on 23 July 2021 exclusively on Netflix.