Vengeance of Pastoral Zombies in ‘Kingdom: Ashin of the North’ (2021)
By Rajarshi Mitra
The Covid-19 pandemic might have been particularly severe in information-locked North Korea because the Songun (military-first) state rejected the need for a country-wide vaccination drive. Later, facing what the North Korean media referred to as a widespread “fever”, the state began a vaccination programme for its armed personnel as late as mid-2022. When the supreme leader Kim Jong Un recovered from “fever”, his sister announced his recovery on the state media to “teary-eyed” North Koreans. She issued direct threats to South Korea for spreading infection in the entire Korean peninsula and warned them of appropriate retaliation and revenge. Her political warnings have serendipitous connections to the rumours about the weaponisation of the Covid-19 virus that had migrated from animals to humans in China. The lab-leak hypothesis states that the virus had leaked from a Chinese lab where viruses were being weaponised in a controlled manner.
The evil monstrosity of freakish Covid-19 conspiracy theories infects the cultural contexts of the South Korean zombie series Kingdom (2019-2020) and its prequel Kingdom: Ashin of the North (2021, henceforth Ashin). This phenomenally popular Netflix series was made by Filmmaker Kim Seong-hun, known for his survival thriller Tunnel (2016). He collaborated with famous screenwriter Kim Eun-hee, and they combined two popular genres for the Netflix series: zombie action-thriller and historical drama. During the pre-production stage, Kim Eun-hee mentioned that through the series she wanted to explore the fears and anxieties of modern-day Korea through a historical lens. This article focuses on how the series, especially its prequel asks its audience to reflect on the historical roots of political vengeance in the Korean peninsula. The pastoral and the period treatment of all too familiar zombie theme establishes monstrosity in the distant past and expects the audience to configure its continuity with the present-day popularity of zombie culture. It historicizes the animosity between the two Koreas and plots to turn both past and present vengeance monstrous. Allegorical to the core, the zombie plots in Kingdom and Ashin constantly juggle between the two primary themes of Korean morality dramas: equity and justice.
The allegorical and metaphorical dimensions of the monstrous-undead in popular culture today are widely variegated, because as metaphors zombies are extremely malleable in their visual projections of anxieties regarding the human condition. Since Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), the living-dead has been a curiously visual phenomenon of the twentieth century mass culture. They have emerged as metaphors of master/slave dialectic (as in The Plague of the Zombies, 1966), as representations of religious eschatology (as in Rec, 2007), as monsters created by disease outbreak (as in World War Z, 2013) and monsters created by the modern-day drug culture (as in All American Zombie Drugs, 2010). Their popularity was furthered by George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) that added political commentary to the zombie narrative. They continue to proliferate as metaphors in a wide range of film genres from horror to comedy to action-thriller to period drama.
Ontologically, their liminality as a monstrous human-form between life and death disturbs the snug binaries of living/dead, man/beast or body/soul. They cross multiple cultural boundaries and trouble the human conscience. They are cannibals – obsessive, compulsively driven – and, therefore, have no respect for anything human. Their bodies are slaves to their obsessive cannibal passion. In their mindless, frenetic energies they hark back to the origin of the undead myth in Haitian folklore where sorcerers would bring back the dead as slaves to do their bidding. Zombies, unlike the sophisticated vampires, are the lumpen proletariat who, when risen, cause riots and threaten industrial civilization. Their infestation can lead to a complete civilizational paralysis. Quite understandably, the Covid-19 pandemic triggered many of the myths about the undead that the zombie culture had already explored.
In South Korea, the pandemic was as relentless and as unforgiving as it was in all the other parts of the world. However, even before the pandemic, South Koreans had seen bad outbreaks of respiratory diseases. The H1N1 flu epidemic in 2009 and the MERS crisis in 2015 had already put people’s personal and medical security at risk. A major zombie flick that represented this sense of insecurity and national edginess was The Train to Busan (2016), where a train full of passengers turn zombies after an outbreak. Following its release, the Train’s melodrama, violence, its tropes and symbols have become popular worldwide. Train furthered the tragic fantasy that zombie outbreak quickly spreads in modern settings like cities and railway transport systems where the fear of socially mingling with the infected during any outbreak is quite high.
As if to counter the Train’s claims, the zombie series Kingdom and Ashin released during the Covid -19 pandemic located zombie outbreak in medieval pastoral Korea. Vengeance of a lowborn girl Ashin unleashes demons in the pastoral heaven of the Joseon kingdom. Meant as a prequel to hugely successful Korean zombie series Kingdom, Ashin charts the genesis of the zombie apocalypse that befell medieval Korea in the two seasons of the series. Ashin’s vengeance politically and biologically transforms her country. In the final scene, she plots to corrupt the highest in the land – the ailing king of the Joseon dynasty – by recommending wild ginseng zombie flower (called resurrection plant) as a panacea to the royal physician.
Like most Korean period dramas, Kingdom and its prequel conjure the vision of the Great Joseon kingdom without the acrimonious border dividing the two Koreas today. Symbolically, the political tensions in these period dramas mirror the threats that have haunted South Korea through much of the twentieth century. Joseon kingdom was far from the pastoral heaven today’s CGI and advanced camera technology can produce. Internal strife in Joseon was marked by factional fights, rebellions, and the state’s authoritarian responses like the purges of Neo-Confucian scholars (1498-1506). Externally, Sino-Japanese threats to the Joseon kingdom kept the entire kingdom on high alert. These medieval threats parallel the gruesome twentieth century events in the history of Korea beginning with the Imperial rule of Japan (1910-1945) through the devastating Korean war (1950-1953).
The animosity that divides the two Koreas is a major theme for creative fantasies in South Korea. Since the Korean war (1950-1953), South Korean horror cycles have established the trope of Communist invaders from the North as the bukgwigun – meaning the Army of Northern Demons. In the iconography of war-horror films like Rain Days (1979) war violence is visceral and implacable. The two seasons of Kingdom and its prequel Ashin have reinvigorated this visceral iconography. The prequel Ashin turns to Nihilism as it reflects on the genesis of the zombie apocalypse of Kingdom.
A Pastoral Paradise?
Harmony – ecological, social and political – a major trope in any pastoral art, is rarely referred to in Ashin. Throughout the prequel, the story revolves around people suffering from the various biopolitical machinations of the state and the elite. And yet, in Ashin, we cannot but marvel at the beauty of wild Joseon and its landscape. As if the silent beauty of the wild landscape is a mere witness to Joseon’s tragic downfall. Ashin ends with anti-cathartic promises for it neither offers salvation, nor an escape route, nor a restoration of justice. Instead, it plants the resurrection plant politically among the Joseon people for the spread of nihilistic destruction. That the pastoral preserves an infected ecosystem and harbors monsters is the primary framework of Ashin. Indeed, the opening scenes of Ashin dramatise the zombie infection when the tiger of Baekdu gets infected after eating a dead deer that had collapsed while grazing on the resurrection plant. As the predator and the prey together get infected, they intensify the allegory of an infected ecosystem that will eventually contaminate human society.
Oblivious of this contamination, Deputy Commander Min Chi-Rok and his hunters decide to take down the tiger of Baekdu to appease the Pajeowi Jurchens. Earlier, when the prequel had opened, Min Chi-Rok had been apprehensive of a major retaliation when at least 15 of the Jurchens were found dead inside the forest. Min’s investigation had revealed that they were killed by a high-ranking officer Cho Beom-il and his elite guards in his army. Min conjures Machiavellian political strategies to avoid confrontation with Pajeowi Jurchens by deciding to hunt down the tiger of Baekdu. He sends Ta-Hap, Ashin’s father, from the boundary village as a spy to spread the story of the man-eating tiger of Baekdu. Ta-Hap is found out by the Jurchens and punished.
When the tiger-hunt fails to pacify the enemy, Deputy Commander Min Chi-Rok lies and blames Ashin’s boundary village for the murder of fifteen Pajeowi Jurchens. Later, he strategically massacres the boundary village. After collecting the resurrection flower, Ashin returns to find her village decimated and her ailing mother, brother and her neighbours slaughtered and hanging from the trees. It is revealed later that Ashin had used the resurrection plants in a desperate bid to reanimate the massacred village. But, as the inscriptions on a cave wall deep inside the forest warned Ashin had to a pay a price if she brought back the dead. All along, the prequel finally reveals, once reanimated, Ashin had chained her zombified relatives and neighbours and had been feeding them. The inscriptions take the history of the undead in Joseon further back in time. They reveal possibilities of biological experiments with the undead long before Ashin had accidentally discovered the resurrection plant. The inscriptions are part of the archive that document the crossing of boundaries between the living and the dead, between man and beast.
Unbeknownst to her, Ashin’s act of bringing her dead relatives back to life is her hamartia (tragic flaw) that fires her vengeance. Later, she weaponises her knowledge of the undead when she senses betrayal. Macbeth-like, Ashin quickly takes to the modus operandi of her vengeance because she had already committed the sin of reanimating the dead. Initially, Ashin’s zombification of others was perpetrated out of love. Whereas, when she feels betrayed and heartbroken, zombification is perpetrated out of hate. The viewers are led to believe in Ashin’s innocence, and we almost consider her vengeance just, until we realize that zombies were her best kept secret. The narrative itself, by playing with our sympathies, turns monstrous when we witness Ashin’s primal sin.
To understand her vengeance, one needs to realize that Ashin’s boundary status as a lowborn in Joseon society reflects her urge to recreate boundary figures like zombies who remain between the living and the dead. Any promise of an upgrade in the social ladder is thwarted in Ashin. Her father’s constant efforts to win royal favour for their village meet with humiliating disappointments. Deputy Commander Min Chi-Rok sends Ta-Hap on dangerous secret missions with the promise of royal recognition hanging like a carrot in front. Villagers are ostracized by the other inhabitants of Joseon who nonetheless seek their service as butchers. To Deputy Commander Min Chi-Rok, Ashin’s boundary village is as monstrous – unwanted and ugly – and as politically insignificant as the undead. Yet, wiping it out of earth is a politically significant move for the Deputy Commander for it allows him to lie.
To child Ashin, Deputy Commander’s lies were the truth. She had rushed to seek shelter and the promise of revenge from Min Chi-Rok when she sensed that her village had been destroyed by the Jurchens. Growing up in the barracks of Min Chi-Rok, who seemed to have saved her, Ashin continues to face her humiliation doggedly. She learns archery, performs menial tasks for the army and is often obliged to grant errant soldiers sexual favours. Her moment of recognition and reversal comes when she is assigned the task of spying on Pajeowi Jurchens by the Deputy Commander. While spying she recognizes her father, chained to the prison house in Jurchen camp who had cut off his hands and legs. The truth behind the Deputy Commander’s lies is revealed. Upon his father’s request, Ashin crosses another social boundary: she commits the sin of patricide.
Arguably, Ashin is the monster in this prequel. Of course, monsters are a physical category. Their ugliness challenges accepted norms of human form. Traditionally, they inhabit spaces away from civilization, and quite often they reside in exotic locations with various taboos attached. They are, as psychologists might point out, “Othered” because they stand as opposing forces to everything human. But Ashin’s monstrosity is more psychological than physical. Her supple beauty that symbolized wronged innocence towards the beginning of the narrative begins to look monstrous when psychic wounds of betrayal are inflicted. After committing parricide, she loses her feeling for other humans. While creating the undead, Ashin destroys the logical minds and resurrects the dead body that runs on emotions and desires. Significantly, the resurrection plant is inserted in the frontal (logical) part of the brain to rouse the emotional part buried deep inside.
Ashin’s zombies are not entirely different from the zombies of Train. Both are transformed by infectious bites, both hanker after human flesh and both are relentless in their pursuit of destruction. Barring their historical backgrounds, monstrosities remain the same. Yet, they’re not born of the same culture, and there lies the difference. Ashin’s Nihilistic plot to plunge Korea into zombie apocalypse questions the morality traditions in Korean horror cycles. But, Train, by ending the film on a note of melodramatic sacrifice and family loyalty, had restored the hope for justice and equity. The two different Koreas in the two movies being referred to demand comparison. The neo-liberal Korea of Train is an ideal setting for the urban zombies who are thought to represent human helplessness against larger and quite confusing economic forces. The homo-laborens of the capitalistic order is zombified into a perfectly non-productive human who is slave to no institution or economic forces. Their helpless nihilistic behavior is nonetheless contagious. Their reanimated bodies are busy creating a society of similar unfettered bodies. They remind us of the long history of zombies beginning with reanimated corpses of slaves used for mindless labour. Train’s zombies appear in a modern democratic world and attempt to paralyze it. In Train, South Korea looks relatively liberal and equitable until we analyze the underlying capitalistic forces at work. Whereas Ashin’s zombies are resurrected in an ur-capitalistic pastoral world where slavery was a norm. Its infected ecosystem is a symbol of a pastoral civilization without pastoral care. Here zombies are born out of Ashin’s doubts about justice and equity. Theirs is a monstrous rebellion against the corrupt forces of moral control in the pastoral world.
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Dr. Rajarshi Mitra is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Information Technology, Guwahati. Before joining IIIT Guwahati, he was Assistant Professor in Department of English, Central University of Karnataka. He has an M Phil (2010) from the Department of English, University of Hyderabad and a PhD (2014) from the Department of English Literature, The English & Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. For his PhD, he had worked on natural history narratives from India between 1857 and 1950 and his M Phil was on colonial tiger hunting narratives. His research interests include famine studies, horror films, First World War, Victorian literature and Culture and the British Empire in India. In IIITG, he teaches courses on Science Fiction, Film Studies and Indian Writing in English.
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