The special episode of the Netflix Original “Kingdom: Ashin of the North” is an hour and a half long. Two actresses play Ashin to cover the show’s lengthy timeline. And Jun Ji-hyun (or Gianna Jun to international fans) spoke only 14 lines in the entire show.
We counted her lines not because we found them lacking. We did it because we wanted to highlight the brilliance of the show’s writing, direction and Jun’s performance. The theme of the episode is “han,” a Korean word for anger, regret and deep sorrow.
It is in the silence of Jun’s character that we find all these emotions. The few words spoken are manifestations of her feelings.
“I spent a lot of time and effort to understand the character of Ashin because I wanted to make sure that the biggest priority was to translate the han or the anguish and hurt of a single character,” Jun told Super in an interview via Zoom on July 20. “How can I interpret that anger or sorrow that can be connected to the revenge against the entire nation of Joseon? It is very important for me that it was relatable and that it would resonate with the audience. I tried to put a lot of effort in there.”
What Ashin did not express in words, you can see in her eyes. There is no life in them. This can be mistaken as a sign of defeat. That her eyes are cast downward when she’s around other people to depict her “lowborn and weakling” status.
Ashin is a descendant of the Jurchen tribe. Her group is called the Seongjeoyain. They live in Joseon (Korean kingdom) soil and are loyal to the King. They are the lowest of the low in the Joseon caste while the Jurchens no longer consider them their own.
She only started to look up when her wrath reached fever pitch. By then, her targets recognized her burning rage too late.
But even when she snapped, Ashin did not let off crazed laughs or went on histrionics. There was just eerie calmness and more silence. And it was beautiful.
“On set, I did have many conversations with the director because I felt that the [han] is something we can portray and bring to life through the overall ambiance of the scene. I tried to bring that up a lot with my conversations with the director,” Jun told Super.
Director Kim Seung-hun reunites with writer Kim Eun-hee for this special episode. The director previously worked on the first season of “Kingdom” and the first episode of Season 2. By now, it’s easy to recognize Seung-hun’s signature in the special episode. The undead pile up on one living person in an unstoppable feeding frenzy.
The director told the Asia-Pacific press during a conference held at an earlier time that there was great excitement to rejoin a familiar staff as they worked on a new story and introduced new characters.
“I also want to say that I don’t think there’s any director that would say ‘no’ to the opportunity to direct something that Jun Ji-hyun would be starring in,” said Seung-hun.
Just one more
In an interview with Super, Eun-hee talked about Ashin and her thoughts on Jun’s portrayal of her.
“When I thought of the character Ashin, I wanted her to look like a warrior on the outside. I also knew that she had a lot of anguish, trauma and hurt inside of her,” Eun-hee said. “From the start, I knew Jun Ji-hyun was the best choice. I’m very satisfied with her performance.”
At the press conference, Eun-hee talked about Ashin further. She said that this special episode is the very start of “Kingdom” and it will explain why the Resurrection Plant has cold properties.
“The story of Ashin is a very long and complex one. It is such an overarching story with a long timeline that you can actually look at the chronological aspect of it. I felt that rather than incorporate her story into the third season, it would be more audience-friendly and comprehensive if we were to provide it in a special episode,” she said.
Seung-hun previously said that Eun-hee can write 10 more seasons of “Kingdom.” Out of those 10 seasons, he told us how many seasons he wants to work on.
“Ten seasons. Wow, I don’t know if I will be alive by then. But I would say as many as I can. Every time we film one I say, maybe one more. Once again, I would say, just one more,” he said.
The director and the writer talked to Super about the contribution of the “Kingdom” franchise to the Korean zombie genre. Do they think that “Kingdom” is the standard that others should aim for?
“Well, I wouldn’t actually say no. But I would still say that there are many great standards in Korea [when it comes to] the zombie genre. As a TV series, I think we have contributed to expanding its scope,” said Seung-hun. Eun-hee said, “I hope that we could become the standard of historical fiction with a zombie theme from now on.”
Jun, who instantly became viral with her Alexander McQueen dress and new bob during the press conference, said she never got scared of the zombies on set. “In fact, one of the things that I was most excited about was coming face-to-face with the actors dressed as zombies. When I got there, I realized just how much trouble all of the actors were going through in order to present themselves as convincing zombies,” Jun said. “I begged them to take pictures with me. I really bragged about it to my friends and family.”
Park Byeung-eun also talked about what it was like to have zombies as costars. The actor, who plays Royal Commandery head Min Chi-rok, said that he would often spot the actors off-cam in full zombie outfits.
“They would be wearing fake blood on their bodies and their faces while they are having a meal underneath a huge tree at night. I was really startled to see those things at first,” Park said.
Jun and Park previously worked together in a period espionage film, “The Assassination.” It was a welcome reunion, according to Jun, who saw an opportunity in the meeting.
“Back when we were shooting ‘The Assasination,’ he boasted a lot about his fishing, but I never really got to taste what he caught. I begged for him to fish. We were able to enjoy his fishing skills,” Jun said. It was revealed that Park caught a yellowtail and cuttlefish.
The actor lives in Jeju Island where the show was filmed. He later joked that he couldn’t concentrate on his acting because they were all begging him to fish instead. The joke continued during the Super interview.
“I actually didn’t have that much time on set because, as you know, there’s the role played by the young Ashin and me as the adult Ashin. I wasn’t on set as long as Byeung-eun, but I have to say this again. I just remembered all the fishing that we had to do. I especially remember it because I caught a lot and he didn’t catch any at that time,” she said smiling.
The actress said in the presser that she didn’t have a hard time with the physical demands of her role. This is something that she would confidently affirm with Super when we asked if she trained long to hold the bow and arrow.
“Believe it or not, it didn’t take me very long because I was just so good at it,” she said as she smiled brightly. Then she flashed a “V” or a peace sign with her fingers. This is why Jun Ji-hyun is the perfect Ashin. She transformed the lowborn Jurchen into a warrior queen.
“Kingdom: Ashin of the North” is now streaming on Netflix.
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