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Entertainment

Jun Ji-hyun: Rom-com queen takes on the K-zombie genre

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
Jun Ji-hyun: Rom-com queen takes on the K-zombie genre
Korea’s ‘highest paid star’ on the pressure of topbilling Kingdom: Ashin of the North: My personality does better under pressure. So, I think I deliberately felt that positive pressure so that I could do better. I didn’t want to make it look like that I was just kind of joining in and enjoying the ride already propelled by what was already a great show before I joined. I really tried to focus more on bringing everything that I had to the series.
Kim Young-bae

Korean superstar Jun Ji-hyun has made her acting comeback with the leading role in Kingdom: Ashin of the North.

Often called as K-drama’s highest paid star, Ji-hyun is known to her global fans as the queen of Korean romantic comedies, thanks to such hit series as My Love from the Star, Legend of the Blue Sea and the film My Sassy Girl, which has been credited to have first spread the Hallyu fever to the world.

The actress, who’s celebrating the big 4-0 in October, last did a film, Assassination, in 2015, and the drama Legend of the Blue Sea in 2016. After a roughly five-year hiatus, she decided to return on screen as Ashin in the special episode of Netflix’s megahit zombie drama set in the Joseon era.

Her mysterious character made a surprise and short appearance in the Kingdom Season 2 finale, electrifying fans of the show. No spoilers here, but Ashin is the discoverer of the resurrection plant, the “root” of all the chaos and catastrophic events in the Kingdom universe with its power to turn the dead into the undead. The special episode before Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.

The STAR attended a virtual presscon and did an exclusive interview with Ji-hyun ahead of the series premiere last week. Looking fierce in all black and a blunt bob, she was however soft-spoken, always laughing and stunning to the press for not looking a day older since My Sassy Girl from 20 years ago.

Asked why she particularly chose Ashin of the North as her comeback vehicle, she told this writer through an interpreter, “The biggest factor would have to be the fact that it was written by writer Kim Eun-hee. And I’ve long been a Kingdom fan myself and the fact that the Kingdom universe can be expanded through the Ashin of the North episode, there was really no reason for me not to take the role.”

She acknowledged that fans have come to love her for her rom-com roles, but she’s more than that. “I know that I have been very well-loved, thankfully, by a lot of global fans through the rom-com genre. However, as you may know, I’ve portrayed characters with internal darkness and sadness in works like Berlin File and Assassination. I didn’t have any aversion to playing a character like Ashin.”

Ji-hyun had no aversion to the zombies on set either. In fact, she pointed out, coming face-to-face with the actors as zombies was one of the things she was looking forward to before filming of the episode began. “When I got there on the set, I realized how much trouble all of the actors were going through in order to present themselves as convincing zombies,” she said, adding, “I begged them for pictures as well. I was able to take pictures with the zombie actors and really bragged about it to everyone.”

When it came to her favorite scenes, without giving away too much, she cited sequences that highlighted Ashin as the only person who knows the secret of the resurrection plant. “So as a fan, I really enjoyed those scenes and I really got chills on my spine.”

According to writer Eun-hee (Signal, Three Days), no other actress is best suited to be Ashin. She wrote her as a character who grows into a warrior with “internalized pain,” also known as the Korean cultural concept of Han, which in Ashin’s case, stemmed from terrible loss of loved ones.

This was what Ji-hyun focused on while breathing life into her character. “In terms of the physique and the stamina that the character required, I was ready even before I got in the role of playing Ashin. I tried to focus more on how to interpret the personal anguish and hurt that we Koreans would refer to as Han, and to interpret that emotion into wanting to avenge for the whole land of Joseon.”

Director Kim Seong-hun (The Tunnel, A Hard Day) could attest to this focus on set. He recalled his conversations with the actress about her role. “I considered Ashin to be a character harboring unspeakable pain and suffering deep inside. Before filming began, Jun Ji-hyun and I talked a great deal in sharing our thoughts about the role. On set, she performed and portrayed emotions so efficiently and expertly that I could just stand by and watch.”

Despite the praises and all the excitement over her being in the title role, Ji-hyun, however, stressed that the show is not about her.

“Rather than this being an opportunity to show myself... because I know so many fans worldwide are waiting for the story of Kingdom, I think focusing on another story of Kingdom would be a better way to approach it.”

She added, “As for why I love Kingdom, I would say that it is not a series or a particular piece of work that can be changed or that it depends on one or two stars or members of the cast. It is based on an immaculate script, amazing direction and fascinating art. So Kingdom can be referred to as a total or comprehensive art form.”

She, nevertheless, admitted that having joined Kingdom at a time when it’s already a certified global hit made her feel a significant amount of pressure. As of presstime, it’s No. 1 on Netflix Philippines.

The good thing is, Ji-hyun embraces pressure. “In fact, my personality is one that does better under pressure. So, I think I deliberately felt that positive pressure so that I could do better. I didn’t want to make it look like that I was just kind of joining in and enjoying the ride already propelled by what was already a great show before I joined. So, I think in that aspect, I really tried to focus more on bringing everything that I had to the series.”

MY SASSY GIRL
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