Gianna Jun | The Last Vampire vs. Ashin of the North

“Jung [Ho-yeon] became the most-followed South Korean actress on Instagram in 2021, surpassing actresses Lee Sung-kyung and Song Hye-kyo and, as of October 2021, has over 20 million followers on the platform.”

Do you want to know how petty I am? How abjectly awful a bottom-feeding skinsack of blood and bones in the shape of a gingerbread man? When Parasite came out and everybody loved it, I took that opportunity to resent the sudden stardom of Park So-dam. And trust me, this is just a tiny part of my brain, but it was saying, “Well, she won the lottery.” She hasn’t been out there grinding like all my favorites, like Park Shin-hye and Son Ye-jin, who aren’t currently on the lips of every moviegoing American. With a split second of introspection, I can see first of all that she was cast for a goddamn reason, and this was a very natural trajectory for an already award-winning actress. But then Jung Ho-yeon – and you’re doing it to me again. Did you know that in 130 years of its existence, Vogue magazine never featured an East Asian woman alone on its cover? Until her. Once more, Jung Ho-yeon was a big part of why Squid Game was so successful, and long before my hackles, I’m assured of her imposter syndrome in this first-ever acting role. The better takeaways from these two international success stories is that nobody can really predict a breakthrough role, and maybe there is no science to it.

How else do I explain the great false start of all that Chinese talent in 2000s-era Hollywood? I know we were casting Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh in Memoirs of a Geisha, but it just seems like somehow we failed John Woo and Chow Yun-fat. Yes, John Woo’s American movies are all terrible, no exceptions, but I think even backdoor Asian representation in America is a good thing – though maybe not at the expense of good movies. Fucking Hollywood, dude, it’s like “Do your job,” but also, “I don’t care about you!” No wonder they’re all mixed up. And then there’s a part of me that wants all my favorite foreign celebrities to be household names in my house. A miniature version of that Chinese-Hollywood diaspora occurred for Korea a few years later and with similar results. Bae Doona was in Cloud Atlas in 2012. Choi Min-sik was in the trailer for Lucy in 2014. The big one is Lee Byung-hun in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Where he’d go on to feature in a number of Hollywood films, the only Americans interested in the Bae business were the Wachowskis, and Lucy remains Choi’s only English-language role. A French movie, by the way. Still, that’s more consistent Korean representation than there ever was Korean-American representation, so I’ll take it.

Rise from your grave!

As an aside, you want to know the funny thing about John Cho in Cowboy Bebop? I completely sympathize with the online meme/campaign #StarringJohnCho, in which digital strategist William Yu photoshopped John Cho onto a bunch of movie posters that, in a more just world, he would’ve had a shot at being cast in. Back in the day, Hollywood didn’t care to look around and notice that John Cho was standing there, and with Cowboy Bebop, they’re essentially doing the same thing. Instead of looking around at Chinese-American actors who could’ve made a great Spike Spiegel, it’s like they said, “Fine, fucking we’ll do it,” and gave John Cho a lifetime achievement award in the form of the role of a lifetime. Funny.

I suppose we’ll call Yunjim Kim’s casting in Lost a fluke, because in my headcanon, this story begins in 2009. That’s when The Rise of Cobra came out, but also Ninja Assassin starring Rain, and Blood: The Last Vampire starring “Gianna.” Rain was a huge deal, being one of Time magazine’s 100 people in 2006 and selling out concerts in Madison Square Garden. In fact, it looks like he topped the Time 100 reader poll three times, but I don’t really follow Time magazine or its various people-ranking. The quote is: “The South Korean pop star turned actor Rain, 28, took the top spot in the TIME 100 reader poll for the third year, trouncing competitors from Barack Obama to Lady Gaga. That’s pretty impressive online power for a guy whose main claim to Western fame is a role in the 2009 film Ninja Assassin.” And that brings up a pretty good point from a time when PSY was Korea’s biggest musical act. How many among the BTS Army know who Rain is? Which is just a deflecting way of saying “I didn’t know who Rain was.”

Rain, center, showing off his ninja moves

By the same token, after Blood: The Last Vampire, Gianna did one more English-language film and — a refrain in all these stories — went back to her own country. You can see why this is, like, a thing to me. That second movie was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, with Li Bingbing, and part of its promotion was a photoshoot by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue magazine, making Gianna Jun the first Korean actress featured in Vogue magazine. What the fuck is up with Vogue magazine? An article in the Chosunilbo from 2009 grants us the optimistic Korean perspective on Blood: The Last Vampire, that “Although the film has not done well at the Korean box office, [Gianna Jun] has opened up a path to Hollywood for other Korean actors to follow.” Well, that’s not exactly what happened, and most Americans wouldn’t see her again until 2021, when Gianna returned to the international stage with a far more successful blockbuster, Kingdom: Ashin of the North.

Like all those books with straightforward titles like How to Learn JavaScript, I’ll note in this introduction that “This is not a book on how to learn JavaScript,” and in this case, I won’t be summarizing Gianna Jun’s career between the films Blood: The Last Vampire and Kingdom: Ashin of the North — not exactly. But I chose these two movies because together, they suggest something about how stars are made.

“What is Blood: The Last Vampire?” I hear you ask and I envy you. This is a movie that opens with a text crawl, and some of that text is later repeated in dialogue, itself subtitled. We’re told that vampires or demons are real and, well, I wasn’t paying attention, so maybe it was worth repeating. Either way, Blood: The Last Vampire is an action-horror movie in the vein of Blade or Resident Evil, but with a fluttering schoolgirl spinning and slashing at vampires in the rain. Up-front, I’ll tell you that, like Nomak, I hate vampires. I just think they’re the worst monsters and can’t fully articulate why. Probably because they’re just people, and while I don’t like zombies, either, at least with zombies you could also have Lickers and Tyrants. And it’s not like their bloody destruction makes up for it, though the original Blade remains a classic.

I got to tell you about the story here, because it’s one of those deals where it doesn’t make sense. So Gianna plays Saya, a half-vampire vampire hunter. From the beginning, we know she wants to kill the Onigen, which is one person and not a race of vampires, played by Japanese superstar Koyuki. The whole thing with Blood is that Saya’s a vampire-hunter vampire employed by the U.S. government. That’s one of the twists on the formula. In an early scene, she gets her next assignment from the Vampire Council, which is to infiltrate the school on a U.S. air base in Japan to hunt vampires. So, I don’t know why this is framed as an assignment rather than intel, but it becomes an assignment when she has to wear a schoolgirl outfit. So that’s her mission, but also her mission is to hunt the Onigen, and my question is, how much do these two things relate? And a better question, because I’m sure it’s that the high school slaying was the one magic slaying that drew out the Onigen, is why? Why, writer Chris Chow, do these two things relate? Thematically, character-wise, whatever.

Can we just pause right here, though, on “schoolgirl outfit”? Look, I’m no prude – and I’ll prove it: Gianna is hot in a schoolgirl outfit – but it’s a missed opportunity. You know what’s better than “schoolgirl”? I don’t know, ninja? Tactical? Samurai – literally everything. She walks into this school at the air base and nobody is wearing anything like this, because it’s a U.S. school full of white Americans, and look at them: by their chosen fashion – and the chyron in the beginning – this story takes place in the year 1970. America is at war, and Japan is a strategic military ally. Two girls immediately make a reference to “Japs” and “How long before they think they own the place?” Again, this movie takes place in Japan, so I don’t know what that means, but this racism is the cookie dough out of which we can cut a non-racist cookie, Alice McKee, who dutifully Rolls Her Eyes. Granted, McKee is the general’s daughter, so these mean girls direct their spite at her anyway. These mean girls are also vampires, and within about five minutes, Saya’s decapitated both of them with a sword in the gymnasium.

It’s at that moment I realized that Blood: The Last Vampire was something special. It’s a movie with the visual texture of those early green-screen experiments from the mid-2000s like Casshern and Sin City. They built huge sets for Blood, and so I know the shots weren’t composed entirely in editing, but it does feel slightly miraculous when two characters interact with each other as if they share the same space and time. In some scenes, CGI fog passes over the image in a way that feels unnatural, less Ridley Scott and more Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. There’s so much of this artifice, with the stylized lighting and the fact that 99% of the cast is trying to hide some European or Korean accent, with actors like Colin Salmon and Liam Cunningham directed by someone whose first language is not English. Alice’s dad General McKee is the stern military commander guy, but director Chris Nahon just doesn’t have the ear for the final nuance, to distinguish the genuine article from caricature. But when Saya swings her sword and lops off that girls’ head, man, that got me. CG blood sprays out of her neck like an explosion of dog food? Like, it’s globular, and really, I think it was the last straw.

These two frames are sequential

Unfortunately, the action scenes try to match Dead Alive with the volume of bloodshed. There’s a midpoint sequence where Saya kills probably a hundred vampires, ending in a boss fight with a transformed Colin Salmon, looking like a low-rent version of the monster from Underworld: Evolution. It’s a woeful design, and rendered like those really bad shots from Alien 3. A lot of mixed media going on, where in close-ups, it’s a man in costume, and even when Saya is just moving around the world, sometimes the green screen is obvious, and it’s all clipped together in a way that the already choppy editing style kind of masks. You heard right, though, that Saya is the 100-vampire slayer, and it’s definitely a problem when every fight scene has three or five as many guys as necessary. She’s just cutting through people a dozen at a time, and there’s no friction, no pushback. Of course, if there were, you know I’d be complaining about it. “Oh, yet another action movie where the woman isn’t the unassailable badass that Arnold and Sly get to be.” So now I’m stuck in the awkward position of my own making where a movie finally presents the proverbial ultimate female badass and I don’t like it?

There are moments. I like that Saya uses people’s backs as a springboard, and how she’s very improvisational with weapons. No rules for an immortal vampire. She pulls the driver out of a truck and kicks him in the face off-screen and it’s very matter-of-fact. Saya speaks in heavily-accented English, but Gianna always achieves a compelling screen presence. She’s the kind of woman who could eyeball you into submission, and the camera is sure to do a lot of those close-ups where the strands of hair fall in front of her face. And with these action scenes, there’s an appreciable variety of set pieces with distinct settings and gimmicks. The script is smart enough that with each cut to a new scene, there are enough characters in those scenes to ensure some sort of conflict. It sounds basic, but when movies don’t do this, that’s when you start veering from B-movie to Z-movie territory. So we have Alice and her dad, and then Council members Michael Harrison and his evil partner, who Saya greets by giving him one of those wrist-twists that puts him on his knees.

Frankly, I don’t really see this as a 25% Rotten Tomatoes movie, and I kind of like that Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars. I wouldn’t give it that rating necessarily, but it’s like a weird underdog. I pretty much enjoyed it up until the massive backstory that consumes the third act, killing characters and introducing new ones to finish their arcs for them. What a waste of Liam Cunningham, whose Michael Harrison was the most subtle and intriguing character emotionally, someone who clearly cares about Saya but leaves a lot unspoken. Maybe one day they’ll have that deeper conversation, whatever it may be, but he gets killed before the act two low-point. Instead, we’re suddenly asked to care about this guy Kato, a father figure to Saya from hundreds of years ago who gets killed by the Onigen’s demons after a protracted ninja battle.

Again, why do you need vampires when you already have ninjas? I don’t look at a ninja movie and say, “Hmm, but what if they were vampires?” or watch Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and — you get the point. The problem with this guy Kato is that he’s also replaced. When the Onigen hovers down and does her Darth Vader speech, suddenly it becomes about Saya’s parents. “I’m your mother, Saya,” she says, and now that’s got Saya all messed up, but she’s also sad about her dad, and also what side she’s gonna pick, human or vampire — like, this is way too much. The problem isn’t that it’s derivative, either, because certainly it is, but that the derivative elements have been smashed together on the altar of something substantive. This wasn’t the story the movie was telling, not for the first 45 minutes at least.

And you know what? Blood: The Last Vampire is an adaptation of something 45 minutes long, ending after Saya kills the vampire attempting to board the plane. This remake adds another 45 minutes where we shift the center of the story from what we’ve been watching onto something else. And all that stuff about 1970s America-Japan-Vietnam is literally swept away when the final battle takes place in an ancient Japan mindscape. What did all that stuff mean? What are we doing? “The Council finds Onigen for me,” Saya says. “It’s already taken too long.” Earlier, a character says, “Why put Saya in a high school? That’s ridiculous!” Okay, buddy, if you’re so good at guessing what the audience is gonna say, why don’t you do something about it?

In 2006, director Ronny Yu teamed up with a Hong Kong film producer by the name of Bill Kong to adapt the anime OVA Blood: The Last Vampire to live-action film. Now, that’s a lot of terms I got to define real quick. Ronny Yu is the jetset director of films like The Bride with White Hair and Freddy vs. Jason. Bill Kong worked as a producer on all those big wuxia movies from the 2000s, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Zhang Yimou catalogue. He executive produced Mulan in 2020. Blood would be their second collaboration, after Jet Li’s Fearless. Now, Blood: The Last Vampire is one of the marquee titles from Production IG, a studio well-regarded among anime fans for Ghost in the Shell and the O-Ren Ishii segment in Kill Bill. “OVA” is Original Video Animation, a format originating with Mamoru Oshii’s Dallos, and popular throughout the ’80s and ’90s; think direct-to-video, without those blasted content restrictions. However, Blood: The Last Vampire was given a limited theatrical release, which boosted sales of the DVD and spawned a media franchise with video games and two TV shows.

This success is likely what piqued Bill Kong’s interest in the property six years later. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I have no idea what anyone ever sees in Blood: The Last Vampire. The Wikipedia article tells this story by way of Animerica, that one day, Production IG president Mitsuhisa Ishikawa — the guy who puts the I in IG — wanted to produce an original IP, setting the pattern for later works like Psycho-Pass, I suppose. He knocks on Mamoru Oshii’s door, again the father of the OVA as well as the director of Ghost in the Shell, but asks for ideas from Oshii’s understudies. Probably a wise decision, given what Mamoru Oshii thinks about. Nothing untoward, just deeply bizarre. If you have a chance, you should check out the Record of GRM animation that floats about online. Really cool. Anyway, these understudies are future Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex showrunner Kenji Kamiyama, and the writer Junichi Fujisaku. Their idea, and prepare yourselves, was “a girl in a sailor suit wielding a samurai sword.”

My guy

You’re telling me that two men put their brains together and that’s what came out. Instead of asking Kenji Kamiyama, responsible for one of the greatest TV shows ever made — Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit — why don’t you just ask little Tanaka in the fifth grade, because I’m pretty sure he’s also thinking about “a girl in a sailor suit wielding a samurai sword.” To my mind, this story doesn’t exactly scream “passion project,” being more like a composite of ideas about stuff that might be cool, like the aforementioned sword girl and things like Yokota Air Base and vampires and race relations? Not helping is that at least the live-action movie doesn’t sew this patchwork of ideas into thematic coherence. The original anime is set in 1966, but Ronny Yu wanted to set it immediately post-WWII. We know that the French director Chris Nahon took over for Ronny Yu, but I feel like that attitude toward setting, that it’s only scene-dressing, carried into the final product. What does it mean that Saya has a split identity and some of the action takes place in Japan’s Little America during the Vietnam War? My only job here is to be able to answer that question and I can’t. None of this stuff goes together, and because of that, I can’t identify an obvious purpose. For Production IG and Bill Kong, what was the story they wanted to tell? What did they want to do with this character and setting and conceit? And most of all, why did they cast Gianna Jun?

I tell you, I searched up and down trying to answer that question, and couldn’t find anything. There are six names listed on IMDb under “Casting By,” none of whom return a Deadline article when paired with “Gianna” in Google. By default, I have to assume this was the work of Bill Kong, and while he had nothing but great things to say about the actress after the fact, even hoping she’d return for a sequel, I have no earthly idea why this French/Hong Kong adaptation of a Japanese anime made for an American audience cast a Korean actress to play the lead. What iteration of John Cho Syndrome is that? Saya was Jun Ji-hyun’s first English-language role, and she adopted a westernized stage name for it: Gianna, as she’s credited. An Internet commenter somewhere along the line points out that “Gianna” sounds a lot like her first name with the honorific “ah” attached, which might be heard in and around sets. “Ji-hyun-ah!” with the suffix “-ah” used to get someone’s attention. I will write “Jun Ji-hyun” on the site, but in audio form, I’ll go with “Gianna Jun” as a convoluted act of submission. “I’m sorry I can’t pronounce your name correctly and thank you for giving me this out.” I’ll say Gianna because yes I am dumb.

If you watch the behind-the-scenes video on the DVD, there’s a whole segment where the director and the actors talk about how great Gianna Jun is, and the key theme from all of them, from Liam Cunningham to Colin Salmon, is that she has an incredible work ethic. And you can see that she’s always on wires and in the rain and swinging the sword around. It looks hard. But even before you see the result on screen, to which I’d have to agree with Ebert’s assessment that she doesn’t make the most convincing martial artist, you wonder why there has to be so much effects augmentation of the action choreography. The other behind-the-scenes featurette is about the stunts, and notes right away that Gianna Jun was always in the harness, so she could zip up and down and all around, which she describes as “torture.” There are a lot of behind-the-scenes shots where she’s in the air, suspended on wires, waiting between takes. She trained for three months, nailing the landings with the wires and internalizing all that choreography, but I can’t shake that it’s this kind of action performance by committee.

The way the movie is shot and edited, it’s very much comic-book sensibility, with discrete images happening quickly rather than a roving camera for long takes. The storyboards are strong with this one, perhaps, but that’s a stupid thing to say. I prefer an action scene to be storyboarded, and even this static/staccato approach can work. Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire is a good example. So when Saya wants to be holding a sword, it takes her three shots: one high-angle where her foot pops up and kicks the sword from the poster tube, a second where the sword flies out from the top of the tube, and a third where she catches the sword out of the air and strikes a pose. In theory, that’s totally fine, and you can see why I’m saying that’s sort of manga-style. The problem comes with the timing, where it’s got to be so perfect to ensure a continuity of motion. The sword exits frame and enters frame and that has to be smooth. Otherwise, we have the anti-gravity problem which affects the convincingness. We can think back to how physical Kim Ok-bin was in The Villainess, and she’s no more an action star than Gianna Jun, so what happened here?

Before John Wick, I wouldn’t have had the language to express this idea. But what was so interesting about that movie was the philosophy behind it, almost harkening back to the days of Lau Kar-leung and the Shaolin Temple. The John Wick crew didn’t have all the money in the world, so they decided to work with the talent they had, and luckily they had Keanu Reeves. They weren’t gonna teach him a brand-new fight style, or replace him with an expensive CG construct. Instead, what we have is a more honest performance from the actors in their action scenes. Otherwise, and in the case of Blood, there’s an unfortunate passivity to Gianna Jun’s performance, where she doesn’t always swing through or she swings the sword more with her wrist than her arm. Don’t want to slash the wire, and careful movements in an overall attempt at possible wuxia-style combat, already delicate? Reasonable enough given the supernatural powers typical of vampires – like, you know, flight – but the violence is so bloody that it’s sort of discordant. Ironically, The Bride with White Hair would’ve been a better touchstone, being both gory and graceful. But think about action director Corey Yuen’s past work. He’s choreographed Jet Li and Jackie Chan and Jason Statham, and directed Yes, Madam, which was very fast. He also did So Close, with all the slow-motion, so maybe sensibilities change with time.

In contrast to all this, the development and production of Kingdom: Ashin of the North is downright logical. If the consequence of both productions is the image of Gianna Jun fighting a supernatural threat, we see two very different processes. If I really rack my brain, I would say that the point of Blood: The Last Vampire, aside from creating a new multimedia franchise, is to have a girl in a sailor suit chopping up vampires with a sword. Can a brain get sore? You take that kernel and plant it at the center of the blank canvas, and fill in around the kernel with character and story and theme. The equivalent in Ashin of the North is a woman who uses zombies to take revenge, and that’s only the last 20 minutes. There was no canvas-filling; that verb was the final piece of a puzzle.

The story of Kingdom begins with the writer Kim Eun-hee, whose breakout work was the K-drama Signal in 2016, a riff on the real-world events covered in Memories of Murder. Years earlier, she had this idea too large for television. She’d read about a moment in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty when tens of thousands of people died of a mysterious plague, and wondered “what if that was zombies?” She took this to the comic illustrator Yang Kyung-il and together they produced Kingdom of the Gods in 2015. As part of a massive push for Korean productions, Netflix chose to adapt this webcomic with Kim Eun-hee as the writer. Loosely based on the original story, the TV series Kingdom begins with the treachery of a clan using zombie science to secure the throne. The evil second queen will soon have a son, but in the meantime, she and her father, the chief state councilor, are keeping the dead king alive with the resurrection plant. Even before this leads to the inevitable outbreak, there’s a high body count in a Joseon recovering from the latest Japanese invasion, the first phase of the Imjin War. This is a palace drama where the upstairs is cowardly, scheming politicians and the downstairs is cannibals and people with their heads missing.

Kingdom was a huge hit for Netflix among viewers and critics. In response to the show’s success, Kim Eun-hee said, “I could never have imagined the popularity [Kingdom got]. I did my best to make it as Korean as possible because I wanted people to see it and become more curious about Korea.” Well, ancient astronaut theorists should be all over that, because they don’t seem to understand that people in different parts of the world could ever think about the same things. I agree that Kingdom is deeply Korean, but it’s also a successful genre exercise which appeals to a non-Korean audience. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are obvious points for comparison, but underrated in that department is Breaking Bad. I love the invention and ingenuity of characters in Kingdom, like using kites in season two or the lake of ice at the end. Not only does creative problem-solving make the zombie biology a problem to solve, but it structures the action set pieces with goals and direction.

And believe me, I had no interest in yet another zombie whatever, increasingly disheartened at South Korea’s fixation on the undead. Train to Busan is great, and I liked #Alive, but that’s just about all I can handle. Everyone online was talking about how Kingdom was great, but they also said that about a bunch of shows I watched and didn’t like. So, how can you know? For me, Kingdom makes its zombies interesting, despite the absence of mutant variants, which even The Last of Us broke down and provided. It’s something about zombies and swordplay that I found surprisingly appealing. And the running. So much running, with the zombies all gnashing at heels. In addition, and this is very significant, there just so happened to be a cast member who really caught my attention.

Season two of Kingdom ends with a massive tease, a celebrity cameo comparable to the Front Man’s reveal in Squid Game. Our heroes travel north to investigate the origins of the zombie outbreak and stumble into a creepy mad-scientist lab. We see chains on the ground and zombies in cages and a woman who turns around and it’s Gianna Jun! And then it’s like, boom, tune in next season. This was March 2020, so the production of Kingdom would then be affected by the real-world zombie plague. Instead of a full third season, a feature-length “special episode” was released entitled Kingdom: Ashin of the North, a prequel giving us the background of this zombie mad scientist. Once again juxtaposed with fantasy creatures, Gianna Jun has her triumphant return of the king here, because Ashin of the North is a really good movie. Its complicated political drama gives way to a personal revenge story, where we’re asked not to identify with a villain, but to understand her.

One of the coolest things about Kingdom as a story is the conceit that palace drama is the accelerant for the zombie plague. One politician’s chess move forward has the most dire consequence for the people, rendered in the genre violence of zombies. At the chronological start of the whole story, we reach the endgame of this dynamic. The forces moving against one another ultimately persecute a nobody village and it isn’t so much about karma or cosmic balance but the depth of victimization so needlessly manufactured. You can’t keep pushing and pushing people like this. There will always be a cost. Ashin emerges as a product of this world, and the catharsis of her story comes when she harnesses the violence herself, but the problem of the violence is yet to be solved. Her first act with newfound power is to decimate a village of people, some of whom took sexual advantage of her, but all of whom run around confused and panicked. It’s the same horror we’ve been experiencing throughout the first two seasons, with the dawning realizations and the pratfalls, for lack of a better term. And all the while, Ashin is on the roof, tagging people with arrows and scanning the chaos for her next victim with deadly, soulless eyes.

In a departure from her experience on Blood: The Last Vampire, the action scenes of Ashin of the North didn’t require any more physical ability than Gianna Jun already brings to the table as someone who likes to stay fit. She did learn archery for the role, but describes the overall process as “not that difficult,” which probably helped her focus on the character. From child to adult, Ashin develops into a hardcore badass who is at once sadistic and calculating. In two sequential instances, she appears to be torturing people until we see the utility. In the first case, one of the guards is clawing onto the roof she’s been sniping from and begs for help. She aims an arrow and spikes it through his hand, pinning him. So he’s hanging and screaming in agony, which draws the zombies to make their little zombie pyramid. Ashin splashes the mass of bodies with a jug of something and then shoots a flaming arrow, lighting the entire horde on fire. In the second instance, we discover that she’s got somebody strung up like the Shogun’s Joy of Torture, and it’s revealed that he’s her undead village’s next meal, limbs removed like her father. So I guess what I’m describing is “best of both worlds,” like sadism and purpose – can’t it be both?

While I never learned why Gianna Jun was chosen for Blood: The Last Vampire, her casting in Kingdom is a phenomenal story. As she tells it, “I was a huge fan of Kingdom and writer Kim Eun-hee. I met her at a private event and told her that I was such a fan that I’d love to appear as a zombie or in a small role. She gave me such a big role instead that it’s an honor. I didn’t hesitate when I got the offer because of Kim Eun-hee.” It’s a bit of a bromance, because for the writer’s part, Kim said, “Gianna Jun has incredibly wide range as an actor—she was bubbly and lively in My Sassy Girl, but in Assassination she also proved that she can bring to life a very strong character with a lot of depth. She also has very good physical skills to pull off action scenes. I thought she was the best actor for Ashin, who carries a lot of pain in her heart, and so I envisioned Gianna Jun playing Ashin from the time when I was working on the screenplay.”

Both Blood: The Last Vampire and Kingdom: Ashin of the North draw Gianna Jun at a remove. Alice McKee is the typical girl character who’s usually offset by a male hero constantly keeping her safe, where at one point Saya even hides her under a giant basket. Alice becomes our POV character until the film switches gears in its unfortunate third act. That sort of distance is built into Ashin of the North, and it becomes the central question: how much do we ultimately empathize with the person responsible for all the death and destruction we’ve watched our heroes suffer? Speaking again to our alien astronaut theorists, it’s just funny how both creative teams approach a Gianna Jun performance. The camera’s instinct for worship remains after so many years, but of course the results differ.

With Blood, Gianna Jun debuted to a global audience in a role that wasn’t written for her like Ashin was, that didn’t showcase her strengths. She spoke a second language and did action for the first time in a painful, inorganic way. And without a doubt, she makes the most of it, but this is not the Jun Ji-hyun that Koreans fell in love with eight years prior. She was unspecifically an Asian woman — or girl, even — as presented by a blend of Asian filmmakers, when America wasn’t quite ready or willing to understand the difference. And all around her we had vampires with superpowers, or demons, in a discrete setting with no meaning. How is she supposed to be anything when she’s surrounded by nothing? Sure, she kills a lot of bad guys, but that’s image and sound without the right ingredients.

To be honest, I would’ve loved to have spent more time learning about Ashin’s victims in that final sequence, but there was an undeniable gravity to that violence. It was horrific and cathartic and wild. So Ashin of the North provides a more traditional showcase for an actor, but it’s also about the package. The audience was ready because Kingdom landed with people. On top of riding the hallyu wave and with a powerhouse distribution pipeline, it told a compelling story and did so really well. Powerful themes, appeals to emotion, these are what make stars, and Park So-dam and Jung Ho-yeon can attest to that. In the end, I’m actually optimistic, because we see people like Don Lee as an actor first, not as commodity. With Jung Ho-yeon, it isn’t “How will this exotic flower such and such for me,” but rather “How will she break my heart with her next performance?” I just wish that back in the day, the same was said for Gianna. It’s a blameless situation, and we got there eventually, but I’ll always think about what could’ve been if we’d gotten there sooner.

Research

Jun Ji-hyun Shines but Blood Disappoints
Jun Ji Hyun Talks About Filming Action Scenes For “Kingdom: Ashin Of The North” + Why She Chose To Appear In The Series
Kim Eun-Hee Shares Her Reasons For Adding Ashin To ‘Kingdom’ Storyline
‘Kingdom’ Creator Admits To Unexpected Global Success Of K-Drama, Teases Worldwide Scale Production In Next Seasons
Kong, Yu go ‘Last’
Korean star Jun takes the lead in $26m Blood: The Last Vampire
Korean star reborn in ‘Blood’
Korean Stars Make Beeline for Hollywood
Netflix taps Kim Eun-hee to pen Korean zombie series ‘Kingdom’
Ronny Yu and Quint discuss FEARLESS, Jet Li’s retirement and BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE!!
South Korean Actress Bites ‘Vampire’ Remake
William Kong (I)

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2 thoughts on “Gianna Jun | The Last Vampire vs. Ashin of the North

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