Inside the Making of “Pachinko,” Apple TV+’s Trilingual Epic
Youn 2017, when film and TV agent Theresa Kang-Lowe read Min Jin Lee’s epic novel Pachinko, which tells the story of a poor Korean family through generations and across borders, she feared it didn’t stand a chance of receiving Hollywood’s attention. “I thought it was an impossibility,” she says. “This was pre–Crazy Rich Asians, pre-Parasite, pre–Squid Game We had never seen something like this in series form.”
Five years later, on March 25, the first season of Pachinko—for which Kang-Lowe serves as an executive producer—will arrive on Apple TV+ in a vastly different landscape. Television shows from around the world, including South Korea’s Squid GameParis-set Lupin, The U.S.-Mexico drama Narcos: Mexico,Netflix is a popular streaming platform that has enjoyed fervent audiences. They have proven, contrary to Hollywood’s decades-old wisdom that people are able to understand subtitles and want to see global stories about people of colour.
However Pachinko could ride this larger wave of global representation to success, the show is still a precarious risk for Apple TV+ and its filmmakers: it’s a trilingual, big-budget period piece that hopes to attract audiences without superheroes, sex, or dramatic action sequences. Pachinko’s ability to find viewers could have a ripple effect on whether similar concepts are greenlit for years to come. “Right now, stories about diverse people are largely relegated to a certain budget level,” says Kang-Lowe. “Pachinko is a first, and we don’t want it to be an only.”
Hollywood’s Korean History brought to life
Pachinko is the second novel by Lee, who is Korean American and, several decades ago, became fascinated by the struggles of Korean immigrants in Japan in the 20th century. The story is about a family that lived through four generations. It includes the Japanese colonization in Korea and Japan’s atomic bombs. And finally, it focuses on the Westernization of Japanese culture. Sunja, a main character in this story was born around the turn of the century and endures every crisis with determination.
The novel, a 2017 National Book Award finalist, struck a chord, especially with many Asians and Asian Americans who saw echoes of their own familial histories in Lee’s work. Soo Hugh, a writer and showrunner was one of these readers. (Under The Dome. The Terror).Kang Lowe gifted the book to Hugh in the hope that she would want to be the one who adapts it. Hugh reading Pachinko,She was stunned. “It was such a shock: they were my mother and grandmother,” she says. “It was so visceral, that feeling of: finally someone had the bravery to put these people’s stories to work.”
But Hugh was “terrified” of leading such an important project and Kang-Lowe had to convince her that she was right for the job. “I told her, ‘If you don’t take this on, it’s going to take another seven to 10 years for another Asian American writer to rise through the ranks to get where you are as a really high-level showrunner,’” Kang-Lowe recalls. “And we need to tell the story now.”
Several factors conspired against Kanglowe and Hugh when they started looking at streaming platforms for the idea. As its cast migrated around the globe, it was necessary that the show had an Asian-only cast. Hollywood has told Asian stories, but not war stories. Iwo Jima LettersOder The Last SamuraiThey were rare and few. They were few and far between. PachinkoThe team requested an immense budget that was comparable to the of The CrownOder Succession, in order to convey the book’s epic scope. Kang-Lowe says that while many streamers were initially interested in the concept—especially enticed by the allure of courting Asian audiences—they balked at the price tag. They told her: “We wouldn’t do that for this show.”
Kang Lowe believes that Apple and Netflix offered what the creators were looking for—and the team decided to go with Apple, thanks in large part to the support of executive Michelle Lee, who is now the streamer’s director of domestic programming. Apple was looking to establish itself as a destination for series from around the world and prestige programming with shows such as Dr. Brain,And PachinkoAttained both goals. Having an executive like Lee was “everything,” Hugh says. “She also comes from the immigrant experience and knows these characters inside out.”
A Masterwork to be Adapted
Once the project was given green light, it proved difficult to adapt the 500-page book. One, although the author initially participated in the project, he left it for unknown reasons. (“Although I did not write or create the series, I wish them well,” Lee wrote in an email.)
While the chronological pace of the book follows a pattern similar to that in the film, it unfolds chronologically. Boyhood, Hugh felt the adaptation needed to be re-arranged and placed into dual timelines, one starting in the 1910s and the other starting in the ’80s. “The greatest thing about film and TV is playing with time,” she says. “All of a sudden, when we moved things around, the show became a thesis statement of, How do you have a conversation with the past? How do you, from the past’s point of view, leave something indelible for the future?”
The restructuring led to the character elevation of Sunja’s grandson Solomon, an ambitious young banker determined to prove himself at his American firm, even if it means betraying his roots. Hugh is hopeful that Solomon will resonate with younger generations. “I connect very strongly to Solomon and the feelings of both immense gratitude and burden from what your parents and grandparents sacrificed for you,” she says.
A global cast
The show’s cast features a mix of newcomers and superstars. Minha Kim, making her television debut as teenage Sunja, stars opposite Lee Min-ho, who is one of South Korea’s foremost idols. Hugh says that she didn’t receive any pressure from Apple to cast marquee Korean stars, and that even Lee, who hadn’t had to audition for a role for 13 years because of his megafame in his country, had to try out for the role of Hansu. “This challenging next step in my career in an unfamiliar working environment set my heart aflutter a bit,” he wrote in an email. “I am so thankful that we are living in a time where this diversity and globalization is accepted.”
For the actor Soji Arai, who plays Sunja’s son Mozasu, PachinkoThis was a unique opportunity for Arai to show off his Zainichi heritage (ethnic Koreans who live in Japan). Arai’s grandparents immigrated to Japan at the same time Sunja did, and his parents were activists who fought against discrimination. Arai says it’s still very rare for Japanese stories to feature Zainichi characters or for Zainichi celebrities to proudly showcase their ethnicity, which makes this role all the more special. “I’m so happy, because now people all over the world will know who Zainichi people are, maybe for the first time in history,” he says.
Arai, along with the other cast members are still waiting to hear if their roles will be restored. Hugh created the series for four seasons. Apple has not yet picked it up beyond the first eight episodes. These days, it’s not uncommon for ambitious shows to be canceled prematurely: HBO’s fantasy epic Lovecraft Country,One season was enough to see the club’s demise. Kang-Lowe recognizes that there’s more riding on Pachinko’s success than her résumé. “Any project with this scale and scope needs to perform better because of the financial investment,” she says. “I’m really hoping that people watch and streamers take notice and say, Oh, look, we could do a big epic with other stories about people of color.”
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