In 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 across generations and across borders, she feared she had no chance of catching Hollywood’s attention. “I thought it was impossible,” she says. “It was before-Crazy Rich Asians, pre-Parasite, pre-Squid game. We had never seen anything like it in series form.
Five years later, on March 25, the first season of Pachinko— for which Kang-Lowe serves as executive producer — will come to Apple TV+ in a very different landscape. TV shows from around the world including South Korea squid game, the whole of Paris Lupine, and the Mexican-American drama Narcos: Mexico, found rabid audiences on Netflix. These shows have proven that contrary to decades of conventional Hollywood wisdom, viewers are ready to read the subtitles and eager to consume global stories centered on people of color.
While Pachinko might ride this bigger wave of global representation to success, the series still poses a precarious risk to Apple TV+ and its filmmakers: it’s a big-budget, trilingual period piece that hopes to attract an audience without super -heroes, sex or dramatic action sequences. PachinkoThe ability to find viewers could have a ripple effect on whether similar concepts will be greenlit for years to come. “Right now, stories about diverse people are largely relegated to a certain level of budget,” says Kang-Lowe. “Pachinko is a first, and we don’t want it to be the only one.
Bringing Korean History to Hollywood
Pachinko is the second novel by Lee, who is Korean American and decades ago became fascinated by the struggles of Korean immigrants in 20th century Japan. She has woven the story of a family over four generations, through the Japanese colonization of Korea, the impact of the atomic bombs on Japan and the westernization of Japanese life. The main character is Sunja, who was born in the early 1900s and stoically absorbs the pain of everyone around her as she perseveres through one crisis after another.
The novel, a 2017 National Book Award finalist, struck a chord, especially with many Asians and Asian Americans who saw echoes of their own family histories in Lee’s work. One of those readers was writer and showrunner Soo Hugh. (Under the Dome, The Terror), who received Kang-Lowe’s book in hopes that she might want to direct the adaptation. When Hugh was reading pachinko, she was knocked down. “It was such a shock: it was my mother and my grandmother,” she says. “It was so visceral, this feeling of: finally someone had the courage to put these people’s stories to work.”
But Hugh was “terrified” to lead such an important and had to be convinced by Kang-Lowe that she was the right person for the job. “I said to him, ‘If you don’t accept this, it will take another Asian American writer seven to 10 years to climb the ladder and get to where you are as a very high profile showrunner. “, Kang said. -Lowe recalls. “And we have to tell the story now.”
Many factors worked against Kang-Lowe and Hugh when they started buying into the concept of streaming services. Not only did the series need to have an all-Asian cast, but it also needed to be told in three languages: Korean, Japanese, and English, as its characters migrated around the world. Asian stories told by Hollywood, excluding war stories like Letters from Iwo Jima Where The last Samourai, were few and far between. And the Pachinko the team required a huge budget, comparable to that of The crown Where Succession, in order to convey the epic scope of the book. Kang-Lowe says that while many streamers were initially interested in the concept, particularly drawn to the appeal of wooing Asian audiences, they balked at the price. They told him, “We wouldn’t do that for this show.”
Kang-Lowe says Apple and Netflix finally came up with this 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 national programming director. Apple was trying to position itself as a home for international series and prestige fare with shows like Dr Brain, and Pachinko hit both targets. Having an executive like Lee was “everything,” says Hugh. “She also comes from an immigrant background and knows these characters inside out.”
Adapt a masterpiece
After getting the green light for the project, adapting the 500-page novel was another challenge. For one, the writer was initially involved, but left the project for unspecified reasons. (“Although I did not write or create the series, I wish them luck,” Lee wrote in an email.)
And while the book unfolds chronologically at a methodical pace similar to that of the film Childhood, Hugh felt the adaptation needed to be rearranged and placed in two timelines, one starting in the 1910s and the other starting in the 80s. “The greatest thing about film and TV is playing over time,” she said. “All of a sudden, when we moved things around, the show became a thesis statement about, How do you have a conversation with the past? How, from the perspective of the past, leave something indelible for the future ?
The restructuring led to the elevation of the character of Sunja’s grandson, Solomon, an ambitious young banker determined to prove himself in his American business, even if it meant betraying his roots. Hugh hopes Solomon will resonate with a younger generation. “I connect very strongly to Solomon and the feelings of immense gratitude and burden of what your parents and grandparents sacrificed for you,” she says.
The cast of the series includes a mix of newcomers and superstars. Minha Kim, who made her TV debut as a teenage Sunja, stars alongside Lee Min-ho, who is one of South Korea’s top idols. Hugh says she received no pressure from Apple to cast big-name Korean stars, and that even Lee, who hadn’t had to audition for a role in 13 years due to his mega fame in his country , had to try out for the role of Hansu. “This difficult next step in my career in an unfamiliar work environment has made my heart a little pound,” he wrote in an email. “I’m so grateful that we live in a time where this diversity and globalization is accepted.”
For actor Soji Arai, who plays Sunja’s son, Mozasu, Pachinko offered a rare opportunity to showcase his own Zainichi (the term for ethnic Koreans living in Japan) heritage. Arai’s grandparents immigrated to Japan at the same time as Sunja, and her parents were anti-discrimination activists. Arai says it’s still very rare for Japanese stories to feature Zainichi characters or for Zainichi celebrities to proudly present their ethnicity, which makes this role all the more special. “I’m so happy, because now people all over the world will know who the Zainichi are, maybe for the first time in history,” he says.
Arai and the rest of the cast are waiting to hear if they will reprise their roles. While Hugh wrote the series for the last four seasons, the series has yet to be picked up by Apple beyond its first eight episodes. These days, it’s not uncommon for ambitious shows to be canceled prematurely: HBO’s fantasy epic Lovecraft Country, for example, was removed after just one season. Kang-Lowe acknowledges there’s more to roll on Pachinko‘s successes than his curriculum vitae. “Any project of this size and scale has to perform better because of the financial investment,” she says. “I really hope people watch and streamers notice and say, Oh look, we could do a big epic with more people of color stories.”
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