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 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 Game, the Paris-set Lupin, and the U.S.-Mexico drama Narcos: Mexico, have found rabid audiences on Netflix. These shows have proved that contrary to decades of conventional Hollywood wisdom, viewers are willing to read subtitles and eager to consume global stories centering people of color.
While 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.”
Bringing Korean History to Hollywood
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. She wove together the story of one family across 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 is born in the early 1900s and stoically absorbs the suffering 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 familial histories in Lee’s work. One of those readers was writer and showrunner Soo Hugh (Under the Dome, The Terror), who was given the book by Kang-Lowe in the hopes that she might want to spearhead the adaptation. When Hugh read Pachinko, she was bowled over. “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 had to be convinced by Kang-Lowe that she was the right person 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.”
There were many factors working against Kang-Lowe and Hugh as they began shopping the concept around to streaming services. Not only did the show 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 across the world. Asian histories told by Hollywood, excluding war stories like Letters From Iwo Jima or The Last Samurai, were few and far between. And the Pachinko team was requesting an enormous budget, on par with that of The Crown or 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 says Apple and Netflix eventually 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 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,” Hugh says. “She also comes from the immigrant experience and knows these characters inside out.”
Adapting a Masterwork
After getting the project greenlit, adapting the 500-page novel was another challenge completely. For one, the author was initially involved, but left the project for unspecified reasons. (“Although I did not write or create the series, I wish them well,” Lee wrote in an email.)
And while the book unfolds chronologically at a methodical pace similar to that of the film 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 hopes that Solomon resonates with a younger generation. “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, 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 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 and the rest of the cast are waiting to learn if they will return to their roles. While Hugh wrote the show to 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 axed after just one season. 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.”