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Jin Ha in PachinkoCourtesy of Apple TV+

Pachinko: the stirring new drama schooling the west on Korean history

Apple TV’s new series – an adaptation of the bestselling novel Pachinko – follows the life of a woman growing up in 20th-century, Japan-ruled Korea

Min Jin Lee starts her 2017 novel Pachinko with a haunting, defiant sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.” In Lee’s bestseller, which spans eight decades, the history concerns the Japanese colonisation of Korea from 1910 to 1945; the Koreans who subsequently lost their homes and livelihood; the Zainichi Koreans who suffered in Japan; and the racist reverberations that continued throughout the century. As for the “no matter” part, Lee explained to the Guardian, “those of us who may be women of colour, immigrants, or working-class aren’t often meant to be people who write novels about ideas, but no matter.”

The “no matter” applies to Soo Hugh, the Korean-American showrunner of Apple TV’s new, exquisite adaptation of Pachinko. Like Lee’s book, the first season centres upon a Korean woman, Sunja, depicted onscreen by three actors. In 1915, Sunja’s a seven-year-old girl in Busan; as a young adult, she’s depicted by Minja Kim, effectively the show’s star. Fast-forward to 1989, and the role’s taken over by Yuh-Jung Youn, the Oscar-winning grandmother of Minari.

In the novel, Pachinko unfolds chronologically, but the TV version plays around with time. Whereas Netflix Originals can tend to patronise the viewer or start with haphazardly inserted action sequences, Hugh has crafted a slow-burn drama that requires a few episodes to fully grasp the dynamics. For instance, in episode eight, Kim’s Sunja stares up at the sky; when the camera pans back down, it’s Youn’s Sunja in the same spot, five decades later. “You have to be honest to the DNA of the story,” says Hugh, who wrote on The Terror and The Killing. “I never worry if it’s too slow. I think our audience is smart.”

So Apple didn’t push for a voiceover? “No. The only question we had was how much history we had to explain. You want to give the audience context. At the same time, I didn’t want people to feel like they’re diving into a history book.”

Behind the camera, Pachinko deploys two Korean-American directors, Kogonada and Justin Chon. Kogonada, the filmmaker behind Columbus (truly one of the best movies in recent years), helms the first three episodes with, yes, a touch of Columbus. The blocking is distinct and graceful. The architecture is a character itself. “Those three episodes are before Sunja leaves to Japan,” says Kogonada, sat next to Chon. “I wanted to give a sense of time and place, because after that move, it’s all going to be in her memory. Then there’s real movement in episode four. The parallel worlds start having such a rhythm, because there’s an explosion of different storylines.”

Episodes four to six, as well as the finale, are directed by Chon, who injects a punk energy reminiscent of his grittier, US-based films Blue Bayou (2021) and Gook (2017). “We have such intrinsically different styles, but that’s what’s exciting,” Chon says. “Kogonada’s three episodes lay the foundation. Then if you look at it as a film, episode four is when you break into the second act and give it propulsion.”

As a child, Sunja learns that Koreans risk punishment if they criticise the Japanese; under Japanese rule, they’re dehumanised and treated as second-class citizens. However, an arc involving Sunja’s grandson, Solomon (Jin Ha), in the 1980s, reveals how much racism remains in a Japanese office environment. Zoom out further, there are references to anti-Asian prejudice amongst western countries. In an early episode, Solomon and Naomi (Anna Sawai) speak of the “what Asian are you?” game they endure amongst white people. New Yorkers assume they’re Chinese, then suggest Japanese. “Growing up, I heard that question so many times,” Hugh says. “The difference is, in 2022, Korean might be the number-one guess.”

I cite an article about how anti-Korean hate crimes are on the rise in Japan, adding that I’m just a Londoner with an internet connection. “I don’t consider myself an expert either,” Hugh says. “But the past isn’t over, right? That’s not just true of Japan and Korea. We’re seeing that in Ukraine right now. Because we’ve never made peace with what’s happened before us, we’re repeating the same mistakes. The show hopefully gives one slice into the who, what, where, when, why.”

Further nuance exists in the subtitles: coloured yellow for Korean, blue for Japanese. Conversations frequently combine the two, applying dramatic weight on why, for instance, “apartment” will be the one Japanese word in an otherwise Korean sentence. “Growing up, I would combine English and Korean all the time,” Hugh says. “It becomes this fluid third language. So much of the Zainichi community talk of the following generation becoming more Japanese, and how the percentage of the language changes. The coloured subtitles make it visceral.”

Also visceral is the seventh episode, directed in 4:3 by Kogonada, which follows Hansu amidst the 1923 Kanto earthquake. In the three-week aftermath, thousands of Koreans were mass-murdered by the Japanese. “I wanted it to be distinct and not disrupt the storyline,” Kogonada explains. “We changed the aspect ratio and emotion for Hansu.”

Slick and elusive, Hansu is played by Lee Minho, a megastar with 29 million Instagram followers. But Hansu carries, let’s say, baggage, which means Sunja raises his baby with a pastor, Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh). It’s a love triangle, but Hugh claims to support both men. “I want to make a reversible shirt that says ‘Team Hansu’ and ‘Team Isak’,” she jokes. “There are those attracted to Hansu’s zero-sum-game personality, and others attracted to Isak’s profound desire to see the good in everyone.” Well, is she Team Kogonada or Team Justin Chon? “I can’t answer that! That’s like killing a baby.”

When I ask Kogonada to pick between Hansu and Isak, he tries to avoid the question, then responds, “I’m going to stay neutral.”

“It gives me PTSD from Twilight!” adds Chon, who played Eric Yorkie in four Twilight films. “I’m going to be Switzerland about this, too.”

Kogonada and Chon, both executive producers, are similarly vague about whether they’ll direct further seasons (Kogonada has After Yang out soon, Chon is working on a feature about a rapper). Hugh, who’s mapped out four seasons, is tight-lipped when I ask how many arcs can be mined from the novel, and if Min Jin Lee will write new storylines. (Lee told the New Yorker, “I’m (no longer) an executive producer, and I’m not talking about that right now.”)

Regardless, Pachinko is already a critical hit, and had me – and I’m sure many others – teaching a parent over the phone how to watch Apple TV. “When we sold the show three years ago, it was before Parasite and Squid Game,” Hugh says. “Apple wasn’t chasing marketing. They bought this because of love.” Whether or not it’s that simple, Pachinko is to be treasured. Asians aren’t typically showrunners and lead actors in lavish, large-scale productions like this, but no matter.

“For so long, the west thought their story was the only story,” Hugh says. “It shows the power of the diaspora that we’re saying: no, that’s not the only paradigm. We want our stories as well.”

Pachinko is streaming now