Why ‘Pachinko’ is not a K-drama

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“Pachinko” is a multi-generational story set across several time periods in Korea, Japan, and the United States. In photo: Actors Minha Kim and Lee Minho. Photo courtesy of APPLE TV+

Apple TV+ released the new series “Pachinko” last weekend to acclaim from critics and regular viewers alike for its treatment of the story adapted from Min Jin Lee’s novel of the same title.

During a discussion on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) narratives, experiences, and histories ahead of the show’s premiere, executive producers Theresa Kang Lowe and Justin Chon spoke about how they see the series as a step for more expansive stories to be told, from all parts of Asia.

The word "representation" was thrown around a lot. Chon, who is also known for his role as Eric Yorkie in “Twilight,” and directing and starring in “Blue Bayou” (which premiered at the Un Certain Regard section of 2021 Cannes Film Festival) also spoke about his experience in front of the camera in Hollywood. “As an actor, the reason I stepped behind the camera was that it was frustrating, what roles we had access to,” he said. “After ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ people said ‘we want more Asians’ but it went the other way. I hope this changes the desire that people have on screen.”

Directed partly by Chon and “After Yang” director Kogonada, “Pachinko” is a multi-generational story set across several time periods in Korea, Japan, and the United States. The book is deliberate and detailed in its approach to generational suffering and sacrifice (particularly on the side of women and our ancestors). The series does the same, but makes a bigger narrative out of Sunja’s grandson Solomon, which gives a sense of how the showrunners want it to appeal to the diaspora the most.

The dialogue in the series is primarily in Korean and Japanese, and though it is top-billed by Korean actors such as K-drama leading man Lee Minho and Oscar winner Youn Yuh-Jung, “Pachinko” is not a K-drama.

Pointing to the recent successes of films and original series made in Korea, Chon and Kang Lowe spoke about how they wanted to make something that shows the sacrifices of different generations of immigrants. And while it’s the type of story that they see strongly resonating with everyone, they want to highlight the struggles that members of the AAPI community have experienced.

“There is a difference between Asian content and Asian-American content that bridges a gap. And ‘Pachinko’ is that,” said Kang Lowe.

Minha Kim as the young Sunja in "Pachinko." Photo courtesy of APPLE TV+

Hallyu star Lee Minho plays Koh Hansu, a Korean with close ties to the yakuza and weaves his way into Sunja’s life. Photo courtesy of APPLE TV+

According to Chon, this goal was encapsulated by an experience he had while preparing to film with Lee Minho, who plays Koh Hansu, a Korean with close ties to the yakuza and weaves his way into Sunja’s life. Known for his work on K-dramas such as “Boys Over Flowers,” and “Legend of the Blue Sea,” Lee is a massive star worldwide and one of the prominent figures credited for leading the Hallyu wave in the Philippines.

As the series is a period piece, one of the production’s North Vancouver sets was constructed to look like an early 1900s fish market in Yeongdo, Korea. Answering a question from CNN Philippines Life about whether he had any surreal moments during filming, Chon described a moment that was an “explosion of everything [they’ve] been waiting for in the representation [side of things].”

“We have Minho Lee walking to the set, and there’s at least 50 people who found out where the set was,” recounted Chon of the actor’s reception in the Canadian city. “And he’s like a Beatle. Everyone’s screaming their asses off while we’re trying to film.”

Recalling how the excited fans came from different backgrounds (“white, Malaysian, everyone — not just Korean”), Chon said that this served as a realization of what he and his colleagues are hoping to achieve with the series, which also had a majority Asian cast and crew.

“[H]ere I was on a set in Vancouver, on a set that’s supposed to look like Korea, and we have this super good looking K-drama star, and we’ve got the fans outside screaming,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is the concoction we were trying to build. This is for real now, and I could see all the powerful elements coming together.’ And I think it just was encapsulated with this really weird experience on the set of that fish market,” he continued.

Academy Award-winner Youn Yuh-Jung plays the older Sunja in the series. Photo courtesy of APPLE TV+

Kang Lowe, meanwhile, spoke about the four year journey of getting the series made. “The pitch by Soo Hugh was so emotional,” she said. “We were pitching to executives who were mostly non-Asian, non-POC. I remember when we were casting the rooms, I looked for Asian-American executives and cast them accordingly, and then POC executives, children of immigrants. People were weeping… it’s because the story is so universal.”

Chon (who also directed the latter eight episodes) added, “in its specificity in Korean and Japanese culture, it’s universal. The humanity of these characters is going to make it relatable to Middle America. A good film or story should feel inclusive because it’s human and I think that’s the most powerful thing you can do as a storyteller. Let the world know that we’re more alike than different.”