The “strength and determination to survive” drew Minari star Youn Yuh-jung to the role of the matriarch Sunja in Pachinko. The Apple TV+ series, based on Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee’s 2017 English-language novel of the same name, follows four generations of a Korean family. After Japan annexes Korea in 1910, Sunja is forced to move to Japan, where she faces poverty and discrimination.
The English-Japanese-Korean series will be premiered on March 25. The eight-episode first season has been created and written by Soo Hugh and directed by Korean-American filmmakers Kogonada and Justin Chon. Pachinko’s cast includes South Korean heartthrob Lee Min-ho as Hansu, a Yakuza associate who gets involved with Sunja.
“We always had good writers and filmmakers, but perhaps the success of [Parasite director Bong Joon-ho] made everyone pay attention,” Youn Yuh-jung said during a roundtable interview.
Pachinko refers to a Japanese arcade game that signifies the different turns in the lives of the characters. As the story moves into the 1980s, Sunja’s America-educated grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) tries to move up the corporate ladder, while his extended family grapples with the ghosts of the past.
Some of the actors bring to the series their own experiences with immigration. Jin Ha was eight when his family moved to the United States after having lived in South Korea and Hong Kong. Anna Sawai, who plays Solomon’s colleague Naomi, was born in New Zealand and moved to Japan when she was 12.
“The difficulty I faced of trying to fit into this new world and trying to assimilate when there were not many Asian people around me in America, and how I changed myself to fit in is similar to Solomon’s experiences,” Jin Ha observed. “He always has a sense of being an outsider, from starting off as a Korean in Japan and then living in the United States.”
There was an additional incentive to play the part: Jin Ha “got to wear a bunch of suits”.
If Solomon’s family legacy weighs him down, the ambitious Naomi has to doubly prove herself at her workplace.
“What drew me to the character were similar experiences of discrimination against women that I’ve experienced,” Sawai said in response to a question from Scroll.in. “She also comes from the same generation as my mother, so being able to tell that story was important.”
The hardest aspect of playing Naomi for Sawai was that “we never see anyone who understands her”.
Both Solomon and Naomi have to tweak their personalities to fit into an alien society. Jin Ha could relate to Solomon’s “code switching” – changing accents and dialects during conversations as and when needed.
“How well Solomon code-switches to survive was one of the easier ways for me to access parts of Solomon,” Jin Ha said. “He is very good at crafting and honing which sides of his personality to show in a professional or personal setting, having different masks, making sure he fits into different social contexts.”