It is no easy task to adapt a book as masterful, evocative, and immersive as Min Jin Lee’s 2017 bestseller Pachinko. The sweeping, expansive tale of family ties, hope, grief, and survival follows four generations of a Korean family through a story that unfolds across seminal moments in history beginning with Japan’s annexation of Korea.
As an Apple TV+ Series, the epic saga directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon is not just backed by a massive scale of production, but a prolific and diverse cast which includes Academy Award winner Yuh-Jung Youn, Minha Kim, Lee Min-Ho, Jin Ha, Anna Sawai, Steve Sanghyun Noh, and Jung Eun-Chae.
When Lee Min Ho and Minha Kim sit down for an interview to discuss their roles in Pachinko, it is evident that the show has had a profound impact on them. They speak in awe of the story, and how they delved into their characters.
Minha plays teenage Sunja, who in 1931, encounters the powerful and enigmatic fish broker Koh Hansu. Their tumultuous, forbidden love story changes the course of Sunja’s life, even as the world around her is slowly crumbling. Hansu and Sunja are characters that are extremely important for both actors; Min-Ho, a superstar of sorts, with a wide fan base across countries, and Minha, a young actress who wowed the makers during her audition.
Only her second professional acting role, Kogonada has dubbed Minha’s performance as a ‘stunning debut,’ and one, that, he says is authentic, intense, and genuine.
“I was aware of the huge scale of the show,” says Minha, when asked about her experience of working on the ambitious project early on in her career. “For me, it was important to remain focussed on the story itself. I was constantly thinking about how I should convey to the audience Sunja’s feelings and emotions,” she says, describing how she kept herself rooted.
News about Min-Ho’s casting as Koh Hansu in 2020, was met with surprise and intrigue. The fact that he had auditioned to play the role, despite his experience, added to the buzz surrounding the series.
One of the biggest stars of the Hallyu wave, Min-Ho has, over the last decade, starred in several successful K-Dramas and films such as The King: Eternal Monarch and City Hunter, after making a mark with his 2009 show Boys Over Flowers (often credited to have paved the way into the world of K-Dramas for several fans world over).
Min-Ho agrees, when told that the role is a definite departure from his body of work so far.
“The character is very different from anything I have ever done before. When I first read the script, I was really drawn to her; I’ve always had this thirst for trying out something new, and this was the perfect opportunity.”
Showrunner Soo Hugh had said that Min-Ho really wanted to understand the character, to represent it, challenge himself, and that most importantly, he cared about it. The actor in turn, credits her for helping him add nuance, and bringing out the intricacies of Hansu on-screen.
“I had several conversations with her. She really helped me immerse myself into the role, and challenged me. I could have gone in for filming thinking about my character ten times, but she would ask me questions, and I had to make sure I’d thought about it 20 times!” he laughs.
For both Minha and Min Ho, it was important to strike a balance between the book and the vision that the writers and directors had for the series.
“I read the novel before I read the script, and I tried to keep a balance to focus equally on both,” says Minha. “To bring Sunja alive, I had a lot of discussions with the directors and writers, and went on to add my own interpretation of the role with their inputs,” says Min Ha, explaining how her focus was on balancing all these elements.
Min-Ho’s approach was to focus more on the script and his imagination to play the enigmatic Hansu. “When I work on projects that have an original (book), I just look at it to get a sense of it… the structure especially. I don’t dive too deep into it. Working on a bestseller like Pachinko loved by so many people, I was afraid that I would get trapped in it and that it would prohibit me from being more creative and flexible as an actor.”
The eight-part series, told in Korean-Japanese-English, is coming at a time when the Korean Hallyu wave is at its peak in several countries, including India. The love for K-Dramas and K-pop among other cultural exports from the country has only been steadily increasing, and for many, has led them to explore the country’s history, literature, and art too. While published in 2017 to much acclaim, Lee’s book too was picked up by several new readers over the last two years.
“I think Pachinko could be a great, lasting show that people will find significant and relevant even years later. I hope it is a title that people revisit as well,” says Min-Ho.
It is the same for him, personally as well. “I know that if I chose to watch Pachinko 10 years later, I will resonate with it,” he concludes.
Pachinko premieres March 25 on Apple TV+