Why Korean epic ‘Pachinko’, starring Lee Min-ho and Kim Min-ha, is timely

Lee Min-ho at Pachinko’s global première in Los Angeles

Lee Min-ho at Pachinko’s global première in Los Angeles | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It’s not every day that you get to meet, albeit over Zoom, a multi-hyphenated superstar like Lee Min-ho. His myriad K-drama roles, from Gu Jun-pyo in Boys Over Flowers to Lee Gon in The King: Eternal Monarch, run through my mind as I say annyeonghaseyo to the actor. He is in Los Angeles for the première of Pachinko, the much-awaited Apple TV+ adaptation of Korean-American author Min Jin Lee’s evocative bestseller that premières March 25.

WATCH the video Lee Min-Ho posted recently, on playing Hansu

Excitement and anticipation always follow the announcement of any project starring Lee Min-ho, but this time the stakes are high. Not only did he audition for the role — the first time in 13 years because ‘he really wanted the part’ — but he also shed his romantic hero image to play Koh Hansu, a charming yet ruthless yakuza (member of a crime syndicate). Though his character is not central to the narrative, which charts the arduous journey of a woman named Sunja, played brilliantly by Kim Min-ha (as young Sunja) and Oscar-winning actor Youn Yuh-jung, Lee Min-ho admits that he chose the story for its complex characters and the challenging period it explores. “Rather than breaking away from my image, I would say it’s my thirst as an actor to play new characters and tell stories that matter that drew me to this role. Hansu is a heartbreaking character, a man shaped by his times,” he says.

Lee Min-ho and Kim Min-ha in Pachinko

Lee Min-ho and Kim Min-ha in Pachinko

What the creator says

The ambitious screen adaptation by writer-producer Soo Hugh — known for tautly capturing stories and characters ( The Terror, The Whispers) — is directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, who play off each other’s diverse styles. And though the eight-part, multi-generational series — which follows a Korean immigrant family as they navigate through the loss of national and cultural identity — takes creative liberties with the novel and its linear structure, it also intricately stitches the threads of Sunja’s story across two parallel narratives 80 years apart.

Watch | Lee Min-ho on his role in ‘Pachinko’

“Six years ago, I think this show could never have been made,” says Soo Hugh. “It is a testament to the streamers [and the global environment they work in] and a testament to the audience, who are craving new stories and experiences from people we haven’t heard from before.”

Jin Ha rocks a hanbok at the première

Jin Ha rocks a hanbok at the première | Photo Credit: Reuters

Jin Ha’s personal (and fashion) journey

The supporting cast hold their own, especially Jin Ha, who plays Sunja’s grandson Solomon. No stranger to shifting contexts, the Korean American actor and activist, who has acted in productions like Hamilton and M Butterfly, drew from his own family’s history as immigrants and his contemplation of racial and cultural identities for the role. “This is the first time I have played a character who is close to who I am and what my family experienced,” says the actor, who attended the LA première in a lilac-and-pink hanbok, the traditional Korean garment. (What grabbed attention was that he opted to wear a chima — a skirt worn by women, as opposed to the paji worn by men — as a nod to his Korean pride and his gender-fluid fashion sensibilities.)

On our Zoom call, he kept it simple in a grey sweater with appliquéd flowers and lilac metallic nail polish, as he explained how he got into character. “For me to inhabit Solomon, communication was key. There is a slight Japanese accent in his Korean, so I had to think of how I used my words, the music [cadence] in my voice. The behaviour of a person is gauged by how they speak and there were an infinite number of threads I could follow,” he says.

Kim Min-has as Sunja

Kim Min-has as Sunja

Pitching before ‘Parasite’ and ‘Squid Game’

Stories of the plight of the Zainichi (ethnic Koreans who are residents of Japan) have not been explored in western narratives previously, and Pachinko’s cast feel the series is a step in the right direction. “The more content the better; the more of our ‘humanity’ we can show as Asian Americans and Asian people the better,” says Jin Ha, explaining that “we have always had to fight for our worth to be human in storytelling. And a production like this, with stories predominantly about East Asian people, is very exciting”.

Watch | In conversation with Soo Hugh, Jin Ha and Anna Sawai of ‘Pachinko’

Pachinko joins an ensemble of stories of Asian-focussed content in Hollywood, from Parasite and Minari to Squid Games. “When we sold this show, Parasite and Squid Game hadn’t come out yet. I love those shows so much that I am happy we get to ride on their coat tails,” says Soo Hugh, adding that the only burden she foresees for Pachinko “is whether or not a show that is multi-language will work”.

Pachinko will première on Apple TV+ on March 25 and will run through April.

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Printable version | May 19, 2022 12:15:16 pm |