Ambitious in scope and storytelling, “Pachinko” seems tailor-made for today’s international streaming wars. It arrives March 25 on Apple TV Plus with a literary pedigree and “Minari” Oscar winner Yuh-jung Youn in a starring role. But a greenlight was far from assured when its producers shopped it around to TV networks four years ago.
At the time, “Crazy Rich Asians” had yet to become a box office hit, and Korean entertainment was not nearly as popular on a global scale as it is now. And producers were determined to secure a premium budget akin to that of “The Crown” or “Succession” to tell the trilingual story, which interweaves timelines in Korea, Japan and the U.S.
“In retrospect, I think we were insane,” jokes executive producer Michael Ellenberg, an HBO vet and founder of Media Res, the production company behind the show. More seriously, he notes that pre-“Parasite,” it was already clear “the Korean wave was already happening” in film, music and TV.
Theresa Kang-Lowe, WME agent-turned-executive producer of “Pachinko,” played TV matchmaker for the adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s 2017 bestseller of the same name, which spans 100 years and tackles issues of immigration and tough wartime occupation. She found a receptive audience in her showrunner client Soo Hugh, who came to America from Korea as a child. Kang-Lowe connected Hugh with Ellenberg, who, as the child of an immigrant, responded to that element of the story as well.
“So we started this journey together,” says Kang-Lowe, who attended network pitch meetings with Hugh and Ellenberg to ensure there was another Korean American presence in the room. “I definitely felt on the line because I represented both of them and introduced the story to them.”
The key to adapting the book, the trio says, was Hugh’s decision to blend the past and present narratives, juxtaposing the story of grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) with grandmother Sunja as a girl (Yuna Jeon), a pregnant teen (Minha Kim) and an elder (Youn). “I love the book,” says Hugh, “but it took me a beat to figure out how to do it.”
Media Res ultimately received five offers for the project, with Apple winning out. Other major networks were interested, but most were unwilling to pony up the money backers desired to make an epic with a strong female focus.
“As expected, most of the places said, ‘Look, this is a chance we’re going to take; we love the story. But we’re only going to give you X amount of dollars to budget,’” Kang-Lowe says. “‘If we move forward to series, we’re only going to give you a small budget that’s literally too small to produce multiple timelines.’”
Much like her characters, Hugh had to navigate language barriers during a production process upended by COVID disruptions: While she can “speak Korean like a child,” she does not speak Japanese. “I always talk about the immigrant story as partially a horror story, and that’s something that I really wanted to depict in this show,” she says. “Not for the sake of shock, but to really show an audience the visceral experience of what it’s like to move to a country where you don’t know the language, you don’t know the customs, you don’t know the culture.”
With the debut finally approaching, creators can barely believe “Pachinko” got produced — and hope it will pave the way for more shows of this scope.
“Six, seven years ago, a show like this could never have been made,” Hugh says. “When I was starting my career, just even the notion of doing a show in Korean would have been like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Streamers didn’t exist. And this wasn’t even that long ago.”