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TV series 'Pachinko' reveals the lingering weight of colonization, showrunner says

“When you look at the world around us, these are still things we’re grappling with,” Soo Hugh said.
Inji Jeong, Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim in "Pachinko." 
Inji Jeong, Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim in "Pachinko." Juhan Noh / Apple TV+

In an early episode of “Pachinko,” Korean American banker Soloman Baek concludes that Japanese businessman Katsu Abe is testing his loyalty, after an exchange colored by the historical tension between their two countries. 

“The Koreans versus Japanese situation? Why can’t people just get over that?” Baek's white boss, Tom Andrews, asks. “It’s the past. It’s done.”

The question, in reference to the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, is plucked from real life and painfully familiar to many in the diaspora, showrunner Soo Hugh told NBC News. In some ways, its answer sits at the heart of the Apple TV series, based on Min Jin Lee’s novel of the same name, which follows a Korean immigrant family shaped by the occupation.

Through the multigenerational story, which premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, Hugh said she hopes to show how the weight of colonialism is impossible to forget. It carries on, making a heavy imprint on the behaviors, sacrifices and decisions of families for years to come. 

Yuna in "Pachinko."
Yuna in "Pachinko."Juhan Noh / AppleTV+

“When you look at the world around us, these are still things we’re grappling with,” Hugh said. “It’s still happening. And it just makes you realize just how timeless of a tale this is.”

The sprawling eight-episode series, which encompasses 70 years, three languages and multiple cultures, largely revolves around Sunja, the daughter of humble Korean boardinghouse owners. She contends with life, first in Korea under Japanese rule, marked by stringent military control and the attempted eradication of Korean culture and language. Later she immigrates to Japan, experiencing the treatment of a second-class citizen. The conditions present weighty, often dire, decisions for Sunja — depicted by the actors Yuna, Minha Kim and Youn Yuh-jung — shown across three main stages of her life. 

As the series time hops among these stages, Sunja is seen, consistently striving to survive, clinging on to elements of her culture and “just doing the best you can under the given circumstances,” Justin Chon, who directed the series with Kogonada, said. 

“You can see in the worst of situations, the human spirit is so beautifully wanting to survive and live and create life and protection for their family,” Chon said.

Interwoven throughout Sunja’s narrative is her grandson Solomon's story, which takes place decades later in 1989. Solomon, a young bank executive in New York and played by Jin Ha, is desperate to climb the corporate ladder. Having largely grown up in the United States with a financial privilege that Sunja and his family have afforded him but did not have themselves, Solomon often tries to wash himself of his identity to advance his career.

The earlier episodes show his return to Japan in hopes of closing a business deal that he believes will earn him the promotion he deserves. The deal, however, hinges on his ability to convince a Korean elder to give up her longtime home in Tokyo. It’s a task that proves far more difficult when the woman reveals how remaining in that home, as essentially a Korean in exile, is an act of resistance. 

Though Sunja contends with the impact of Japanese occupation in real time, Solomon absorbs the echoes of it in his attempts to gain respect among his American and Japanese colleagues. 

“We talked a lot about, in the writers room, what colonization really means. You have the historical colonization that’s broken up in dates, facts and figures — when one country comes into another country and takes it over,” Hugh said. “But just as equally important to talk about is spiritual colonization, and that lasts longer than when the outsiders leave. And in Solomon’s storyline, he’s dealing with spiritual colonization, but he just doesn’t know that yet.”

While so much of the story is steeped in tragedy, Chon said that it’s also a testament to a woman’s strength, even under oppressive conditions, that allows for the survival of her family.

Hugh added that “every family has a Sunja.” 

“A positive element of that is, you’re seeing a woman have incredible agency and control of how her future unfolds,” Chon said. “She makes a strong choice she takes into her own hands to make a life for her and her children.” 

Making the series was an intensely personal experience for those involved. Hugh, whose parents are immigrants, said she was thrust into self-reflection, examining the ways in which war and colonization have touched her own life. Her parents left Korea, and due to her own upbringing in the U.S., much of her own survival was marked by attempts to feel a sense of belonging. 

The creative process has also altered the relationship Hugh said she has with her family. 

“We make heroes out of people who do great things on the battlefield. We have these stories of superheroes who have powers and save the world. And then you realize, my parents coming over to America not knowing a word of English, not knowing anyone here,” she said. "That is heroic.”