Apple TV+’s newest series, “Pachinko,” takes place over 70 years in Japan, Korea, and America. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, the first season of “Pachinko” follows the life of one family and the woman at the center keeping it all together: Sunja.
Viewers see Sunja at three different stages in her life: as a child, a teenager, and an elderly woman. Oscar-winner Yuh-jung Youn plays the eldest Sunja, while newcomer Minha Kim was tasked with portraying teenage Sunja, whose brush with romance sets her on an unpredictable course. “The novel itself is amazing and contains a lot of beautiful stories,” Kim says. The 2017 novel, written by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee, was not only a huge bestseller, but it was also a finalist for the National Book Award. “All the individual characters have their own histories, they have their own stories. When their whole stories are combined, it becomes one big epic story,” Kim explains.
In the show, Sunja grows up with her parents, helping them run a boarding house in Busan during the Japanese occupation of Korea. When her father passes away, she and her mother (played by Inji Jeong) run the boarding house with the help of two sisters (Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim). Kim says that these were some of the easiest scenes to play. “Especially with my mom, we had a very, very strong connection, and we had very great chemistry. It reminds me of my actual mom when I have to do the performance with Inji and also the sisters in the boarding house,” she explains.
When Sunja moves to Japan, she also forges a strong relationship with her sister-in-law, Kyunghee (Jung Eun-chae). “She’s my only sister in that foreign country so I had to rely on her, and sometimes she relies on me,” Kim says, noting that all the women in the story have a natural-born survival instinct that acts as “spark” to keep them going.
At the boarding house, Sunja cooks for the men who stay there, including making batches of brightly colored kimchi. Sunja’s love of cooking plays an important role throughout the series and is essential to her family’s survival in Japan. Kim says, “Food to Sunja is not just food to eat. It’s more about communication and more about the language and about her heart and contains a lot of emotional things.”
However, Sunja’s life is turned upside down when she meets the secretive Hansu, played by K-drama superstar Lee Minho. The two quickly fall for each other, but being together is complicated. Instead, Sunja ends up marrying Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh), a pastor who stayed at the boarding house and who takes her away to Japan. As a result, Sunja does not return to Korea until she’s an old woman. “It [is] not a normal romance story,” Kim says of the love triangle at the heart of the show. “They [have] a lot of obstacles and [have] to suffer so many things.”
Kim explains that throughout the show, Sunja continues to learn about the nature of love and the responsibility a person has to their family. “Even though it’s about romance and it contains a lot of love stories, I believe it’s also a story of growing up for Sunja,” she says.
According to Kim, Sunja’s main goal is just to make it through the hard situations she finds herself in, even if the men in her life can’t be counted on. She explains, “The one thing that Sunja’s always trying to do is survive in all the situations. All she’s focusing on is to protect her family and to protect herself, and how to identify herself and survive.”
One of the biggest challenges the show faced was making sure all three Sunja actresses — Yuh-jung, Kim, and Yuna, who played Sunja as a child — felt like the same person. “We had very little time to have a conversation with each other, [but] we kind of felt like we all had the same feelings and the connections,” Kim explains.
To Kim, the most important thing about Sunja is her resilience, which leads the family through some of the hardest times in their lives. She hopes that viewers identify with Sunja’s struggles and emotional journey as she tries to endure. “We are doing it together. We are suffering it and living on together,” she says.
The first three episodes of “Pachinko” premiere March 25 on Apple TV+.