Why Apple bet big on “Pachinko” - and Korea

Posted on : 2022-04-25 17:55 KST Modified on : 2022-04-25 17:57 KST
Unraveling the riddle at the heart of Apple TV+’s decision to forfeit the Japanese market in service of a historically accurate drama
Still from the Apple TV+ series “Pachinko” (courtesy of Apple TV+)
Still from the Apple TV+ series “Pachinko” (courtesy of Apple TV+)

Viewers who have seen the Apple TV+ original series “Pachinko” and viewers who haven’t are differentiated by the following: the former are iPhone users while the latter are not. Just like Apple’s software such as the App Store and iTunes, which can only be accessed by users of Apple products, in Korea, the company’s streaming service can only be subscribed by those who own Apple hardware. In other words, non-Apple users can only access Apple TV+’s content through convoluted means.

Due to the physical hurdle to access purposely imposed by Apple, it’s hard to estimate the success of “Pachinko.” It’s unclear whether the series has become a hit, even. But regardless of the physical and psychological obstacles to viewing “Pachinko” — including Apple TV+’s exclusive membership rules, the unknowability of the show’s success, and the unfamiliarity of multilingual content — you won’t help but wonder after watching it: what on earth is happening? A giant transnational corporation giving up the Japanese market to gamble on an epic historical drama?

Essentially, Apple bet 100 billion won on the mega project that tackles the history of Joseon during its colonial era head-on.

Still from the Apple TV+ series “Pachinko” featuring Youn Yuh-jung (courtesy of Apple TV+)
Still from the Apple TV+ series “Pachinko” featuring Youn Yuh-jung (courtesy of Apple TV+)
Two time periods stitched together with incredible editing

The time is 1989, when projections that Japan, the “Land of the Rising Sun,” will outrun the US, “the richest country in the world,” hang in the air. Solomon (Jin Ha), an investment banker in New York, returns to his hometown. Mozasu (Park So-hee), Solomon’s father and the owner of a massive pachinko parlor in Osaka, and Sunja (Youn Yuh-jung), who gave birth to and raised Mozasu in Japan, are Korean Japanese with roots in Korea.

Solomon is also called a “Zainichi” and spends his adolescent years being treated as a marginal person. Though Solomon still speaks Korean, having learned it from his grandmother, Sunja doesn’t recognize her grandson after his long stay in the US. Meanwhile, Solomon is unable to find his way with his company’s project due to his unclear identity — neither Korean, Japanese, nor American.

Sunja recalls her life in Yeongdo, her parents’ hometown, and her life after immigrating to Japan together with her missionary husband, summoning her memories spanning four generations. Then, the show moves on to a seaside village in Busan in colonial era Joseon in 1919, where young Sunja (Kim Min-ha) meets her first love, Han-su (Lee Min-ho), and her life starts to rock with the waves.

“Pachinko” switches back and forth between two timelines (the 1910s and the 1980s) and three cities (Busan, Osaka and Tokyo), a truly magical feat of editing. This is because Soo Hugh, who wrote the script for the show, significantly changed the narrative’s storytelling method while adapting the original novel “Pachinko” for TV.

Hugh without a doubt referred to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part II” (1974) dividing the novel’s chronicle that covers Sunja’s parents (first generation), Sunja (second generation), Noa and Mozasu (third generation), and Solomon (fourth generation) into a “past” and a “present.” Viewers who were born after Coppola’s masterpiece would be reminded of “Cloud Atlas” (2012) by the Wachowski sisters and Tom Tykwer when watching “Pachinko,” as the show demonstrates how the choices young Sunja makes in the past pass through the prisms of coincidence and fate to change grandmother Sunja’s present day and restructure the history of her home country in a microscopic sense.

In the first episode, “Pachinko” brings up the question of whether Sunja has imagined how her life would have turned out if she had made different choices, prompting her to look back on all the choices she has made in her life — from rejecting Hansu’s offer of the world, immigrating to Japan after marrying Isak, to sending off her grandson Solomon to America.

Her recollections culminate in episode six, when Sunja says that everything was her choice even though it was a long time ago, stipulating and confirming Sunja’s life as a proud and dignified one without an ounce of shame.

Even more political than the original text

The positive responses to “Pachinko” center on the show’s historical accuracy. The response is almost instinctive to Korean viewers especially. In order to thoroughly reproduce Joseon during the Japanese colonial era and assure the show’s historical consistency and ethical direction, team “Pachinko” revealed that it hired over 20 researchers of Korean history, Japanese history, and imperialism as consultants.

Starting with Solomon’s shocking decision that emerges like an explosion in episode four, “Pachinko” turns the dial up on the politics already present in the novel. In the following episode, the show brings up the “comfort women” issue of the Japanese military in a roundabout way by having Bokhee (Kim Young-ok) mention that a man offered to introduce her to a job opportunity at a factory in Manchuria.

In episode six, the show departs from the setup of the original novel significantly by showing Isak, Sunja’s husband and a minister, go through a political awakening, hinting that he would head toward a future of resistance against Japanese imperialism. Episode seven, an original storyline that doesn’t exist in the novel, deals with the massacre of Koreans by Japanese during the Great Kanto earthquake, analyzing and explaining the complexity of the main character of Hansu.

Infused with sophisticated politics and history while cautiously yet powerfully pointing out aggressors and prioritizing the mourning of victims, the world of “Pachinko” makes Korean viewers feel as if they are a group of strong, cohesive individuals. This suggests that the show aimed and yearned to win commercial favor in the Korean market as well as help Apple as a company fulfill its ethical role.

This marks the beginning of the Korean strategy for Apple TV+, a latecomer to the streaming industry.

While “Pachinko” may help Apple TV+ win the hearts of Korean viewers, it essentially surrenders the streaming service’s comparative advantage in the Japanese market. Japan is a goldmine for Apple, accounting for around 7% of the company’s total sales. The iPhone controls 45% of Japan’s smartphone market.

Even though Apple TV+ didn’t reach the Japanese and Korean markets until late 2021, some time after it launched its service in North America, the company’s first major target in Asia was not Japan but Korea. Perhaps sensitive to the antipathy of Japanese viewers, Apple opted not to promote “Pachinko” through company channels.

Promotional material for the Apple TV+ series “Pachinko” (courtesy of Apple TV+)
Promotional material for the Apple TV+ series “Pachinko” (courtesy of Apple TV+)
How Asian and Korean influence have expanded over the past decade

Why not Japan? Why Korea?

After hearing that Apple had been preparing “Pachinko” for five years, Apple’s bet seems like an extremely adventurous choice, even a foolhardy one, notwithstanding the company’s critical perspective on films and the media industry as a whole.

In the preface to the Korean edition of his book “Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction,” postcolonial scholar Robert J. C. Young writes, “Critics tend to ignore Korea while concentrating on India, Israel/Palestine and Ireland.”

Young made those comments in 2013. That was one year after a seminar at Savitribai Phule Pune University in 2012 when another international theorist, Gayatri Spivak of India, remarked that the “Asia” in the “Asian Century” much talked of at the time was a being used as a synecdoche for India and China.

While Korea’s colonial history represents an eminently fascinating case study from a postcolonial perspective, Korea has received less attention than any country in Europe or Asia from the fields of business, culture and academia.

Ten years have passed since then. The global assessment has now undergone a massive revision toward viewing Asia in terms of Korea. It’s abundantly clear that Asian creators are gaining prominence for the first time in the history of Hollywood — truly a shocking shift of tectonic proportions — and that Korean cinema has been intimately involved in that shift, has contributed to it, and is wielding massive influence there.

Unlike directors from other countries in East Asia, Korean directors that have achieved success at home in the 21st century have immediately headed for the US.

Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan), Nobuhiro Suwa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hirokazu Koreeda (Japan) have all embarked for Europe (or more precisely, France), while Korean directors Kim Jee-woon, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho have all gone on to Hollywood at the turning point of their careers. By choosing to diverge from the “East Asian tendency” of the film industries of Korea’s neighbors, those directors laid the cornerstone for the Korean wave in Hollywood in the 2020s.

It hardly seems like a coincidence that Apple TV+ put “Dr. Brain” (2021), its first series aimed at the Asian market, in the hands of Kim Jee-woon, while casting Lee Sun-kyun, who played a lead role in “Parasite” (2019).

Korean directors were flocking to Hollywood in 2013, when Netflix and other streaming services were just getting started. That was followed by Netflix’s massive growth and major investment in diverse content, the “Asian August” represented by the huge hit of the film “Crazy Rich Asians” in the US in 2018, and the release of “Parasite” and “Minari” in 2020, “Squid Game” in 2021, and “Pachinko” in 2022.

When you’re sure of a story, there’s no risk involved

In 1970, French semiotician Roland Barthes wrote the following about pachinko in “Empire of Signs,” in which he recorded his travels in Japan:

“Pachinko is a collective and solitary game. The machines are set up in long rows; each player standing in front of his panel plays for himself, without looking at his neighbor, whom he nonetheless brushes with his elbow. You hear only the balls whirring through their channels.”

But the 2022 show “Pachinko” is playing out differently. If we brush someone with our elbow, we end up looking at each other.

US current events magazine Time predicted that “Pachinko” will trigger a chain reaction as the public endorses stories of greater diversity.

The magazine Vanity Fair pointed out that while some people might see Apple TV+’s choice as a gamble, the creators who jumped into the project with confidence in the story itself weren’t taking a risk. For those creators, the choice was an obvious one that would have been odd not to take.

Viewers will respond to good stories and dramas, but producers and investors are also likely to “brush each other’s elbows” while watching “Pachinko.” That has also led to reflection about ethics.

Take a look at the content that Netflix and Disney+ have produced for Asians and for minorities. It’s enough to think that the streaming services have each (in their own ways) taken a more ethical approach to business in the 2020s.

Netflix’s algorithm for recommending media sets the conditions for the next big hit. That algorithm accepts people’s preferences (whether that is designed to perpetuate capital or for some other reason), even when those preferences include feminism or LGBTQ identities. Since entering the Asian market, Disney+ has been producing and broadcasting series that put K-pop stars in center stage.

When those two streamers had reached the realm of postcolonialism — Netflix through its algorithm and Disney+ through the power of stars — Apple TV+ broke all the rules to get there, too. If “Pachinko” proves successful, the “ethical capitalism” of the streaming era will become a new force that will transform the shopworn grammar of popular culture and mass media.

By Nam Ji-woo, pop culture critic

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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