This story about Minha Kim first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When Minha Kim was a child, she spent six months in Palm Springs as a foreign exchange student. Six thousand miles away from her parents in Seoul, Korea, she lived with an American family, immersing herself in U.S. culture and the English language. “My mom (sent) me there without asking me,” Kim said with a laugh on a recent Zoom call from her home in the South Korean capital. “It was when I was 9 years old, when my tongue was really flexible so I (could) learn the pronunciations (correctly).”
That she certainly did. Today, the 26-year-old actress speaks fluent, idiomatic English. Still, it was a lonely experience for a shy, movie-obsessed fourth-grader who, as she recalled, “liked to play with her voice,” make “a lot of funny sounds” and recite dialogue from animated Disney films. “I just cried so hard,” Kim said. “I just kept saying, ‘I miss my mom, I miss my home.’”
But her time away from her family opened up her world in a way that served her well on “Pachinko,” Apple TV+’s multi-era prestige drama that’s primarily in Korean and Japanese and debuted in March to rave reviews. Kim stars as Sunja, an impoverished Korean woman in the 1930s who emigrates to Japan with her husband, where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. “That’s why I understand the whole situation Sunja was in in Osaka. I just totally get what Sunja would feel,” the actress said, later adding, as if there were any doubt, “I’m also strong.”
That combination of empathy and fortitude helped Kim deliver a performance that is the definition of a breakout. Over seven episodes, the actress gracefully inhabits Sunja as she transforms from a naive teenager to a woman unbowed by the tragedies life has thrown her way. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, the series follows Sunja as she becomes pregnant from her first sexual encounter (with Hansu, a worldly businessman who refuses to marry her) and weds a kind, sickly pastor whose work takes him to Osaka. There, they live with relatives in a slum with their fellow Korean outcasts.
As in Min Jin Lee’s 2017 best-selling novel, Sunja is the beating heart of the story, the heroine whose path determines the 1989-set timeline. Kim inhabits her fully, capturing pain, sorrow, heartbreak and rare moments of joy often with little more than a facial expression. As the actress succinctly puts it, “Sunja doesn’t talk a lot.”
It’s a big, demanding role, and when you factor in a cast of Asian superstars — including the Oscar-winning “Minari” actress Youn Yuh-jung, who plays elderly Sunja — you can imagine how Kim, a relative newcomer with a shorter list of Korean and TV credits, might have been intimidated. But whatever nerves she felt worked in her favor. “I could totally see that she was nervous and that was part of the charm,” showrunner Soo Hugh said via email. “Sunja isn’t a worldly, cool gal who can walk into a room and draw a crowd. Sunja’s powers are more subtle, more lasting, more sincere. There was something so familiar — so universal — in her auditions that I got chills. I could be looking at my own grandmother.”
Once Kim got the job, she turned to her own grandmother, who lived in pre-WWII, Japanese-occupied Korea. “She knew how people really did suffer at that time,” the actress said. “So I asked her a lot, and she told me a lot about her own stories.” Among them was how commonplace arranged marriage was. “I told her about the love story of Hansu and Sunja and she said she was really jealous of it,” Kim said, smiling. “The last sentence (she said to me) was, she was really proud of me for doing this performance, but also she was so, so, so sad that I had to do this. So that was the one sentence where I just got it: I got the emotions, the suffering.”
The show has now been streaming for two months, and Kim is still getting used to seeing her face in the center of “Pachinko” posters around the world. That the series’ success — Apple has renewed it for a second season — comes during a Korean pop culture boom (think “Parasite,” “Squid Game,” BTS) makes the attention Kim is getting more meaningful. “People are very interested in Asian culture, people are interested in our realities,” she said. “They can finally recognize it. It’s just great to be in this moment. And our show is in the middle of it, so I’m very proud.”
Read more from the Race Begins issue here.