How family and place play out across generations in ‘Pachinko’

Turning Min Jin Lee’s expansive historical novel “Pachinko” into an eight-hour Apple TV+ series was a daunting proposition. Lead creatives Soo Hugh, Justin Chon, and Kogonada could only do so by making it their own.

The saga of a Korean family – oppressed by Imperial Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, dismembered when the tale’s matriarch Sunja moved to Osaka in the 1930s, and reassessed when her grandson educated in the United States , Solomon, returns to Japan in 1989 – was restructured by showrunner Hugh as a more personal reflection of his own Korean American experience.

“‘Pachinko’ reminds me of my parents and grandparents,” Hugh (“The Terror”) told The Envelope. “Growing up, I had so little of that kind of connection to what I read. It was like I suddenly saw my soul come to life.

“But it took me a while to figure out how to do it,” she says of the book adaptation. “You can tell the story in a linear way like the novel does, and it would have been a great show. But I would have missed saying something about my life, about intergenerational dialogue. When I understood that, I felt like we were doing something that was in the moment.

The series moves through time and space in an emotionally thoughtful way. Although its cast is extensive, the series focuses on the journeys of several key characters. Newcomer Minha Kim plays young heroine Sunja and South Korea’s national treasure and Oscar-winning “Minari” Yuh-Jung Youn plays her in her 70s; Korean American Jin Ha is Solomon; and Hallyu superstar Lee Minho is Hansu, a Japanese-born Korean who has a profound effect on Sunja’s life.

Chon (“Gook”, “Blue Bayou”), like Kogonada, a famous Korean American independent filmmaker, also liked Lee’s book but considered it too heavy for a television adaptation. When he read Hugh’s pilot script, however, the Orange County-raised actor-director knew she had cracked the code.

“The biggest problem is that they didn’t make it linear,” Chon says. “They had different timelines, so you’re traveling parallel from the 1980s to the early 1900s. It lets us know and see that whatever teenager Sunja does is going to carry over into the present of the show. That really helped, and also reinforced Solomon’s role in the series. Sunja’s grandson represents how the choices you make will have consequences or benefits for future generations. The call and response to this are convincing.

The same goes for how Chon and Kogonada put together the show. The production spent four months in various locations in South Korea, some of which doubled for 1920s Yokohama and 1980s Tokyo (filming plans in Japan were curtailed by COVID). Then another four months in Vancouver, mainly for the interiors. With their two units filming simultaneously, sharing casts and sets, and blocking out scenes from filming different episodes most of the time, the writers still managed to bring their distinctive styles and obsessions to the screen. Kogonada directed episodes 1-3 and 7, Chon 4-6 and 8.

“The first three episodes really need to establish a sense of place because so much of this series is about moving,” says Kogonada, whose “Columbus” films explored Indiana’s unique city architecture and ” After Yang” examined what makes a home. “You have to feel where Sunja is from and where she belongs, no matter how hard it was. When you get to Episode 4, where she finds herself in a new world, things get more dramatic. Justin’s movies have always been about moving, they really excel in the emotion of that.

Chon agrees.

“Kogonada is very disciplined, his frameworks are very defined and thoughtful and give you space to reflect and do some introspection,” observes Chon. “I just like to blow people up. I’m a bit more bombastic, I like a lot of movement. I like things to feel high impact, high energy. And I really like being in the spirit characters, lots of close-ups and stuff.

Kogonada pays homage to a hero, director Kenji Mizoguchi, with long tracking shots and a sensitivity to female endurance throughout – and in Episode 7’s recreation of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, applies what he calls the Japanese master’s “haunted camera,” the majestic, almost funereal tracking shots used in ghost stories like “Ugetsu.” Amid the physical and cultural chaos, Chon repeatedly locates touching family interactions in spaces like the cramped bedroom of a newly married migrant couple or the hospital ward of an AIDS victim.

“They’re just phenomenal filmmakers,” says Hugh. “The ambition was that if you take a picture of ‘Pachinko,’ it won’t be like any other show. We want to make it look like only we could have done it at that time and place. Justin and Kogonada really embraced that thought, and they also have a personal connection to the story, which is very important.

“Much of the credit goes to Soo and the producers for casting Justin and me,” Kogonada says. “We’re both true independent filmmakers, and there are plenty of seasoned TV directors out there who would have the experience for a project like this. But I think they were looking for distinct voices and looking to do something that didn’t feel like television.

Endowed with resources far beyond what they had ever had in their films, the directors valued one thing above all else.

“To be honest, I really didn’t get any notes during the whole shoot,” Chon says, still awestruck. “They just let me do my thing.”

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