How Pachinko Showrunner Soo Hugh Adapted the Incredible Saga for the Screen

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Soo Hugh is no stranger to epic, multigenerational tales. Having grown up on a steady diet of such projects as The Godfather, Roots, and War and Remembrance, Hugh has been able to parlay her affinity for sprawling stories into a screenwriting career that has gradually grown in genre and scope: from writer on the CBS sci-fi mystery Under the Dome, to creator of the ABC sci-fi drama The Whispers, to co-showrunner of the first season of the AMC horror anthology The Terror. And now, as the creator, showrunner, writer, and executive producer of the Apple TV+ historical drama Pachinko, the Korean American writer has debuted her most personal project to date.

Based on Min Jin Lee’s New York Times bestselling novel of the same name, Pachinko, which premieres today, chronicles the interwoven journeys of a Korean immigrant family across four generations, three countries, and two continents. A soulful, sweeping story that carries a breathless intimacy, the series centers on Sunja, a headstrong Korean woman, and her family from her birth in the 1910s through the Japanese occupation of Korea and its aftermath in the late 20th century. Directed by Kogonada (Columbus, After Yang) and Justin Chon (Blue Bayou), the beautifully rendered family drama features a star-studded international Asian cast, including Oscar-winning, Minari actress Youn Yuh-Jung as the older version of Sunja, newcomer Minha Kim as the younger version, and Korean heartthrob Lee Minho as Koh Hansu, an enigmatic merchant with ties to organized crime who catches Sunja’s eye.

In a recent Zoom interview from Los Angeles, Hugh speaks with ELLE.com about the biggest challenges of adapting Pachinko for the screen (she is hoping to tell this story across four seasons), the importance of highlighting the nuances and differences between Asian cultures, and the show’s central love triangle involving Sunja, Hansu, and Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh).

You’ve said in past interviews that you initially resisted reading Pachinko, because it would require you to confront your own generational trauma as a Korean American, and you weren’t exactly looking to helm another large-scale project. What changed your mind, and when did you know that you wanted to adapt it for the screen?

We grew up with so many stories about our ancestors and our grandparents and how much they suffered and how hard it was for them, and you just feel so bad for them, and that ache hurts so much [because] you know that they went through that. And the thing I was afraid of confronting is just reading 500 pages of an ache, and then living with that ache in the production of it. But what was so revelatory about reading the book was just how much of a triumph these characters’ lives become. And once I realized we don’t have to just do a story about suffering—we can do a story about characters who persevere—that became much more exciting to me.

There’s one scene in particular where [Sunja’s mother] Yangjin tries to buy rice for Sunja on her wedding day, and I remember reading that scene on an airplane and why it is that scene [in particular that] really just cracked open my emotional cage, I can’t explain why. But I was on this plane and I just started to sob, and this flight attendant came to me and really thought I must have gotten news that someone had died or something, because I was so just emotionally overtaken. That’s when I knew I wanted to do this, but I wasn’t quite sure how.

Let’s talk a little bit about the creative process. Language is obviously a fundamental part of every story, and you were adamant about using Korean, Japanese and English from the beginning. How did you work to ensure your commitment to historical and cultural authenticity with this adaptation?

We really built up an army of historians, consultants, and translators, and what we said was the bedrock of this show has to be built upon accuracy or as much fidelity as possible to the historical truth. One of the fears I had is, even though we are a work of fiction, when you’re depicting actual events that happen, the minute you slide further and further away from reality or what actually happened, I feel the less the audience trusts you. Now, that doesn’t mean there weren’t creative liberties taken. Of course, there were some creative liberties taken. But in order to really bring this world alive and bring our audience into our world, we had to make it feel as authentic as possible. So with language specifically, it was a long process of working with many translators and making sure that it was not only period appropriate, but also that the dialects worked and that the translations worked.

Why was it so important to highlight the nuances of different Asian cultures and to challenge this antiquated notion in the Western world that all Asians are the same?

Yeah, thank you for asking that. It’s funny. When you think about language, people are like, “Oh, I can’t tell the Asian languages apart.” And what I say is, “That’s on you. You didn’t try. You’re not listening. Why can you tell French apart from Spanish?” It’s because there’s more of an effort there. Japanese and Korean sound completely different from one another. There’s some similarities because of the kanji, right? There’s a relationship, but they sound very different. Even the cadence of Japanese and Korean are different from one another. And so it was very important in our show that as Solomon (Jin Ha) switches languages within sentences and between characters that it’s built into syntax, it’s built into performance, because what he’s doing is code-switching, and that is a crucial part of his character.

Pachinko

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The events in the original novel were told chronologically, but you opted to use a non-linear narrative structure in your adaptation. Why did you want to tell this story across multiple timelines at the same time?

The book is beautifully told, but for me, I find adaptations to be creatively challenging and rewarding. I have to be able to explore things I’m interested in as well. When you take a novel and bring it to the cinematic screen, a negotiation always takes place. So if you told it chronologically, then this really is a story of one woman: Sunja. It’s a coming of age, and it would have worked beautifully, it would have been powerful. I was interested in bigger themes, meaning I want to tell the coming-of-age of Sunja, but I also want to tell the coming-of-age of Solomon, because I think that requires more than just one season at the end of our planned series. I think there are parallels between Sunja and Solomon that really just need to be discussed from the very beginning. I thought the ability to cross-cut not just Sunja and Solomon but all of our characters, past and present, into a very fluid dialogue is a bigger conversation.

“I do think it’s the responsibility of storytellers, of painters, of politicians to constantly make sure that the past is kept with us, is taught, but also is discussed.”

Pachinko arrives at a time when there is a significant interest in Korean-language productions, but the pandemic has also reignited anti-Asian racism that has existed for centuries—and that theme is ever present in this show. Was there an added level of responsibility for you and the rest of the creative team, of not wanting to be boxed into a “foreign” category when the themes are so universal?

Absolutely. I think the experience of the diaspora is not unique to Japan, it’s not unique to America, it’s unique to the world over. I find it so disturbing that amnesia can come over a country so quickly as it’s come over America in the last few years, and it’s terrifying. If a country can forget that quickly [about] the past, then we are in dire trouble. So I do think it’s the responsibility of storytellers, of painters, of politicians to constantly make sure that the past is kept with us, is taught, but also is discussed.

Pachinko is entertainment. I have an allergy to that kind of self-importance, but we know that entertainment has become extremely powerful, especially if you look at Korean culture. And so if this show at least helps grease any of those scratchy hard feelings that people have about otherness, then that’s just one more step [forward].

Speaking of authenticity, 95 percent of your cast members are Asian. How did you go about casting this show, and what did Youn Yuh-Jung, Lee Minho and Minha Kim all bring to their respective roles?

So from the very beginning, I really believed the best actors had to be cast for each role, no matter whether they were superstars or not, because these roles are complicated, and these characters change and have to just really do so much with tiny moments. And so it was a long audition process, and they will tell you it was a long audition process. [Laughs.] I think just for principal cast members, it was about six to eight months. I like to add more and more scenes to the audition process, and the reason why is because I need to see these characters come to life. And the thing that we’re also looking for is chemistry between actors, so they read with one another in different combinations, and it’s never to question their acting skills or talents. It’s just to find who is our Sunja, who is our Hansu.

When we found Minha, she came very late, and I was starting to get panicked, I’ll be honest, because we didn’t have [teenage] Sunja, and we searched all over the world. We work with this casting director in Korea, Soo Kim, who is brilliant, and she texts me like, “I’m gonna send you a tape. Watch it.” And I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna be very skeptical.” And I remember watching that first reading and something was there, absolutely.

pachinko

Youn Yuh-Jung

Apple

pachinko

Lee Minho

Robert FalconerApple

Now with Youn Yuh-Jung, I feel bad because I’m using the same word everyone else does, but there just is no other word to describe her [than] she’s a legend. But more important than that, she is so honest in her performance, she cannot lie in a performance. She feels it, and when you look at the muscles on her face move, that’s craftsmanship. She’s doing all that, and it’s just this perfectly well-crafted art form that she has. And when you think about her career, I feel so grateful that she would even want to do a project like this.

And then you have Minho, who is this superstar and crowds follow him wherever he goes, and his humility in first wanting to audition for this role and then working really hard. Hansu could have been the easiest role. He could have been all veneer—there could have been no depth—and it would have worked, but it wouldn’t have been iconic. And what we said from the very beginning is [that] Hansu needs to be iconic, and in order for that to happen, it can’t just be about looks. We have to understand Hansu inside-out.

The opening credits, which features the cast dancing in a pachinko parlor, is so joyful, but I heard it almost didn’t happen. Why did you want to fight to include that in the show, and how did it end up re-entering the picture?

When you look at the shape of this show, we do have a lot of moments of levity and joy, but at [its] heart, it is a show about hardships. And when we cut the title sequence because of schedule difficulties, I just felt this heaviness that we had lost something huge. And it wasn’t until the middle of the Vancouver shoot—we were slowly starting to wrap [up]—that I went to the production team and I said, “We have to figure out how to bring that title sequence back.” And they were like, “When?!” [Laughs.]

I give them so much credit for juggling everything. That was a total run-and-gun production, because we had no crew, because everyone was busy. We didn’t know what music we were gonna use, because the version in the script was a Rolling Stones song that costs a bazillion dollars. So because we didn’t know what song, I just played lots of different songs for the different actors. And I also like that it didn’t feel too choreographed, because what you get is you just get life, and it feels like this burst. That was so much fun to make.

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Let’s talk about the first three episodes. Sunja and Hansu are immediately drawn to each other, but they are two strong-willed people who seem to have different values and different ways of life. What do you think they see in each other in that first scene at the fish market?

When Hansu first sees Sunja, he’s like, “Huh…” and he looks away, and that look away is important, and it isn’t until the [Japanese officers’] whistle blows that he notices she’d never bowed her head [to them], and then all of a sudden, this girl was different to him. And that was a recent change, meaning in the first draft of the script, he just was drawn to her from the very beginning. But the question is, Why? One of the things that makes Sunja [appealing] is she’s not this great beauty, right? What you’re drawn to is that inner fortitude. So I love that moment, and then you have this just parallel walk between the two of them, and we always said it should feel like a dance. I love that scene in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet when they first lock eyes at one another, so that was a huge reference scene for this.

In some ways, you also created a love triangle with Sunja, Hansu, and Isak. Isak offers to marry Sunja to save her from the social embarrassment of being an unwed mother. He even says to Sunja, “I am asking you whether, perhaps, with enough time… you can learn to care for someone else?” They might both be trying to survive, but there seems to be a genuine connection there.

Yeah. I always joke that when we were shooting, our team vacillated between team Hansu and team Isak. We’re trying to create a Twilight love triangle, like with Edward and Jacob. [Laughs.] And I wanted Isak to feel like a formidable worthy foe to Hansu. What I mean by that is I wanted him to be just as strong and powerful, but it’s a different type of power. His power comes very slowly; he’s revealed more and more slowly. And what I love about Isak and Sunja’s relationship is, it’s one that’s forged with genuine respect through time. And at the end of the day, I love leaving this question to the audience: Would you rather have that lightning strike that Sunja and Hansu have, knowing that it’s all gonna fall apart, or would you rather have that one love that deepens and deepens and becomes a soul mate? And it’s a hard question. We’re all torn by that.

pachinko

Jin Ha as Solomon

Robert FalconerApple

In 1989, Solomon, like so many children of immigrants who grew up in the West, seems to be caught between two worlds. What are some of the fundamental struggles that he has to face when he returns to Japan and is confronted with his own family’s history?

He’s actually caught between three worlds! [Smiles.] What makes his character complicated is that it’s not just Korea and Japan—but throw America into the mix. I think, like so many immigrant children, we straddle so many different worlds, and what happens is there’s a compartmentalization that happens—an emotional compartmentalization—where you reveal a part of yourself to different people. And the question that haunts Solomon is, “Who are you? When do we see the real Solomon?” And he doesn’t even know that’s a question of his life yet—he will get there—but it isn’t until he faces that question that you can really truly, I think, become a true person. And I’ve had that conversation with so many friends, [who are] immigrant children, of “Who am I? Am I the person who goes to work in a suit, who speaks English? Or am I that person who comes home, goes to visit my parents, and speaks Korean?” And just that reconciliation of those two worlds.

There’s a sense of kinship among the Korean diaspora, which becomes especially clear when Solomon brings his grandmother Sunja to see Mrs. Han, the woman who refuses to sell her land to Solomon’s company. What do you think that scene says about the heartache of longing for a place that doesn’t exist anymore?

I love that scene. When you’re in a country [where] you’re an outsider, when you’re in a place where you’re on the margins, it’s a lifeline to be able to find people who are like you. And for Sunja in that scene, to be welcomed into Mrs. Han’s home and to be offered rice, she’s being offered her homeland. She hasn’t had that. She’s being offered safety. And what I love especially about the way Youn Yuh-Jung plays it [is] it’s not big at first. It’s very quiet, that scene, and even when she breaks down, it’s not done with fanfare. It’s a quake within; it’s not an earthquake. It’s a tremor, and I thought that was so much more powerful.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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