From Korea to Canada, ‘Pachinko’ spans the globe
The ‘Pachinko’ showrunner discusses the show’s visual style, thematic and tonal identity, and finding epic stories in our daily lives.
It was also important for creator and executive producer Soo Hugh to think about what “Pachinko” was more than what it is. The series is a story that spans several generations of Korean immigrants, centering on matriarch Sunja, played in different ways by Yu-na Jeon, Minha Kim, and Youn Yuh-jung at different times. As she talks about in this episode of the Filmmaker’s Toolkit podcast, Hugh could imagine how 99% of the world would create an adaptation of the novel and wanted to look into the 1% difference. Working with directors Kogonada and Justin Chon, Hugh developed a sense of style and tone that eschewed the bright, upbeat and traditionally epic feel of a Masterpiece Theater play and instead sought out ways to tell the story of the framing and composition to the rhythm and pauses in the editing which felt as much in the moment as the emotions of the characters are for them.
Listen to the full episode below or read on for excerpts from our interview. Note that a slightly spoiler conversation on episode 7 occurs from 7:30 p.m. to 9:27 p.m.
Partial transcript below:
Hugh on the visual language of “Pachinko”: I think for me, whenever I write, I write very visually. I look at influences. I watch the music. I’m listening to music. I look at photographs and paintings and that’s not necessarily the case – I separate research. Research is part of the brain and inspiration is part two of the brain. And when trying to think of the visual language of “Pachinko”, I always start with “how 99% of the world would do this movie? Or this show? And, you know, you expect grand vistas, you expect these epic moves. So I thought, okay, that’s how 99% of people would do this show. Let’s look at that 1%. Where is that space to say, “Let’s do something a little different?” I don’t believe in doing something different to do something different. I think it’s just style more than substance, but I think it’s an opportunity, like every time you get the chance to do something new, especially in this time of storytelling, why don’t you challenge and push yourself further?
Hugh on the challenges of adapting “Pachinko”: Much of our work is done from photographic or painting evidence. You know, Western history is well covered in terms of research, but this time period, especially for the Zainichi community, no one thought they were important enough. So we have a lot of history, the history of these people, that is missing. But it makes me way too nervous to make things up. Because then I think you compromise the fidelity of what these people are going through. So putting together through oral testimony, through whatever we can, photographic evidence, what little we can find and create this world: that’s what I was worried about initially, is being the one of the challenges of this show. What I realized, you know, we had an incredible team, Mara who ran our production design had just built this incredible team of Koreans, Japanese, Americans, and Canadians. And they really took on this job with such brilliant skill.
The language component, the translation component, was probably the biggest challenge from translating the script to translating on set to translating subtitles. I think I was totally naive about that. I hadn’t realized what a huge undertaking and art form it was. A [challenge] that is, the original intention is conveyed in the spoken language. Does it have the same cadence? You know, I like to write dialogue with a certain type of cadence, depending on the character. It was something I really struggled to lose. Like I built these lines around this character who speaks with sharp punctuation and then all of a sudden the translation is like, wait, what happened to the sharp punctuation? So you realize that’s not how it works in Japanese, or that’s not how it works in Korean. And you’re just like, ahso how can I bring that sharpness back if it’s not built into the language?
Also, with Korean, at least I understand. So we redid the translations, which means the Korean version was audio recorded for me so I could listen and give notes. With Japanese, it was completely different. I don’t know Japanese and it was a challenge. On this show, in particular, language defines our characters in so many ways, doesn’t it? Because language is the history of colonization. So when a third generation loses its accent or when a third generation loses its language, it’s also the colonization that continues even after, you know, when people leave the countries.
Hugh on the “Pachinko” title sequence: So, I wrote the dance, I wrote the title sequence in the script. And that was because I wanted everyone to know that this show will have a title sequence. You know, we won’t have a title card. I love the title sequences. I think they really set up this cinematic experience and I’ve mourned the death of the title sequence for the last 10, 20 years. And so it’s very important for me to put that in the script. Originally, it was another song. It was a Rolling Stones song, “Out of Time,” which was a fortune. But when we shot the title sequence, we didn’t know what the song was going to be. So what I did [was] each actor has their own different song. It was so much fun, those two days of shooting the title sequence. It was a very run and gun indie style in many ways. We had a skeleton crew. And the actors, you know, they were, they just went with it.
What I’ve always loved about this title scene, from concept to execution to now reception, is that this title sequence is our show’s gift to the audience, who says, “Stay with us.” Trust us. This show isn’t all dark. The show is not only heavy. This exuberance and joy are just as important. And so it’s really important to reset that in every episode. This joy must be part of this life.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available at Apple podcast, Spotify, Coveredand embroiderer. The music used in this podcast is taken from the score “Marina Abramovic: the artist is present”, courtesy of the composer Nathan Halpern.