exit interview

Soo Hugh’s Pachinko Confronts the Present With the Past

The Apple TV+ showrunner adapted Min Jin Lee’s sprawling epic with an eye for intimacy.

Pachinko series creator, showrunner, writer, and executive producer Soo Hugh on set with Kogonada, who directed four of the first season’s eight episodes. Photo: Juhan Noh/Courtesy of Apple
Pachinko series creator, showrunner, writer, and executive producer Soo Hugh on set with Kogonada, who directed four of the first season’s eight episodes. Photo: Juhan Noh/Courtesy of Apple

Spoilers follow for the first season of the Apple TV+ series Pachinko.

From its first frame, Pachinko is unabashed in its ambition, scale, and intentions. The Japanese empire’s 1910 annexation and colonization of Korea altered the course of hundreds of thousands of lives and continues to have effects four generations later, but “People endured. Families endured,” reads the text that opens the period drama.

That dichotomy between then and now drives the first season of Pachinko, which through eight episodes travels between 1915 and 1989 and follows the family formed around one Korean woman: Kim Sunja, who in her childhood is portrayed by Yu-na Jeon, in her teens and young adulthood by relative newcomer Minha Kim, and in her 70s by Oscar-winning acting legend Youn Yuh-jung. The tension stemming from statelessness and survival will continue to inspire the three future seasons series creator, showrunner, writer, and executive producer Soo Hugh has planned; a second season was announced by Apple TV+ on April 29, the same day the streaming service aired season-finale episode “Chapter Eight.”

Onscreen, the adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s best-selling novel is a whirlwind of historical detail and emotional authenticity. Through layered scripts, Hugh and her co-writers construct a visual and thematic richness guided by the hands of Kogonada (whom Hugh calls K) and Justin Chon, each of whom directed four episodes. And the story’s multigenerational sprawl showcases exemplary acting across roles small and large, including Lee Dae-ho and Jeong In-ji as Sunja’s father and mother, Jin Ha as Sunja’s grandson Solomon, and Korean megastar Lee Minho as Koh Hansu, the man who first captures Sunja’s heart.

Hugh’s changes to the source material — dividing the story into timelines that jump back and forth in each episode, a contrast to the novel’s linear format, and a standalone installment sketching out Koh’s backstory, which wasn’t provided in the book — evocatively link together to build out complex considerations of family, legacy, and home. Hugh spoke with Vulture about Pachinko’s effort to bear witness to the past and the present, the connections between the series and works like William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Mad Men, and The Godfather, and the American Dream as the series’ “looming ghost.”

You’ve discussed the experience of making Pachinko as building a world that is “extremely subjective.” Coming from a traditional journalism background, we’re told “objectivity” is superior — presenting something in a seemingly even-handed, unbiased way. What do you think was the value in subjectivity for Pachinko?
Whenever you have a story where you want the characters to feel identifiable — meaning iconic — that kind of relationship is built on familiarity. When you see a Sunja, you realize, I may not have lived in Korea in 1931, but I know her because she feels like my grandmother. We wanted to make sure the characters didn’t feel distant from us despite the period. That’s what I mean by subjectivity. We’re constantly within our characters’ points of view without resorting to a traditional point-of-view shot. You really understand their experiences and joys and heartaches.

That connects to splitting up the timelines, which is different from the structure of Min Jin Lee’s novel. Did you have a set approach to finding the shared elements in Sunja and Solomon’s stories where you could move back and forth? 
It evolved as the show went on. The cuts are written in the script; when you build it in the editing room, some of those cuts worked and some felt forced and unnatural.

You get into a rhythm. What was so powerful about this dialogue between past and present was that we’re also comparing and contrasting stakes. When you’re talking about generational stories, the stakes of the third generation are never going to be as great as the stakes of the first generation, and that’s part of the burden. Solomon doesn’t have the life-and-death stakes his grandmother had, and in some ways, it’s what’s debilitated him. As someone from a subsequent generation, I often feel, How does my life compare with those who have come before me and laid that foundation? I do so much for my children to give them the life I never had. But in some ways, am I cursing them? This is a universal conversation for parents.

A lot of the dialogue about the past and present in Pachinko happens over food. I’m thinking of Solomon going to throw out the burnt pajeon and Sunja stopping him, or how Solomon rejects the spread Sunja brings to the hospital where Mari Yamamoto’s Hana is being treated for AIDS. Then there’s the rice served by Hye-jin Park’s Mrs. Han, which Sunja recognizes as grown in Korea but Solomon doesn’t. Can you talk about the use of food throughout the series as a way to reflect how culture changes or stays the same? 
Food is a crucial part of this show because it’s another way of telling the story. Immigrants often talk about how food becomes their one connection because sometimes we lose language. For me, there’s something really telling in that when I’m sick, I crave my mother’s cooking. That is very primal, and in some ways, the palate can’t lie. At the same time, there are certain tastes Solomon doesn’t recognize because of losing that. It’s a way to show that without that expositional line of, “I don’t understand my past.” Food became a really great canvas.

Food is also the way we bring people together. There’s a reason the dinner table is emotionally iconic. It’s where families who are too busy can at least have one meal and reunite spiritually. It’s also what you think of when you think of holidays. The dinner table is representative of connection.

In the process of adaptation, how did you decide on your end point for season one?
The ending of season one was the very first thing I knew. Before anything else was slotted, I knew season one was going to end with Sunja selling kimchi at the market for the first time. I knew I wanted to end with the big liftoff and you still heard her voice. You never lose her voice. Because I knew that, I got to work backward and forward. I don’t know how you end this season with something other than that.

That visual liftoff reminded me of Sunja walking into the water after her father’s death in “Chapter One.” We also lift up and above there, and both scenes explore Sunja’s relationship with these places and how they change her. The documentary-style final minutes of the season finale address these themes, too, with Zainichi Korean women who moved to Japan after colonization and stayed talking about their experiences. What went into filming those interviews? 
Originally, the interviews were going to be the end of all four seasons. That was something I knew pretty early on. In speaking with many historians and actual Zainichi women, they were so inspiring and a crucial part of building this show. Even though this show is a work of fiction, we are building on the backs and stories of people who actually lived these kinds of lives, and to deny them a voice and a face in this show felt like a really sad loss of opportunity. The reason I moved it up to the first season is I started getting really anxious. Who knows if we’re going to get four seasons? Also, they’re at an age where we don’t know how much more time they have with us. They’ve lived these incredible lives. I felt this urgency to bring it up earlier.

I felt really conflicted about bringing these interviews into the first season. I wasn’t sure if we had earned that trust with the audience to do this. I didn’t want it to feel manipulative. There was a lot of back-and-forth questioning on my part, but at the end of the day, I knew I wanted to see them and pay tribute to them.

Before Pachinko, you worked on various genre shows including Under the Dome and The Terror. You’ve described the immigrant experience as one of horror — being in a state of displacement, surrounded by people with whom you can’t communicate. Was there anything you learned from working within genre that you applied to Pachinko
It’s funny, I never actually think I’m working on a genre show. If you approach horror as if you’re doing horror, you’re limiting your narrative toolbox. For me, the best horror or thriller or genre is always the one where your characters don’t know they’re in a horror film. Their reactions feel more authentic and the scares feel more deserved and earned. At the end of the day, I do character studies. I love all the characters I work with and have the privilege of being able to bring to screen, and in a horror movie, what’s at stake is you want your characters to survive. Don’t you want the same thing for this show? The stakes are the same.

I listened to an interview where you said the idea of survival is central to most of the characters in Pachinko and also a concept that drives you as a storyteller. I was interested in what appealed to you about that extreme, but I guess that’s really any story: We want to spend more time with these characters, we want to spend more time in their lives, and that’s a question of survival at its most basic. 
I love what you just said, because it reminded me that I made this show during a pandemic. I’m so curious: If I had not made this during these last four years, or any other time period, would a different energy have come into this show? We are part of a generation that didn’t have to fight in a war, right? We haven’t seen, up close, true devastation. And yet we lived through two years of something that, if you told us years ago this is what we would be in, it would be unthinkable — the loss of that many lives, and how much our lives have been uprooted. The notion of survival became much more visceral to me in a way I don’t know I would have understood if I didn’t do this during COVID.

There are certain words that come up throughout the season that I think will be recognizable to viewers of various cultural, ethnic, and class backgrounds: “sacrifice,” “endurance,” “investment,” and also the past as a “curse.” You’re made by the people who came before you, and you’re also burdened by the people who came before you. How did you find the balance in presenting those two ideologies? 
How do you even talk about a show that crosscuts generations without using those words? It’s impossible. I do this with my children now, find myself talking in that language — a language that would have been unthinkable when I was their age. When I was younger, I would call it “emotional bullying.” I realize now that there is such an anxiety mothers and fathers have that we aren’t preparing our kids for the realities of this world. At the same time, I can’t help but feel this sense of loss for my children: that by making their lives better, I’m also erasing our original identity in some ways.

Some of this goes back to the show’s use of different languages: Korean, Japanese, English. You wrote the scripts in English, and you worked with a team to translate them. As a writer, how are you deciding which line will be said in Korean, in Japanese, in English?
There are many layers. In the script form, I drew on my own experience with language, and which words I speak in Korean and which words I speak in English. It’s vocabulary limitation — there are some words I don’t know in Korean because they’re more complicated. If you watch Solomon, he uses Japanese as more of his mother tongue and switches to Korean for the easier words. That was the very first pass of the script. Then, in working with the translators, they’ll tell me, “Actually, Soo, this is a very hard concept in Japanese. He wouldn’t be able to know this.” “Ah! Let’s switch that around.” The third level is with the actors. All of our actors were so vigilant about their lines. Especially with the Japanese, because I don’t know Japanese, I really did have to trust our wonderful actors to say, “You know what, I think this feels more natural if I switch here.” Jin was completely different because he had to do three languages; the process with him was very unique from the other roles.

But we had such smart, caring, passionate people on this show. Not just our translators, but the layers around the translators: We had script producers, and I want to give so much credit to people like Hansol Jung, who was one of the writers who came to Korea. If I didn’t have someone like her being vigilant about the lines because she was so fluent in Korean, this show would not have been possible. This was an army.

I read that the moment Hansu first sees Sunja in “Chapter One,” when she refuses to bow for the Japanese soldiers in the fish market, was different from the first draft, in which he was automatically pulled to her. Can you talk about how that scene changed? 
The first version was much closer to the book’s version, where he sees her and is interested in her. It would have worked. But if we’re saying this is the end of the episode — and I think this is about how episodes are built — you want to go out with a sense of Wow, this is the show. We finally introduce Hansu, who is played by Korean superstar Lee Minho. Why did Sunja catch his attention? What I loved about Sunja in both the book and our show is she is not the traditional beauty. It is not just about lust: I saw the most beautiful woman in the fish market and that’s why I’m attracted to her. Innately, she’s our heroine. There’s an inner spirit to her that has to emanate from that performance. It was the realization of Ah, no. She has to do something that makes him look back twice. That is the clincher. All of a sudden, it became more explosive between them.

That moment of recognizable fortitude is what draws him back. And having him follow her was inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, right?
[Laughs.] Yes. K and I talked about this. You know how you remember a movie one way, then you watch a scene and you’re like, Huh. That didn’t quite work the way they did it, but I liked the way I thought that scene was? In Romeo + Juliet, I thought they were separate in the entire dance ballroom scene. I thought it was just from his point of view and we never went to her point of view. But when I watched it again, it wasn’t quite that way, but I really liked the way I thought of it first. I loved this idea of being on his side for most of it. It’s the first time we get to see our heroine from another perspective, and she is glorious.

And to continue that comparison, I like thinking of Steve Sanghyun Noh’s Isak, Sunja’s eventual husband, as a Paris figure — someone Sunja originally isn’t attracted to, but we watch them grow together over the course of the season. When you were constructing the script and layering these characters, how did you decide when to reveal certain motivations? I was shocked that Isak was an organizer and an agitator. The clues were there, but I didn’t expect that in the finale. 
With Isak’s character especially, it came from all the research we did, because that character does not turn politically active in the book. In all the readings and research, the 1920s and ’30s were such an important moment in Zainichi history in terms of politics. We went into that rabbit hole, and when you bring a story to a visual medium, it’s really important that we feel we are very much in a certain time and place. Politics were part of the canvas of this time period. That had to feel visceral. Our characters would not have been immune to it. It’s like living through the Trump years and not seeing it at all, especially if you are a minority person — that was so much about feeling like an outsider during those years. To be in this time period and not be affected by the politics of the time felt strange; it felt like an erasure.

In terms of another potential reference scene, similar to Romeo + Juliet, I know that you were inspired by Mad Men and “The Wheel” in your visual pitch for Pachinko. Did Hansu telling Jaejun Park’s Noa to move forward in “Chapter Eight” have any links with Don saying that to Peggy in “The New Girl.”
Oh! I didn’t even make that connection.

I have a fondness for this idea of how moving forward does or does not solve your problems, and I love how in “Chapter Eight,” Hansu is at Noa’s level telling him this. I went back to “The New Girl” and thought I saw some similarities. 
We talk a lot about Mad Men in this show, in the writers’ room and with the directors. Mad Men and Pachinko are miles apart, right? In what universe do they even share the same breath? And yet, what I find so impressive about Mad Men is that it’s a very literary way of storytelling. There was such an assured hand in lines and shots. It has just seeped into my very being. Maybe somehow it seeped into it in that scene as well.

I’d love to talk about “Chapter Seven,” which diverges from the novel and is entirely unique to the series. You did a lot of research into learning about the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, and the episode serves this important character-development function for Hansu. How did you decide he needed a backstory, and why make that the penultimate episode?
If you reveal too much about Hansu too early, he’s going to get too easy of a pass from the audience. He is a very complicated character who is neither hero nor villain, but certainly not admirable in his deeds. If you showed that scene in, say, episode three, after he reveals to Sunja that he’s married, then his behavior is excused in a way I don’t think he deserves. In showing it so late in our season, we get to subvert it and skew it slightly. I want the audience to have to use their brains in conceiving of our characters and interpreting them and judging them.

Now, with 107, why does Hansu even need a backstory? Because I find him so interesting, but I always found him very enigmatic — meaning we could play him that way. He could always be that character that dips in and out of Sunja’s life. But when I saw that character presented visually, I didn’t quite understand why she still cares about him. What is the essence of this person who keeps her so interested? In TV, you get bored of characters if they don’t feel real, and at some point, he started to feel like a trope to me. By being able to fill in the backstory and explain the ABC’s, he’s more of a human being.

I’m also curious about the decision to make Hansu a math tutor for an American family, who consider taking him with them to the United States before they die in the earthquake.
One of the things we always said about our television version is that America is very much this looming ghost. It’s going to become more transparent as the seasons go on, but America had a huge role in 20th-century Japanese and Korean history. I found it so fascinating that the notion of the American Dream flew all the way to Korea and Japan. I wanted to look into why this idea is so powerful, and in putting together Hansu’s backstory, I thought, Ah, even this 20-year-old kid has that American Dream. America’s going to solve all his problems. America’s a place where you go and they throw gold coins at you. And then, of course, we unpack those myths.

This is a show that asks about the life you could have lived if you had gone another way, or if historical forces hadn’t shaped your life. Hansu wonders who he could have been if he had gotten to America. In some ways that what-if question is a cop-out, right? It’s like, Well, you didn’t go to America, so you have to make the best of the life you have. In our show, there are characters who make the best of what they have, and the characters who always wonder what could have been.

You’ve said you don’t want to “fetishize period,” which is really interesting because of course, Pachinko is a period show. I’m wondering if you think nostalgia is dangerous or useful.
Both. Love it if nostalgia was controlled by the audience, though. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a beautiful show. I think sometimes we confuse a period show; if it’s too beautiful, it becomes nostalgia. Cinema should be beautiful in some ways, but nostalgia only works if it elicits a recognition from the audience. That’s what nostalgia is: Ah, this made me think of this in my past. But I don’t want this show to feel like it was working on the crutches of nostalgia.

Right, the feeling of nostalgia needs those follow-up questions: Why are we returning to a certain moment, and why do we feel about it the way that we do? Pachinko follows a tradition of family-focused, generational epics, like The Godfather trilogy and the Roots miniseries, that ask those questions while telling stories about people going to new places and starting over. Which films or TV series became guiding inspirations for the series?
You’ve already picked on so many of them. In the pitch, included in that family carousel that we took to buyers, The Godfather: Part II was a huge reference. I also love the filmmaking of Lars von Trier and Dogme 95: that notion that the camera is in it with you; that visceral feeling that cinema has become the language of the human experience. But bigger than that, this is a show that takes place over 80 years. Those 80 years correspond to the history of cinema, and so the visual style of the show is going to change over four seasons as an ode to cinema. I can’t wait until we bring in the French New Wave when we get to the ’60s.

Is that part of what inspired the decision for the different aspect ratio in “Chapter Seven”?
Yeah. With K and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, we talked about episode seven and wanting to make it feel like a set period in time, and four-by-three is the classic aspect ratio when you look at the early years of cinema.

Over the course of the season, both Sunja and Solomon experience how strict boundaries can form around Korean, Japanese, and American identities, and between ethnicity versus nationality. I’m curious whether you think “acceptance” is a myth we should ignore as we live our lives, or if it’s a goal we should be working toward. Pachinko proposes and attacks both options. 
It totally depends on your stage of life. That’s why it’s so monumental for Sunja to go back to Korea in the present day. We talk a lot about homeland. What does homeland mean, and how is it different from the notion of home? All our characters are at different stages of their lives. For Solomon, he thinks those are not interesting questions to explore. He finds acceptance in a very different framework from Sunja, who has 70 years of life experience to question. The reason the show likes to explore that spectrum is because all our characters are very different from one another, and if they all came to the same answer, that doesn’t quite feel right.

Pachinko is an incredibly global show. It was filmed in Vancouver and Korea, there is a very inclusive and diverse cast and crew, and it is asking — as all the best cinema and TV does — for empathy, for us to share perspectives, and for us to consider what life was like in a different place and time. But it is also unwavering in its presentation of, This was something the Japanese empire did to the Korean people, and its impacts have been decades long and unaccounted for. How do you walk that line of creating empathy while telling a story that is brutal, violent, and very clear in its sense of one country and its ruler doing something wrong?
It’s tricky. That’s why the research was so crucial. I wanted to make sure we were constantly gut-checking and fact-checking our emotional registers. What I mean by that is, we live in very strange times now, where history is being rewritten and readjudicated. This show says: Certain things happened and we cannot erase those things.

The first line of the book is, “History has failed us.” History has failed these characters, right? That is not something the show questions or wants to question — that atrocities happened. But by drilling down to the human level, by swooping down from that 10,000-foot view of history and takin git into the streets and into the sights and sounds of our characters, we have to get into the complexities of why people do the things they do. And without excusing certain behaviors, I don’t believe you can paint a whole nation with red stripes or white stripes. Judgment has to come person by person, and context matters. It’s a long-winded way of saying we have to be very reasonable about this, and I don’t know why that’s become so hard.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Soo Hugh’s Pachinko Confronts the Present With the Past