Anatomy of an Emmy-Worthy Scene: Pachinko's Yuh-Jung Youn and Director Kogonada Discuss How a Mere Bite of Rice Delivered a Blast From the Past

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In the third episode of Apple TV+’s Pachinko adaptation, the 1989 storyline at first blush appears to be about Solomon simply recruiting his grandmother, Sunja, to convince a landowner to sell her Tokyo lot to his bank. But a simple bite of rice, grown back home in Korea, unexpectedly upended that grand plan, triggering as it did a flood of memories, good and bad, for Sunja.

TVLine spoke with Academy Award winner Yuh-Jung Youn and director Kogonada about how the quiet scene went from being about not clinging to the past, to having the past cling to you.

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YUH-JUNG YOUN | I remember [showrunner] Soo Hugh calling me, to say that this scene, about telling the difference between Korean rice and Japanese rice, is very meaningful for her. Rice is very important for the Korean people, like [Americans’] bread.

KOGONADA | It’s such a pivotal scene, and one that affects the whole series. It surprises all of the characters, and that’s what is so interesting about it. The dynamic and the way things shift between the three of them was really lovely. You see Solomon delighting in the grandmothers’ connection, not realizing that the more they connect, the more it’s going to upset his agenda.

YOUN | When Sunja first follows her grandson [to this house], she’s there to help him pursue this landowner, to sell her property. But after she tastes that rice, all of the good memories, and the bad, come back to her, from long before she came to Japan.

KOGONADA | What’s great is it’s this quiet scene with so much drama percolating beneath the surface. It’s also foreshadowing things that we’re going to experience [in Episode 4, when Young Sunja and Isak are treated to white rice after their wedding] but are a part of the past. That was the brilliance of the way that Soo [Hugh] constructed this series differently from the book, taking it out of the linear passage of time.

YOUN | Sunja was a 74-year-old lady at the time, and she’d had a very complicated and dramatic life. And with that taste of rice, her memory went back to all of those times. Soo Hugh did a beautiful job, so I didn’t have any problems expressing my feelings. It was very precious to me.

KOGONADA | When I spoke to YJ, she understood the significance of this scene and knew it better than I would know it. And when you’re dealing with actors like YJ and Hye-jin [Park, as landowner Han Geum-ja], these two older women have lived a part of this history, so they have it on their face and in their being. I’ve said this before, that YJ’s face is like a map of Korea, so you light the scene and give the actors the space to really present it. You don’t need to add your own “effect.”

Pachinko WIDE
Pachinko WIDE

YOUN | Kogonda [who directed Episodes 1,2, 3 and 7] always asked us to do the whole scenes from top to bottom, all the way, like a play — which sometimes [with longer scenes] is very annoying! [Laughs] But with this scene, it was very helpful.

KOGONADA | When you go from top to bottom, things build. In film and especially in TV, things can get chopped up, but this scene felt like a play in many ways — you had three people, a room, and it was written to be delivered that way. Also, I’m someone who likes to return to the master [wide shot] throughout the scene. That way you really see the dynamic between the three, which continually changes in terms of who is caught between the other two.

YOUN | Sunja eventually breaks down because her sister-in-law just passed away. She always admired and resected Kyunghee, who always wanted to go back home [to Korea], so all of a sudden she bursts into tears and my grandson is like, “What’s happening?” When you’re young you can control yourself — “This is a person I’m seeing for the first time, so I’m going to have manners and hide my feelings” — but she just burst because of the rice. Experiencing these memories, bad or good, she wants to go back home.

KOGONADA | This traumatic thing has happened to Sunja, but the way she has lived her life, she just moves forward and forward. She hasn’t really dealt with the emotions of losing this incredible sister-in-law and friend, and suddenly this moment becomes all about her finally connecting emotionally with the past. Solomon’s expectation was that Sunja is going to give this message about not clinging to the past, and immediately the past clings to her.

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