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There are ambitious shows, and then there’s Pachinko — a multigenerational, trilingual family saga that juggles multiple timelines across the 20th century while centering the experience of Zainichi Koreans, an ethnic minority group in Japan that few Americans had heard of before Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel on which the Apple TV+ drama is based. In a departure from the book, showrunner Soo Hugh tells the stories of matriarch Sunja (played by Minha Kim in the 1930s and Yuh-Jung Youn in the ’80s) and her grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) in tandem with one another. Hugh, Kim and Ha joined director Justin Chon — who helmed four of the season’s eight episodes (Kogonada handled the remainder) — and executive producers Michael Ellenberg and Theresa Kang-Lowe in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter about “Chapter Four,” the climactic midpoint of the season and a favorite of several of the team.
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In Pachinko‘s fourth episode, Sunja and her new husband depart her Korean fishing village for Osaka, a move that not only requires permanently leaving her mother, Yangjin (Inji Jeong), but also sets her descendants on a new course. Nearly 60 years later, Solomon faces the make-or-break deal of his career as his Japanese and American colleagues lean on him to convince a Korean landowner to sell her land, and Sunja, now a widowed grandmother, prepares to return to Korea for the first time.
Soo, you’ve told me that “Chapter Four” was your favorite. Why?
SOO HUGH You’re not supposed to choose one of your babies, but even from the writing, I texted Justin from the hair salon saying, “104 is the best episode.” I think specifically of the sequence when Yangjin makes the rice [a luxury for Sunja’s last meal]. The mandate from Justin and Kogonada was, this has to be iconic. And then what Justin did was extremely emotional.
THERESA KANG-LOWE The feedback that we’ve gotten on this episode is that it feels the most deeply Korean, and through that everyone who’s non-Korean relates to it as if it’s their own family. I’ve heard from so many people that it allowed them to talk about their own family experiences within their family.
Minha, you’ve said your proudest work in the whole season was also in 104. How did you access the emotion for those scenes, because Sunja is usually pretty stoic?
MINHA KIM In episode four, I have to say a lot of goodbyes: to Yangjin, my house, my country. How scary it is to leave home and never know when we’re going to meet again. Back then, we didn’t have iPhones or email, and Sunja and Yangjin couldn’t read, so they couldn’t send any messages. Right before I shot the goodbye scene, my mom sent me a message: “I miss my mom, too.” I never thought of my mom as my grandmother’s daughter. I don’t know how, but my mom always sent me a message at the right time.
She didn’t know you were about to shoot this scene?
KIM No. When I was shooting in a foreign country [Japan and Canada], she sent me a lot of messages because she missed me, and every time she did that, it motivated me so much. Right before the scene where Yangjin gave me the rice, Inji was adjusting my clothes and she was saying, “How can I let you go?” before the camera was on. It made me so crazy. So I think people around me helped me to be in that moment. It came from honesty, not from the head.
Solomon is like a chameleon who adapts to a variety of cultures. Jin, who is Solomon to himself?
JIN HA Oh boy. That’s the question he’s grappling with as the season goes on. When he’s in the conference room with the landlady and everyone’s gathered and he decides to essentially crash his own deal that he’s been working so hard to finalize, that is such a big turning point for Solomon. The ghosts of his past have come through the landlady in her speech, and it happens to connect with Solomon during the most pivotal moment of his life.
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What’s the effect on Solomon when the landlady suddenly switches from speaking in Japanese to Korean, which only he can understand?
HA It’s a dagger. Even for me, having left Korea at a very young age, there is something innately emotional about the language. In grad school, one of the tools I would try to use was listening to Korean music. Hearing stories woven into emotional songs in Korean had a completely profound effect on me that was different from listening to music with English lyrics. I imagine that’s the same thing Solomon felt. In Shakespeare, when they switch from verse to prose, the moment of the change is sometimes the most significant. Similarly, when and why we switch from Japanese to Korean or vice versa are some of the most fascinating details that we have in our show.
MICHAEL ELLENBERG Jin really did not speak Japanese going into this. Part of the rigorous audition process was him demonstrating his facility to do it all, and he mastered it. As a viewer, you have no idea. Remember, plenty of our audience speaks none of these three languages, but his affect, his demeanor, that all changes as he moves between languages.
In the closing sequence of this episode, Solomon is at his most unrestrained, dancing in the rain, while his grandmother wades into the water on her home shores for the first time in 50 years. Justin, did the interweaving of these scenes affect how you shot them?
JUSTIN CHON The rain actually wasn’t scripted. I just wanted to visually find a way to connect people in two different countries and make it feel like they’re sharing the same experience. I got in a lot of trouble from Y.J. because that was one of her first days shooting. (Laughs.)
You drenched an Oscar winner?
CHON I drenched her and she called me afterward and was like, “I’m mad at you. You made me stand out in the water too long.” I bought her a nice bottle of white wine the next day. But I think it’s beautiful — on an emotional level, they’re both having this very cathartic experience together and it connects them. So who cares about the logistics? How does it make you feel?
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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