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The Story of ‘Pachinko’ Can’t Be Contained by Time or Space

The new Apple TV+ series spans multiple continents and timelines but focuses its impressive scope on an intimate story.

Pachinko-Apple-TV

“Pachinko”

Apple TV+

Usually epic stories need to involve a dragon of some kind, or at least a healthy amount of fantastic CGI. But “Pachinko,” the new Apple TV+ series created by Soo Hugh and directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, sets out to be an epic about ordinary human stories. Those are, if you give them the proper scope, quite big enough. The series switches seamlessly between three languages — English, Korean, and Japanese — to tell the story of a family of Korean immigrants to Japan (and America) led by matriarch Sunja, who is played as a child by Yu-na Jeon, as an adult by Minha Kim, and as a grandmother by Youn Yuh-jung.

Shot in Korea and Canada (COVID-19 prevented filming in Japan), the show utilizes the whole spectrum of filmmaking tools, from giant pre-built backlots cleverly adapted from hit Korean dramas to Go-Pros strapped to single actors, and seems guided by the idea that ordinary choices can ripple through time, and deserve to be understood as epic. “Even though this is a very specific Korean story, this is not a Korean show. It’s not a Japanese show and it’s not an American show,” Hugh said. “We really did feel this was a global show.”

That sense of global reach filtered into every aspect of the production, from an international crew to the form and style of the show itself. Hoffmeister, who worked with director Kogonada on episodes 1,2, 3 and 7, cited pillars of Japanese Cinema like Ozu and Mizoguchi as influences on the look of the series, and the specific way the first three episodes emotionally define what Korea means to Sunja. “Kogonada is actually very interesting in the sense that he’s very convinced that cinema is as much a contemplation of space as it is about time,” Hoffmeister said. “Our focus was kind of rooting the characters [in Korea] because they would all take off and leave the actual space they’d call home.”

“Pachinko”

Apple TV+

But rather than creating that sense of space through sweeping vistas alone, the compositions of the early episodes are shot with strong compositional lines Ozu would be proud of, the landscape always present with the characters, almost a part of them whether they’re walking through a sleepy fishing village or gazing out the window of a Tokyo skyscraper. No one can ever quite escape where they come from –– in their heads or in the frame.

“When I was writing the season overview, in terms of the tone and style, the one thing that was very important to me is that the past, any of the past, doesn’t feel like masterpiece theater,” Hugh said. “We [wanted to make sure] that these characters who live in the past don’t feel like they’re at an arm’s throw from us.”

That decision to treat all storylines as equally immediate and accessible is part of why every aspect of “Pachinko” feels connected, and its story all the more momentous as it weaves from the early 1920s to the late 1980s and back again. Hoffmeister credited shooting in Large Format digital with accentuating a strong sense of space within individual frames. He and Kogonada also held back from types of shots that would perhaps look beautiful, but wouldn’t serve the way that they were building the story.

Pachinko Youn Yuh-jung

“Pachinko”

Apple TV+

“We don’t necessarily like to shoot really close close-ups,” Hoffmeister said. “With Kogonada, a close-up is maybe [what someone else would call] a medium shot — it includes the chest upwards. If you start shooting this way, if you don’t give an audience really tight close-ups immediately, I think you tune an audience into a different awareness.”

The “different awareness” is one in which the audience can almost feel the wants and desires of the past bleeding into the present; young Sunja’s quest for happiness turns out to be as fraught as her grandson Solomon’s, both trying to make choices in the shadow of forces far larger than they are — whether it’s Japanese imperialism or American capitalism, hope and desperation can look (and feel) the same.

Creating a very specific story as a way to get at global themes is a neat trick, but Hugh recalled one of the last days on set in Korea as inspiring in real life the emotional reach that “Pachinko” aims for in its fiction. “I was at lunch, we were in this big mess hall, and I look around and I got very emotional looking at the various tables,” Hugh said. “It wasn’t just the Koreans who sat with the Koreans [or] the Japanese who sat with the Japanese. It was this mix. People were translating for each other as friends and you saw all these hand gestures… when you saw people coming together over food and laughing or making fun of someone or venting, there’s just that universal language of emotions. And it was really powerful to see.”

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