Soo Hugh, Kogonada, and Justin Chon’s eight-episode adaptation of the best-selling novel “Pachinko” ably translates the epic scope of its century-spanning source material to the screen. Rather than following author Min Jin Lee’s lead and moving linearly from 1910 to 1989, the series cuts from decade to decade, making dramatic connections between generations.
“Pachinko” also moves through several locations, following Sunja (Minha Kim) as she grows up in the Korean fishing village of Yeongdo during the Japanese occupation and eventually migrates to Osaka, Japan. To create breadth across settings, production designer Mara LePere-Schloop built and modified sets and locations in Korea and Vancouver, plotting a “crazy matrix” of seamless transitions between regions and eras.
Making matters even more complicated: “Pachinko” was unable to film in Japan due to COVID-19 restrictions. Maximizing what resources they had, LePere-Schloop and location manager Bong Hoon Cho tackled the unenviable challenge of shooting Korea as Japan, navigating traumas and tensions that linger from the 35-year Japanese occupation of the peninsula.
“Production wanted to have all the locations nearby. But Mara was willing to see the options,” Bong said with a laugh. This made the shoot “very hard,” LePere-Schloop admitted, but the fruits of their labor show on the screen. “I think people thought I was crazy because we were constantly capturing little nuggets that we’d eventually attach together,” she said. Sections shot on opposite ends of the globe were connected in a single scene. For example, when Sunja leaves the boarding house for Joseph’s house in Osaka in Episode 4, LePere-Schloop said, “It’s probably 20 different locations in 10 different cities.” Sunja starts her journey in Yeongdo, built in the village of Hahoe, a UNESCO World Heritage site with the hanoks (traditional Korean homes) LePere-Schloop needed. “Somehow Bong worked his magic and we were able to clear the site and build the house, which had this beautiful view of the mountains and Ongsan.” As a historic site with oversight from the United Nations and the South Korean government, it’s a wonder Bong pulled it off. “It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
From Yeongdo, Sunja goes to a ferry terminal built on location in Vancouver, then boards an enormous cruise ship built on a stage. Meanwhile, wealthier passengers ride in the ballroom, shot on location in Vancouver. Alighting, Sunja connects to a train shot on a backlot in Korea, disembarks at a station shot in Vancouver, walks into a busy backlot street in Korea, turns the corner into another backlot, and turns another corner into a stage in Surrey, British Columbia, where the art department also built Joseph’s house, her final destination. Though invisible, LePere-Schloop believes these disconnections may also “sell Sunja’s loss of home.” “We’re leaving the natural environment that surrounds the boarding house and the only people Sunja’s ever known, then we’re slowly stripping everything down into this industrial landscape in Osaka. We wanted to make it an overwhelming sensory experience to show how it might feel for her.”
The art department built the fish market where the wealthy merchant and fishbroker Koh (Lee Minho) first locks eyes with Sunja on location at the Brittania Shipyards, a national historic site in British Columbia. It is a modified boat-building shed with additions, including thousands of pounds of imported seafood for the exterior dock sections. The team also built several additional sets around the historic shipyards, lending an authentic sense of scale to its stunning establishing shot. “A lot of the stuff that’s right there we did in-camera, and as it pulls further and further out it starts to handover to visual effects,” LePere-Schloop explained. She also designed the concept art for the visual effects team, referencing cinematography of Busan from the period. Distributed carefully to complement her physical designs, the visual effects are practically invisible. As films and TV employ more CGI establishing shots, green screen, and stage work, the deliberate use of VFX on “Pachinko” to enhance physical space feels refreshingly tactile. “There’s no camera movement that’s trying to obscure what you’re seeing, “LePere-Schloop said This was one of those great collaborations where there were great locations, great builds, and great visual effects —– a world-enhancing, wonderful thing.”
Kogonada, Chon, and LePere-Schloop agreed not to overuse shots that called attention to scale. “Sometimes in epic period shows like this, there’ll be big grand establishing shots. But a lot of the time they actually detract from the story. For us, it was about providing scale but then throwing it away–not having shots that take you out of the moment with the character. But as you’re traveling with them you naturally see the world in 360.” LePere-Schloop said. The sets were designed to be shot from any angle, freeing up camera and character movement.
Sunja and her family often take a ferry to the fish market from Yeongdo, just across the way. Shooting the landlocked Haohe as the island Yeongdo, then connecting the ferry to the fish market in Busan took LePere-Schloop and Bong’s customary finessing. Hahoe comprises the village path, the laundry river where Koh and Sunja meet privately, the field Sunja’s father harvests, and her family’s house. But the actual connection to the coast and ocean was shot in Vancouver. Watching the show, Bong second-guessed himself, “I was pretty sure I didn’t scout that in Korea, but it looked like Korea coming from the ferry in Vancouver. For a moment I wondered, ‘Did they shoot here?’”
In the 1980s, Sunja’s grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) moves to Japan for his first client project. He must convince Han Geumja (Park Hye-jin), an old Korean landowner, to sell her home to a Japanese company. But she’s not interested in money or in being uprooted by Japanese real estate tycoons and shoos Solomon away. “That happened to me every time I was hiring locations for Japan,” Bong said, likening his experience as a location manager to Solomon’s.
“The hardest thing for me was the relationship between Japan and Korea — doubling Korea as Japan.” Bong said. “Putting up Japanese signage or flags on Korean streets is very sensitive,” LePere-Schloop said. “It was a very complex situation that Bong had to navigate daily — that people were not offended and that we were keeping up with COVID-protocol.” The few remaining buildings from the Japanese occupation are referred to as “enemy architecture,” and they offered some of the only period-appropriate locations the production utilized. The irony of the situation, on a series tackling Japan’s lasting oppression of Korea and Korean immigrants, was never lost on Bong and LePere-Schloop.
Bong and LePere-Schloop were primed to scout Japan, Korea, and Vancouver in February 2020. “Vancouver was really going to be about big builds on our backlots and stages, and Korea and Japan were going to be about capitalizing on locations as much as we could for scope.” Then came the COVID shutdowns, and the team had to remote scout, relying heavily on reference materials and back and forth with the scout team. In August 2020, when they could finally scout Korea in person, Bong and LePere-Schloop did an “aggressive survey” of the locations Bong had been researching. Without Japanese locations, the team had to get creative with their “assets” in Korea.
“There are several backlots of different periods for K-Dramas and other shows,” LePere-Schloop said—four of which, in three separate cities, were used in the production of “Pachinko.” “ Our art department would come in and edit the Korean architecture to feel more Japanese — there was a major overhaul to make them feel appropriate.” In Nonsan, they converted a 1950s backlot into a 1923 Post-Kanto-Earthquake disaster scene; in Mokpo, they dressed streets and alleyways to look like 1980s Japan. They also shot in Seoul and Busan. As a result, walk and talks and driving scenes in Japan were again patchworks of disparate pieces conjuring the illusion of a larger whole.
In the ’80s, Sunja revisits the fish market from her youth: the famous Jagalchi market, now one of the largest in South Korea. “It was one of the few times we were actually shooting Korea as Korea,” LePere-Schloop said. Consequently, Bong had an easy time securing the location. Controlling traffic and shopkeepers in the space was tough, but “many people were happy to be featured because they loved the book and because everybody was happy when a location was featured as Korea.”
“Finally, I could feel relieved,” Bong said.
The production spread out across eight Korean cities,“which kind of dismantles efficiencies in production,” LePere-Schloop said. The art department was living on the move, living out of their vans. On early tech scouts, they broke out into caravans of up to 20 vans due to COVID restrictions. LePere-Schloop said: “On paper what we did was completely illogical and irrational. To be as efficient as possible, you do try to stay in one hub and have an office. There was definitely an attempt to make it only Seoul and Busan. But if we were going to be there in Korea, I felt we shouldn’t settle on something that passes. I give everyone a lot of credit because there are a lot of producers who like to boil things down to what’s most efficient as opposed to what’s best for the story. And my way made it very hard.”
“Looking back, I’d never do it again,” LePere-Schloop said. “This was not easy for anybody, but I hope everyone can see the value of what we did now–because it’s all on the screen.”