With the sprawling “Pachinko”, writer Soo Hugh takes up the challenge of the “narrative mountain”
TORONTO — Editing an epic tale is nothing new for “Pachinko” creator and showrunner Soo Hugh.
His credits over the past decade have spanned genres and grown steadily: from author of the 2013 CBS/Global series “Under the Dome” based on Stephen King’s novel to the same name ; to the creator of the 2015 Steven Spielberg-produced ABC series “The Whispers”; showrunner on the 2018 AMC horror anthology “The Terror.”
With “Pachinko,” a sprawling Apple TV Plus series based on Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel about four generations of a Korean immigrant family across Korea, Japan, and America, Hugh says she has found a great project to push it even further.
“When I was trying to put on the show, there were so many hopes and fears,” the New York-based Korean-born writer said in a video call from Los Angeles.
“It’s a question of how do you do a show that spans such a wide span of time and place? At the same time, that was also the draw for me.
” I like challenges. The bigger the narrative mountain, the higher I want to climb it. Attention, I will not climb a real mountain in real life!
After wrapping ‘The Terror’, a supernatural survival epic filmed in Budapest, Hugh was hesitant to sign on for another massive production. But a personal connection to Lee’s book wouldn’t let her go.
“It really brought up some questions that I had for my own family, and it made me want to know what those empty spaces in my own life were. That’s the power of this story.
Friday’s first episode begins with Sunja, the daughter of a poor Korean family who unexpectedly becomes pregnant and then accepts a marriage proposal from a minister on her way to Japan. His decision triggers a dramatic saga that touches on sacrifice, identity and imperialism.
“When I read her story, how can I not think of my mother and my grandmother and what they went through? It’s about 20th century Korea, even the diaspora experience is a part of that, so it’s extremely close to me,” says Hugh, also executive producer of the eight-episode series, which will see three episodes drop. Friday, followed by a weekly outing.
“I didn’t want to do a documentary, I didn’t want to do something that reads like a textbook. Instead, I wanted it to feel like something subjective.
That’s how Hugh was able to infuse an intimate tone as deep as the show’s physical and generational reach is wide. But she couldn’t do it alone.
The international cast includes “Minari” Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung as the older Sunja, and Hugh praises “visionary” directors Kogonada and Justin Chon who each directed half of the episodes, which were filmed in Korea and Vancouver.
Working with them was a “privilege,” says Hugh, adding, “You’re trying to create a mind-meld between people who think like you or have the same precision, rigor or standards of excellence.
“This show is too hard a show to do if you don’t like it… You were only attracted to this project if you understood it. Otherwise, you could earn the same amount of money doing other emissions easier.
Hugh says the show’s emotional sweep has universal appeal, while its themes remain relevant in light of the recent global rise in anti-Asian racism.
“Sunja’s experience, for the most part, is in everyone’s bones,” says Hugh.
“It shows you that the past doesn’t die, that a lot of this violence, hatred and destructive, hateful rhetoric that surrounds racism, doesn’t come out of nowhere.
“It has been burning and burning and burning for thousands of years.
“If there’s one thing a show like this can do, I think it’s to show that the humanity of people you normally ignore or erase is crucial.”
The series comes on the heels of Disney/Pixar’s Asia-focused feature “Turning Red,” which found enthusiastic critical response for its spotlight on the inner life of a Chinese-Canadian girl going through puberty.
However, the embrace was not unanimous. A controversial CinemaBlend review criticized the tale as “limited in scope” due to its Asian characters and culture. It was removed after a public outcry, which also prompted an apology from the writer.
Hugh isn’t fazed by the prospect of racist criticism, insisting that if viewers “speak in the universal language of emotions (they’ll get it).”
“It’s your problem and not mine. I don’t want to make every bozo happy, but I think the audience is smart and I trust them,” she says.
“It doesn’t mean that I need everyone to watch the show, and so anyone who says, ‘This show is not for me,’ I’m not going to flatter you.”
This urge to bring stories to Asian writers and viewers motivated her to help create a pipeline and platform for Asian representation on screen.
Hugh recently signed an overall multi-year deal with Universal Content Productions to develop, write and produce projects, and launch an incubator program to help bring more Asian/Pacific Islander stories to the screen for NBCUniversal.
“I think progress is being made, but I don’t know if it’s being made fast enough,” says Hugh.
“Growing up, I wanted to be a filmmaker but I didn’t know how to take that first step. Even with the internet now, I don’t think the world is any clearer.
“So the question is how do you get people who have a story to tell to the door, how do you help them open it and then help them tell it big too? That’s my goal.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 22, 2022.
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