CULTURE

How Soo Hugh Drew From Her Family’s History to Create the Pachinko Series

At first, the showrunner didn’t think Pachinko was her story to tell—but soon realized her own connection to the powerful tale was exactly what the television series needed.


Soo Hugh Pachinko
Courtesy of Victoria Stevens

Soo Hugh’s children aren’t allowed to watch television. It’s a funny rule, given their mother’s profession as a writer, producer and showrunner—but also because her own love for filmmaking was born out of endless television-watching as a kid growing up in Towson, Maryland. “Television really was my babysitter,” Hugh tells W. During those after-school days, when she and her brother would let themselves into their house while mom and dad were busy working at the family convenience store, Hugh learned all about the world of movie-making.

Hugh’s afternoons back then were spent watching reruns of a young Leonardo DiCaprio in Growing Pains and exploring The Godfather before she could fully understand its canonical nature. But the movie which caused her to truly fall in love was The Piano—which she later found out was directed by Power of the Dogs Jane Campion. “None of the other movies I was watching were directed by women, so that realization was breathtaking,” she says. “The Piano just gave me so much hope.” When Campion was nominated for a best direction Academy Award for the film in 1994, a teenage Hugh tuned in. Through that telecast, she was introduced to the creators behind the films she’d loved for years. “All of a sudden, I realized there are people who make these movies and who conceive of stories this way. That’s when I really knew I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Hugh adds.

Twenty-eight years later, Campion finally has a Best Director win under her belt, and Hugh’s dreams have been more than realized. The writer and producer has multiple credits to her name, including CBS’s Under the Dome, See, and now, Pachinko. The new Apple TV+ series, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Min Jin Lee, tells the story of a Korean family across four generations and three countries. The book focuses mostly on Sunja, a young girl born in the small fishing village of Yeongdo during the Japanese occupation of Korea. With the world’s events as a backdrop, Sunja faces war, heartbreak, and displacement, working through each hurdle with hopes of providing a better life for her family.

Yuh-Jung Youn as Sunja.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Lee’s Pachinko immediately received strong reviews following its release in 2017; at that time, it seemed like everyone was reading the epic 500-page story. But not Korean-American Hugh—she wasn’t interested in being forced to face her own family’s story of hardship, one she grew up hearing about regularly. “I just thought immediately, ‘This is another book about my people suffering,’” she says. “When you grow up with that burden, you don’t want to keep confronting it over and over again. It’s wrong, because we should confront it, and we should own it, but it makes us feel guilty that our lives are so much easier now.” Hugh resisted picking up Pachinko until her agent Theresa Kang-Lowe, who is now an executive producer on the show, insisted she give it a try.

On a fated flight back from London, she finally dove in. “It was like lightning struck. It was one of those eureka moments where your life changes,” Hugh recalls. But she still wasn’t convinced she was the right person to adapt the story. “Right now, Hollywood is very much an IP-driven marketplace, and they want every book to be made, especially a bestseller,” Hugh says. “But if your reason for adapting is just, ‘This book is brilliant,’ then people should just read the book.” Luckily, Hugh had another “eureka moment” when she realized her own family’s origin story could contribute invaluable insight into telling that of Pachinko’s. “I am a child of immigrants,” she says. “That is what I know.”

When she pitched the idea to imbue a version of Lee’s story with her history, it became clear how closely Hugh and the novelist were linked. During meetings with networks, Hugh’s own story would inevitably come up. And as she spoke of her ancestors’ hardships, studio executives were so moved that Hugh watched them reach for tissues. “I don’t think I could have made this show and told this story if I didn’t have that personal connection,” she said. “It was a really important part of explaining the vision I saw for this.”

It was that vision which pulled in, not only Apple, but the impressive cast and crew that eventually brought Hugh’s adaption to life. “I was a fan of the book, but when I saw the scripts for the series, I was blown away,” says Justin Chon, director of four of the show’s eight episodes. So was Lee Min-Ho, the Korean superstar who agreed to audition for the role of Hansu—his first time doing so in 13 years. “The depth of the narrative of the story really drew me in,” he tells W.

Hugh on set with the show’s other director, Kogonada, actor Leo Joo, and Yuna, who portrays a young Sunja on the show.

Instagram/@soozhugh

Lee’s novel starts with Sunja’s parents and embarks on a journey spanning nearly a century, adding on the narratives of new generations as they come. By the end of the book, readers are introduced to Sunja’s grandson, Solomon, but there isn’t much time for his story. But Hugh saw Solomon as key to how she relates to the story. Solomon is a man of multiple countries and multiple languages, who grew up hearing about his grandparents’ and parents’ hardships as he lived comfortably—a man who probably wouldn’t want to read Pachinko, either. Hugh saw herself in him. So, she made the decision to enact what is probably the largest difference between the book and the show; instead of a chronological story, the Apple series jumps between timelines, in hopes of exploring both Sunja and Solomon at the same time.

The stylistic change is a powerful one, and emphasizes how Sunja’s generation experienced so much uncertainty in their lifetime. Episode three of the series opens with a sequence moving back and forth between a teenage Sunja (portrayed by Minha Kim) preparing a meal for the boarders at her family’s lodging house to Youn Yuh-jung’s Sunja making a meal for her family in the ’80s. An old pot becomes a rice cooker, a wooden block turns into a plastic cutting board, and the boarders morph into her son, on his way to work. But the decision to play with time hasn’t been universally accepted, and for the most part, it is the largest critique among otherwise ubiquitous praise.

Minha Kim as a teenage Sunja.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Despite the critics, Hugh remains unbothered. “In terms of finding my creative North Star, if I think about the audience too much, I lose my nerve,” she says. “I have to make the show I’m proud of because I can’t embody six billion people in this world, I only embody me.” And for the most part, Hugh’s adaption has been welcomed by fans of the book—plus, Emmy buzz is already starting up for the show and its main cast.

More importantly, though, the show is acting as a teacher, telling the often forgotten story of a people still affected by the events portrayed in Pachinko. Articles and stories have popped up in the series’ wake, as viewers learn about a family history that was previously kept from them, or are just happy to see their culture finally portrayed on screen.

“People come up to me and life stories just crack open,” Hugh said. “They get very emotional, and honest, and vulnerable about their family history, and they’ll tell me things like, ‘I just watched this episode and it made me think of my mom,’ or, ‘I saw this and then I called my grandmother,’” Hugh says.

But viewers aren’t the only ones feeling inspired to call up their family members. “I’ve been waiting for four years to hear what my mom thinks about the show,” Hugh says. Throughout the filming process, Hugh’s mother, Bok Hugh, would check in repeatedly, wanting to hear details about the scenes they were shooting and how it was going. So when Bok finally called after the first episode premiered on Apple TV+ last month, Soo wasn’t sure what to expect.

“There’s this Korean belief that if you compliment your kids too much, you’re going to make them rocks,” Hugh said. And after telling her daughter the scenes she imagined would look differently, Hugh says her mother got very quiet. “She then said, ‘I think you did a great job.’ It’s a simple sentence, but knowing our dynamic, it was the greatest compliment in the world.”