On “Pachinko”, Korea plays Japan

Unable to shoot in Japan due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Apple TV+ drama charted a “crazy matrix” of seamless transitions between regions and eras.

Soo Hugh, Kogonada and Justin Chon’s eight-part adaptation of the best-selling novel “Pachinko” deftly conveys the epic scope of its age-old source material onscreen. Rather than following author Min Jin Lee’s lead and moving linearly from 1910 to 1989, the series jumps from decade to decade, making dramatic connections between the generations.

“Pachinko” also moves through multiple locations, following Sunja (Minha Kim) as she grows up in the Korean fishing village of Yeongdo during Japanese occupation and eventually migrates to Osaka, Japan. To create expanse through the sets, production designer Mara LePere-Schloop built and modified sets and locations in Korea and Vancouver, tracing a “crazy matrix” of seamless transitions between regions and eras.

To make matters even more complicated: “Pachinko” was unable to film in Japan due to COVID-19 restrictions. Maximizing the resources at their disposal, LePere-Schloop and stage manager Bong Hoon Cho took on the unenviable challenge of filming Korea like Japan, navigating the traumas and tensions that have lingered over the 35-year Japanese occupation of the peninsula.

The invisible matrix between Yeongdo and Osaka

The wharf and the ferry from the Apple TV+ series


Courtesy of Apple TV+

“The production wanted to have all the locations nearby. But Mara was willing to see the options,” Bong said with a laugh. It made filming “very difficult,” LePere-Schloop admitted, but the fruits of their labor are showing on screen. “I think people thought I was crazy because we were constantly catching little nuggets that we would end up tying together,” she said. Sections shot at opposite ends of the globe were connected into a single scene. For example, when Sunja leaves the boarding house for Joseph’s house in Osaka in Episode 4, LePere-Schloop says, “It’s probably 20 different places in 10 different cities.” Sunja begins her journey in Yeongdo, built in Hahoe Village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the hanoks (traditional Korean houses) that 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 under the watchful eye of the United Nations and the South Korean government, it’s a miracle that Bong made it. “It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

From Yeongdo, Sunja travels to a site-built ferry terminal in Vancouver, then boards a huge, stage-built cruise ship. Meanwhile, wealthier passengers step into the ballroom, filmed on location in Vancouver. On the way down, Sunja connects to a train shot on a backlot in Korea, disembarks at a shot station in Vancouver, enters 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, its final destination. Although invisible, LePere-Schloop thinks these disconnects can also “sell the loss of Sunja’s house”. “We leave the natural surroundings that surround the boarding house and the only people Sunja has ever known, and then slowly strip everything down to this industrial landscape of Osaka. We wanted to make it an overwhelming sensory experience to show how it might feel for her.

From the ferry to the fish market

Lee Minho in the Apple TV+ series


Courtesy of Apple TV+

The art department built the fish market where wealthy fish merchant and broker Koh (Lee Minho) first locks Sunja’s eyes 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 outer sections of the dock. The team also built several additional sets around the historic shipyards, giving an authentic sense of scale to their stunning settlement plan. “A lot of the stuff that’s there, we did in camera, and as it gets further away, it starts to transfer to visual effects,” LePere-Schloop explained. She also designed the concept art for the visual effects team, referencing the Busan cinematography of the time. Carefully distributed to complement its physical designs, the visual effects are virtually invisible. As movies and television increasingly use CGI to establish shots, green screen, and stage work, the deliberate use of VFX on “Pachinko” to enhance the physical space is pleasingly tactile. “There’s no camera movement trying to obscure what you see,” LePere-Schloop said. It was one of those great collaborations where there were great locations, great construction, and great visuals – a wonderful thing that makes the world better. ”

Kogonada, Chon, and LePere-Schloop agreed not to abuse shots that drew attention to scale. “Sometimes on epic shows like this, there will be big establishing shots. But most of the time they distract from the story. For us, it was about providing a ladder, but then throwing it away – not having shots that take you out of the moment with the character. But when you travel with them, you naturally see the world at 360°. said LePère-Schloop. 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 opposite. Turning the landlocked Haohe like Yeongdo Island and then connecting the ferry to the Busan Fish Market required the usual LePere-Schloop and Bong refinement. Hahoe includes the village road, the laundry river where Koh and Sunja meet privately, the field that Sunja’s father is harvesting, and his family’s house. But the real connection to the coast and the ocean was filmed in Vancouver. Watching the show, Bong questioned himself: “I was pretty sure I didn’t spot this in Korea, but it sounded like Korea was coming from the ferry in Vancouver. For a moment I wondered, ‘Did they shoot here?’ »

Korea like Japan

Park Hye-jin and Jin Ha in the Apple TV+ series


Courtesy of Apple TV+

In the 1980s, Sunja’s grandson, Solomon (Jin Ha), moved to Japan for his first client project. He must convince Han Geumja (Park Hye-jin), a former Korean landowner, to sell her house to a Japanese company. But she’s not interested in the money or being uprooted by Japanese real estate tycoons and chasing Solomon. “It happened to me every time I was hiring locations for Japan,” Bong said, comparing his experience as a location manager to Solomon’s.

“The most difficult thing for me was the relationship between Japan and Korea – dubbing Korea as Japan.” Bong said. “Putting up Japanese signs or flags on Korean streets is very sensitive,” LePere-Schloop said. “It was a very complex situation that Bong had to navigate on a daily basis – that people weren’t offended and that we were following COVID protocol.” The few remaining buildings of the Japanese occupation are referred to as “enemy architecture“, and they provided some of the only period-appropriate locations used by the production. The irony of the situation, in a series dealing with Japan’s enduring oppression of Korea and Korean immigrants, was never lost on Bong and LePere-Schloop.

Bong and LePere-Schloop were set to explore Japan, Korea and Vancouver in February 2020. we could for the scope. Then came the COVID shutdowns, and the team had to do scouting remotely, relying heavily on reference materials and back and forth with the scouting team. In August 2020, when they were finally able to explore Korea in person, Bong and LePere-Schloop did an “aggressive investigation” of the places Bong had been looking for. Without Japanese locations, the team had to get creative with its “assets” in Korea.

“There are multiple backlots from different time 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 it feel appropriate.” In Nonsan, they converted a 1950s backlot into a post-Kanto-Earthquake disaster scene from 1923; in Mokpo, they dressed the streets and alleys to resemble 1980s Japan. They also filmed in Seoul and Busan. As a result, the walking and talking and driving scenes in Japan were again patchworks of disparate pieces conjuring up the illusion of a larger whole.

In the 1980s, Sunja revisited the fish market of 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 struggled to secure the location. Controlling traffic and traders in the space was difficult, but “many people were happy to be introduced because they liked the book and because everyone was happy when a place was introduced like Korea.”

“Finally, I could feel relieved,” Bong said.

Production was spread across eight Korean cities, “which sort of dismantles production efficiency,” LePere-Schloop said. The art department lived on the move, living out of their vans. During early tech scouts, they broke out into trailers that could hold 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 try to stay in a hub and have an office. There was certainly an attempt to make it just Seoul and Busan. But if we were going to be there in Korea, I felt we shouldn’t settle for something passing. I give everyone a lot of credit because there are a lot of producers who like to boil things down to what’s most effective rather than what’s best for the story. And my way of doing it made it very difficult.

“Looking back, I would never do it again,” LePere-Schloop said. “It hasn’t been easy for anyone, but I hope everyone can see the value of what we’ve done now because it’s all on screen.”

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