‘Pachinko’: How 3 Different Actresses Brought Sunja to Life in the Apple TV+ Series

Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung, Minha Kim and filmmakers Kogonada and Justin Chon tell TheWrap how they weaved the epic drama’s story together

The ambitious Apple TV+ series “Pachinko” took 20 historical consultants from the United States, Korea and Japan, numerous translators, seven executive producers, two directors, two directors of photography, and 637 cast members to put together – 95% of whom are Asian. Directors Kogonada and Justin Chon split the first season in half, each directing four episodes, and it’s a testament to their collaborative vision that the show has drawn raves for its painterly aesthetic.

Lee’s novel tells the story of four generations, with one woman — Sunja — at the core. The show captures Sunja at three distinct points in her life: young childhood (Yu-na Jeon), teenage and young adulthood (Minha Kim), and older Sunja as a grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung). 

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Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada, who helmed the acclaimed films “Columbus” and “After Yang” and directed episodes one, two, three and seven of “Pachinko,” related to the diasporic element of the story due to his family history.

“The script was phenomenal. You read a lot of scripts in our work and and you know, this was kind of irresistible and just so well-written and layered and personal,” Kogonada said. “I tend to be drawn to something so intimate that it is almost just about one thing, and to be able to kind of expand that so it reaches into history and says something larger was also interesting as well. As a Korean, part of the diaspora, and knowing my parents’ story and their parents’ stories, it really intersected our own family history as well.”

Chon, who is also of Korean descent, reflected on Min Jin Lee’s novel as source material for the adaptation.

“The novel’s incredible and truly is an Asian American piece of literature that is very important for us,” he said. “A lot of people have come to find the novel and relate to it. The opportunity to adapt it to screen, I mean, it’s a true honor.”

Justin Chon emphasized moments of complete silence between characters that still communicate many things, thanks to the rest of the crew.

“There’s this subtext and this stuff between the words that you’re always searching for that can be sometimes more profound than anything that can be said and I think I’m always looking for those,” he said. “And then not to discount editing. A show like this, it takes so many craftsmen to put together. It’s not just one person and everybody has their disciplines and that all kind of coalesces into these special moments that [don’t] even require words, but it requires everyone to kind of create that moment.”

Moments like these can be found between Sunja and Hansu (Lee Minho), Sunja and Isak (Steve Sang-Hyun Noh) and even Sunja and her mother Yangjin (Inji Jeong). Older Sunja has many special moments as well, and Youn was immediately drawn to the character. 

“I felt [an] immediate connection to Sunja, [which is a] very rare feeling to me nowadays,” said Oscar-winning actress Youn Yuh-jung. “So I had to play this role. So I went out and [got] the novel, and I [had] more desire to play this role. That was my experience.”

Youn won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 2021 Academy Awards for her performance in “Minari.” Her portrayal of Sunja is wonderfully layered, as Sunja has experienced so much by the time she is 74, including a first love that doesn’t work out with a man who is already married — Koh Hansu (Lee Minho). 

“She tried to just put it in [the] back [of her mind], in a bag and then she doesn’t want to talk about it, her first love,” Youn said. “It is true, really when you get old you don’t want to talk about [how] ‘A long time ago, I had some kind of love story.’ You usually don’t talk about it.”

Youn related to the age level, emotions and life experience of the version of Sunja she played, and says she particularly appreciate an aspect of the show that wasn’t in the novel: Sunja going back to Korea from Japan to remember where she grew up.

“In [the] novel, Sunja never came back to Korea, but Soo Hugh who wrote [in] the script, ‘She’s coming back to Korea [to] see the ocean she used to dive [into,] then her father’s grave,” Youn said. “That was very smart way to just add that scene. That scene was very touching. I thought Soo did a great job [adding] that scene.”

Youn’s younger counterpart Minha Kim portrays Sunja at a pivotal point in her life, when she meets Hansu, gets pregnant with his child, refuses his offer to support them both once she hears he is already married and accepts the offer from another man, Isak (Steve Sang-Hyun Noh).

Chon and Kogonada both felt power in the simpler moments, like scenes in which emotions were exchanged. For Kogonada, the end of episode three impacted him beyond directing.

“[The] scenes with teenage Sunja and Isak and some of those moments where it’s just them, you know, coming to grips with what they’re going to do, that’s just really lovely, written material and the way they executed it,” he said. “Sometimes you found yourself crying while [you were] shooting which is a hard thing to have because your mind’s usually just on so many things, but when they can capture you and you know how the sausage is made, and you’re still in tears, you know that there’s something special happening.”

Minha felt similar to Youn when she found out about the role.

“[When] I first read the script. I thought that ‘I should do this and I have to do this and I can do this,’” Minha said. “So the amazing story itself and the characters of Sunja drew me to this project.”

Youn, Minha and Yu-na did not get to interact very much while filming, because their sets were separate. 

“Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of chance to talk with the other actressess but, even though we didn’t have a lot of conversation, I kind of filled a bunch of connections between all three of us,” Minha said. “So while I was on set, I kept trying to focus on the scene and find the connection between Sunja and me myself, so I [could] listen to myself and listen to Sunja’s story itself. That’s how I got my mindset.”

Sunja’s growth and steadfastness anchor the series, and will do so for seasons to come should Apple TV+ renew the series. 

“You come into the series with Kogonada and the sort of genesis of everything, and I definitely really wanted to do justice on the opposite end of that, ending with Sunja you know, in her coming to her own and giving her a sense of power,” Chon said. “Hopefully in subsequent seasons we can see her come into herself and that energy that she possesses. I think that to create that sort of sense of power, like a sense of autonomy and her own sense of agency, I felt [that] would be the most powerful way to end the season.”