The Merienda with… interview series is an interview with an actor, filmmaker, producer, writer or anyone else who wants to wants to hang out with me, eat some food and/or have some drinks. In Tagalog, “merienda” means afternoon snack, but to me, it encompasses any time of day and it doesn’t really need to be a snack. It can be a full meal, just coffee, or drinks. Most of all, it reminds me of the times when my family or friends would have “merienda” and talk about our days or just gossip. It was all about connection and catching up. Merienda with… reflects exactly that with cool people doing amazing things in the industry as we talk about their journeys, identity, hot topic issues or just random stuff. All the while, we eat and drink because food brings people closer together.
On today’s Merienda with Soo Hugh menu
Location: Boxwood at the London in Los Angeles
Hugh ordered a club soda.
I ordered a ginger beer and crab toast.
The Boxwood in the London is one of those restaurants that makes clear it’s cool and not your normal hotel restaurant. It is definitely an L.A. vibe but also it gives me HD Buttercup furniture store energy. It’s quirkiness doesn’t exactly have the intergenerational, epic family drama energy of the forthcoming series Pachinko but if you watch the opening credits to the series (which debuts the first three of eight episodes March 25) there is a jolt of fun in the otherwise heavy and emotional series from showrunner Soo Hugh.
In fact, the opening credits of the series might be a little misleading to those who are totally unaware of the book. The opening credits to Pachinko features an all-star cast including Oscar winner Yuh-Jung Youn, dreamy K-drama icon Lee Minho, the talented Hamilton alum Jin Ha, mesmerizing newcomer Minha Kim as well as Yu-na Jeon, Steve Sanghyun Noh, and Soji Arai dancing to the the 1967 hit “Let’s Live For Today” by The Grass Roots in a pachinko parlor. It’s very appropriate and wildly fun to watch. (You can easily find “unofficial” videos of the credits online, but I won’t post here because you should experience them for the first time when you watch the series this week.)
Hugh admits that they didn’t know if they were going to be able to film the opening credits sequence because of the cast’s hectic schedule. Luckily, they were able to schedule two days for the shoot. “It was crazy and so run and gun,” Hugh tells DIASPORA. “We didn’t know what song we were going to use but it was some of the best two days of shooting. It was so much fun.”
Hugh adds that they wanted to use a Rolling Stones song, but the price tag was a little to hefty. Even so “Let’s Live For Today” seems very appropriate for the series. The result is an iconic opening credits that is definitely cut from the same cloth as James Gunn’s Peacemaker. “I like opening credits, but the challenge was to make opening credits that they will never skip over,” says Hugh.
…and I guarantee you will not skip over them while watching each of its eight episodes.
Some people who don’t like to have fun would probably say concentrating too much on the opening credits sequence is trivial, but for Pachinko it is an important element of the series to balance out the wildly emotional story of family dysfunction, generational trauma, a clash between cultures, forbidden romance, and immigrant identity over four generations.
“This is our gift to the audience,” explains Hugh. “No matter what our characters go through, at the core there is exuberance.”
Min Jin Lee‘s historical fiction novel Pachinko was released in 2017 and quickly became a go-to book for Asians and Asian Americans as it tells the history between Korea and Japan through the lens of a specific family over the course of many decades. It was definitely one of those books that would spark the question “Have you read Pachinko?!” within the Asian community. If you didn’t read it, you weren’t hip to the times.
With Hugh at the helm of the series as writer, executive producer and showrunner, Pachinko chronicles the hopes and dreams of a Korean immigrant family across four generations as they leave their homeland in a quest to survive and thrive.
Starting in South Korea in the early 1900s, the story is told through the eyes of a remarkable matriarch, Sunja (played by Yu-na Jeon, Minha Kim, and Yuh-Jung Youn across the decades) who triumphs against all odds. It juxtaposes her story with that of her grandson, Solomon (Jin Ha), in the 1980s.
Without a doubt, this story is so vast and sprawling that it is probably a challenge to adapt. And it’s way too much to fit into an eight episode season (as of the publishing of this article, a second season hasn’t been announced). However, being the talent she is, Hugh was up for the challenge — but would you believe that she avoided reading the book when her agent first brought it to her four years ago?
“I heard about the book and I knew it was amazing,” Hugh says as she sips on her pristine glass of club soda and I attempt to control myself and not shove the crab toast in my mouth like a heathen. “I was just finishing up a show that was another, complicated international show. I avoided the book because I didn’t want to fall in love with it because these international big productions take a toll on you after a while.”
She continued, “I was on the plane one time and read the book — it’s an incredible book. Just reading it, images and possibilities started popping up [in my head].” More importantly, Hugh, who was born in Korea, added that the story started to fill in “blank spaces” in her family history. When members of her family read the book, it became a spark for them to talk about things that were never talked about.
“Growing up as a kid, you think your parents must have had no life,” she says. “You just assume, ‘Oh, the reason why they don’t talk about it is because there’s nothing to talk about.’ I think reading Pachinko makes you realize that’s not true. The reason why you don’t talk about it is because it’s still being worked on, it’s still being reckoned with. [The book] really jump started a conversation personally as well.”
Hugh immigrated from Korea to the United States at a young age. Her parents were working class and she lived in the white suburbs. When it came to connecting with her cultural identity, she says that the church was her main link to Koreans.
“I loved church because it was this anchor point for me, but what happens is you learn to code shift very early in life, and for me, I think you don’t want to ever make waves growing up because you don’t ever want to be singled out, and you also learn to be risk averse — that’s for me, at least. I don’t want to generalize it,” she says.
She describes her childhood as being very independent as her and her brother were “classic latchkey keys”. She feels that all of this contributes to how she navigated her identity. When she discovered film, it was a watershed moment.
“I fell in love with film at a very early age, because I think originally when I watched movies and TV, it helped me understand the world I was living in; it helped me understand whiteness,” Hugh points out. “But then, what happens is, because there was no other representation besides whiteness, you absorb the whiteness. So, when I think about doing a show like Pachinko now, I think, ‘God, what would it have been like if I had seen a show this when I was 12 years old?'”
As the Hollywood landscape continues to evolve when it comes to representation in front of and behind the camera, Hugh had quite the task to sculpt Pachinko from its source material. She, along with the Pachinko team conducted a global search for the cast, build an inclusive writers room and find the right directors. All of this and more during a pandemic no less.
Hugh posed a lot of conversations for creating the writers room and finding directors. Even though this is an Asian narrative, she tells DIASPORA that not all writers in the room were Asian. The room consisted of seven other people besides herself: there was a Korean American poet, a Korean playwright, a Korean American male screenwriter, a Chinese American playwright, a Nigerian American playwright, and a white Jewish guy. In order to diversify voices and create this world through the eyes of the family in Pachinko, they did an exercise where the writer would put themselves in one of the character’s shoes, which created a sense of empathy.
“Sometimes a writer will say ‘I really just don’t get this character’ or “I hate this character'” says Hugh. From there she suggested that the writer talk like the character and be the character. This allowed the writers to approach this fraught dialogue and help elevate the authenticity of the narrative.
Before landing on Kogonada and Justin Chon as directors, Hugh said there were discussions and conversations as to whether the director should be Korean or Korean American or an immigrant in general.
“You ask all the big questions and then you meet all these directors — and it just becomes very intuitive,” she says. That’s what I find interesting about these big conversations. Sometimes when you just start engaging, things just become naturally intuitive about what to do. I think I said, ‘I’m not going to have any hard rules’ but it became very clear that you do not, you cannot fully absorb this story unless you have that connection. And so, with Justin and K, they both come from very different backgrounds, they’re both two very different filmmakers.”
Hugh describes Kogonada and Chon as “night and day” but at the same time, they connect deeply with the heart of Pachinko. The feel this narrative in their bones.
You don’t have to be Korean, Japanese, Asian, Asian American, or an immigrant to feel this story in your soul. It’s a story that is about family — in a Fast & Furious way but very elevated. Just because the series is in languages (the majority of the series is in Korean and Japanese) that many don’t speak , doesn’t mean that there can’t be a connection. Again, this goes back to creating a sense empathy.
At one moment during our merienda, I talk to about one scene in Pachinko that takes place in the ’80s. Solomon (Jin Ha) is visiting his grandmother, Sunja (Yuh-Jung Youn). We see Sunja sitting on her porch wrapped in a blanket deep in thought and Solomon comes and sits next to her. Not much dialogue is spoken, but the emotion is palpable.
I told Hugh while watching Sunja sit there, I saw my grandmother, who died in 2019. I saw her in Yuh-Jung’s face. I saw the struggle. I saw the hope. I saw the love. I saw myself in Solomon sitting next to her. When I explain this to Hugh, I immediately start crying. I apologize for my tears and Hugh grabs by hands and says, “Don’t hold back…” as I hear her voice break as well.
As I wipe away the tears to prevent them from falling into my crab toast, I explain how that one scene speaks to me in why representation matters. It made me feel less alone. It made me feel understood and it also made me see my grandmother again.
We live in a post-Crazy Rich Asians era where we are seeing plenty of projects bolstering representation and Pachinko will add to the conversation, but the country — and the world for that matter — are wildly distant from where we need to be in terms of the portrayal of Asians in film, TV and media as well as the treatment of Asians in real life. Asian hate crimes are surging and Hollywood is still passive about perpetuating stereotypes that harm the community.
Within the past couple of months, films have included scenes that basically dehumanize Asians or treat Asian characters as a butt of joke. One of them is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza which includes a white restaurant owner, played by John Michael Higgins using a fake Asian accent while talking to his Japanese wife. He doesn’t just do this once, but twice. It immediately garnered a backlash.
In a response to the backlash, Anderson told IndieWire: “It’s kind of like, ‘Huh?'” before saying “I don’t know if it’s a ‘Huh’ with a dot dot dot. It’s funny because it’s hard for me to relate to.”
Anderson adds, “I don’t know. I’m lost when it comes to that. To me, I’m not sure what they— you know, what is the problem? The problem is that he was an idiot saying stupid shit?” The “he” in this is Higgins’s character.
There’s a lot of “huhs” and “I don’t knows” in his answer.
After IndieWire tried to explain that the scenes basically give the audience permission to laugh at the yellowface accent rather than Higgins, Anderson said, “I don’t know, maybe that’s a possibility” He went on to say “I’m certainly capable of missing the mark… but on the other hand, I guess I’m not sure how to separate what my intentions were from how they landed.”
When we discuss Licorice Pizza and other unsavory moments in recent films including the Asian man being targeted in the first 10 minutes of The Batman and one particular ignorant review of Turning Red by a white man from CinemaBlend, Hugh has some thoughts.
“I have not seen [Licorice Pizza],” she says. “I feel [Paul Thomas Anderson] can make whatever he wants, but he also can’t complain if he’s taken to task for it. That’s the conversation. It’s the people who don’t want to engage. They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s stupid. I’m not going to be in it’ and then you’re like, ‘That’s not right. When you make something, you’re putting it out in the public. You have to engage with that dialogue.'”
She continues, “So, to say like, ‘Oh, that’s not my intention — that is a dumb argument. I’m out of it’ is a cop out. The other thing that I keep hearing these days are like, ‘Oh, now white people are just scared to do anything because you people just are so sensitive’ and what I say to that is if you’s lived in my shoes, you’d be really sensitive too. No shit, Sherlock.”
On top of the scrutiny and abuse Asians have been receiving as of late, there seems to be infighting within the Asian community that no one really talks about. We can point to Chon’s Blue Bayou as well as the harsh criticism faced by Simu Liu before, during and after Shang Chi. Now, we can’t prove that they were getting attacked by fellow Asians, but if you’re in Asian Hollywood, it’s present. There are many conversations about Asian shows or films being not Asian enough or being too Asian or not representing the culture properly, etc. etc. This is in and outside of the Asian community.
This Asian-on-Asian infighting isn’t seen by the general public, but behind closed doors, I guarantee you that every Asian in Hollywood has a story — including Hugh.
“We’re cannibalizing ourselves,” she says bluntly. “It’s so complicated because on one hand we want to stand together and stand strong because there’s power in numbers. It’d be stupid not to know that. At the same time, part of our mission is to teach the world that being Asian is not a monolith — how do we make sure that people tell us apart? We’re not the same. And this is what identity politics is, we’re constantly fighting two fronts of the war.”
Pachinko is an adaptation of a beloved book about two communities in the Asian diaspora and it is also a fictionalized version of history. It has a lot of points that can be scrutinized and attacked when it comes to representation — particularly by the Korean and Japanese community, because that is what this series is depicting. In addition, the scarcity of Asian content puts Pachinko under a microscope to be examined right down to what Sunja’s traditional wardrobe and how she makes kimchi.
When I ask Hugh if she is worried about any backlash that the adaptation may receive she says, “I don’t put any of that on me, and the reason why is this: I know what I made. I know it was made with integrity. At some point, you don’t all have to love everything, and I hope the Japanese and Korean community watch the show and engage with it. I hope they understand that so much work was put into empathy but at the end of the day, if I allowed that to haunt me, I wouldn’t be able to make this. I made peace with this because I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of being [criticized].”
Being the cynic I am, I tell Hugh that I don’t think we will ever get proper Asian representation in Hollywood and that the infighting will prevent us from achieving equity — but I will still do the work to get as close to it as possible.
“As you get older and older and see the world making the same mistakes over and over again, the cynicism comes in,” says Hugh. “At the same time, when I look at the new generation, the ones coming up in their 20s, they are so strong. Right away, they call bullshit when something is wrong. At 22, I did not have that voice. Even that self-awareness this new generation has about identity, sexuality, gender — you got to think it’s going to sow some fertile ground, hopefully.”
I tell Hugh that I hope Pachinko could be a series that unites the Asian community like the book did, but also gives those outside the Asian diaspora a story that helps understand the culture and encourages them to read more narratives about the Asian and Asian American experience.
“We’re in an awkward transition stage,” says Hugh in regards to the state of the Asian community. “What we’re all fighting for is the same thing, we just don’t know how to get there. The reason why we don’t know how to get there is because the roadmaps aren’t clear — because the dominant ideology keeps changing the rules on us.
She adds, “They want us to cannibalize each other. We do their jobs for them. We’re going through an awkward transition phase and we just have to fight through this and hope with as much dignity as possible.”