Lack of familiarity with the cultural context of "Pachinko" helped cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister in his approach to framing the show, which is currently rolling out new episodes weekly on Apple TV+ to critical acclaim.
"As a cinematographer, I have to fuel an inner curiosity, and to be exposed to a world that's very foreign to me is very stimulating," Hoffmeister told TheWrap in a recent interview about his work on the series. "That is an immediate attraction. You just enter a whole culture on a superficial level. The first level is just the exposure to a completely different culture. I don't even speak the language. On the second level, one of the potentials that then arises is that because you are an outsider, you can really just establish a language that kind of emphasizes more the universal themes of the story. Within this juxtaposition there's the immediate attraction of the unknown and then the quest to find the universal in it."
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Seven out of eight episodes begin with an intro montage in which the main actors and actresses dance to an upbeat song with a pachinko parlor as the backdrop. Hoffmeister credits showrunner Soo Hugh for the idea.
"It positions the show [as] a conversation that a certain generation of Koreans are having with their own culture as well as their parents," Hoffmeister said. "Soo, Kogonada, they both grew up in the United States. I think both of them were still born in Korea, but, in essence, their cultural identity is very much shaped by being raised in America, and she particularly is very much exposed to American culture, and she's absolutely into music. The opening sequence combines those two cultural elements. In one way, it has an American pop culture feel, but it's not Kpop. It is rooted in something else."
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Hoffmeister worked with Soo Hugh on "The Terror" before making the leap to "Pachinko." After Hugh recommended Hoffmeister for "Pachinko," he worked with Kogonada to shoot episodes 1, 2, 3 and 7.
"Both directors are very, very different. Both are very strong indie filmmakers. I thought that this original concept of developing a look that then seamlessly gets carried on almost like a Biblle would be somehow limiting," he said. "I said, 'Listen, why don't we just disregard this? You know, the continuation as in Bible.' We have two very strong individual filmmakers that basically offer their own interpretation of the material. Of course, we have the same cameras and we have the same actors and the same designer, which will create some form of continuation."
The first three episodes, which take place in Sunja's childhood home of Yeongdo, Busan in Korea, set the scene, introduce the characters and advance the plot all at once, blending together almost seamlessly into a sturdy foundation for the rest of the story, which takes off from there and only continues to branch out. Viewers meet Sunja, the central matriarch tying four different generations of her family together, and watch her make the choices that dictate the future of her family. To Hoffmeister it felt like building the runway for the plane to take off.
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"Because we have these two significant timelines, we talked a lot about, 'Should we distinguish?' and Koganada and I really agreed very, very quickly that one should not distinguish between the times visually," he said. "We thought it would be far more interesting if we kept the visual similar so it is more a contemplation about space than about different times, almost to make the times feel as if they were to happen simultaneously, which, you know, in one way in Sunja's character it happens simultaneously [through] her memory and identity."
Physical space emphasizes the diasporic element of the series. The passage of time marks change as the series oscillates back and forth between Sunja's youth and her old age, but location solidifies the true sacrifices Sunja made for her children.
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"We definitely decided on space as the main focus of setting the show because of what I think it does psychologically," Hoffmeister said. "And that's why I think [episodes] 1, 2 and 3 could run continuous as one long film, because they really ground the characters for later when they actually go into the diaspora or when they move away, you always have this feeling of a very, very strong rooting of place in their hearts."
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Despite working on a distinct half of the series with Kogonada while Juston Chon and his director of photography Ante Chang shot the other episodes, Hoffmeister wanted the series itself to be the focus for viewers, rather than his distinct style shining through the meaning of the story.
"What I personally am always interested in as a cinematographer is you create something, but you don't want it to be asking for its own attention,'" he said. "It always has to be that the only thing that is important is the film itself. I always try to get past that admiration. When [I shot] scenes, lots of the choices are basically driven by the actual atmosphere of the scene."
That being said, Hoffmeister did share how some "Chapter One" scenes came together.
A montage of scenes out in nature as well as day to day life develop the bond between young Sunja (Yu-na Jeong) and her father Hoonie (Dae Ho Lee), including a scene where she meets him out in the fields where he works, and he shows Sunja a dragonfly.
"It's very simple. It was sunset and we had 20 minutes," Hoffmeister started. "That's actually a funny story. We had scouted a very specific field in that village where we were shooting, and that field had burned down like literally three days before we wanted to shoot there. It was really difficult to change the schedule so we had to really look for a field and literally, almost by chance, we found this little spot, and we just raced there at the end of the day, and the sun was setting and we had a steady cam. We literally walked into the field with a camera and then we just shot for 20 minutes almost continuously. That very much lives of the moment that it was created in."
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Sunja's father Hoonie (Dae Ho Lee) dies in the first episode, leaving Sunja and her mother to fend for themselves. In her grief, Sunja runs out to the beach where her father has watched her dive to the ocean floor for abalone, wading into the water and almost being overtaken by the tide.
"That was actually quite a technically difficult bit because we were shooting in this one little cove near Busan, and we needed a big crane, a technotelescopic crane, that weighs like a few tons. It's a very complicated technical apparatus," Hoffmeister said. "We had to hire ship that would actually take the crane onto it, drive the crane into the cove and lift it off the ship onto the ground. And once that sits there, it can't move anymore. We prepped that sequence for literally weeks. because we really have to make sure where to place the crane. Then the ship really came lifted that thing off, and then we shot the sequence with her walking in the water, and that was just so touching because the moment when she actually enters the water it was actually rising because the tide was coming in, and it almost goes over her. It's just beautiful."
As a self-proclaimed outsider to the countries and cultures within "Pachinko," Hoffmeister still hopes the show carries meaning for every viewer.
"This is also a conversation between different Koreans about what it is to be Korean and also a tribute by some of the younger generation to the hardship that they feel their parents or grandparents have gone through," he said. "[There's also] this idea of how history shapes us, how our personal decisions shape us, how there is a lineage between generations, how trauma can be passed on without saying. There's a whole lot of metaphors and themes that everybody can relate to, and I think it would be lovely if you would as a viewer have the same experience that I have, that you start by the curiosity of the setting, and then find yourself in it. I think the fact that it's all in Korean, Japanese, subtitled, there's lots of interesting things that also make a point about what visual storytelling entertainment in a streaming environment can also be."
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