It’s interesting that a series named Pachinko would hardly feature the gambling game throughout the eight-episode first season. But Apple TV+’s new series, based on the 2017 best-selling novel by Min Jin Lee, winningly examines four generations of a Korean family during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the subsequent racism that followed. It’s an epic story of family, race, and the great burden passed on from one generation to another while searching for great success. (And, it does feature a fantastic opening sequence in a pachinko parlor that you won’t want to miss).
Korean entertainment continues to make big waves in America after the successes of Squid Game, Minari, and Parasite. Even though Pachinko is based on a best-seller and features some spectacular talent, it’s still a risky endeavor for Apple as the first major trilingual U.S. series told in Korean, Japanese, and English. Thankfully, it’s up to the task and is already one of the best series available on the service.
Pachinko unfolds through the eyes of Sunja, the only daughter of Korean boarding house owners in the town of Busan, with the first episode focusing on her childhood and upbringing. In 1910, young Sunja (Jeon Yu-na) begins learning about the power that Japan holds over her nation. During this time, known as the Japanese colonial period, Japan occupied Korea and forced its people into servitude. Despair permeated throughout the villages, and while some vocally shared their grievances, any insubordination was quickly snuffed out. But to start, we learn that Sunja’s mother Yang Jin (Inji Jeong) had been struggling with her unsuccessful pregnancies, and after seeing a wise woman whose spirituality promised a healthy child, Sunja was successfully born into the world. Her mother was then promised that through Sunja the family line would thrive.
As a teenager, Sunja (Kim Min-ha) begins to discover her sexuality and her place in the world. She meets Koh Hansu (Lee Min-ho), a suave businessman with a questionable background who uses his cunning and power to puts Sunja into an inescapable predicament. It’s only through the generosity of another, Isak Baek (Steve Sang-Hyun Noh), that she is given the possibility of starting a new life in Japan. Sunja’s story is then defined by her immigration and how she’ll survive in a new land.
Lastly, in 1989, an elderly Sunja (Academy Award-winner Youn Yuh-Jung) wishes to return to Korea, and the show’s focus shifts to her grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) as he continues to face the racism that’s still prevalent in Japanese society. He’s trying to make his own success in life, instead of following in his father’s (Soji Arai) footsteps running a pachinko parlor. After being given an American education and being employed by a big banking firm, Solomon attempts to rise in the company by closing a deal with a Korean landowner (Park Hye-jin). (Of note, this was a bubble period in Japanese history, where there were ultra-low interest rates inflating real estate and stock market prices. Sound familiar?) The property is the last sticking point in a major beautification project. In the past, the bank has presented her with significant buyout opportunities, but she keeps turning them down. She’s a Korean immigrant, and owning this home means more to her than Solomon could ever fathom. Even if he’s the grandson of a Korean immigrant himself, all he sees is an opportunity and he’s determined to make her sell. It’s within these disparate timelines that Pachinko establishes itself.
Directors Kogonada (After Yang) and Justin Chon (Blue Bayou) share the director’s chair, with each of them taking on half of the episodes in Season 1, and bringing their naturalistic direction to the series. Beyond that, both men have their own immigration stories; Kogonada’s father grew up in Japan, while Chon’s Blue Bayou directly discusses the immigrant experience.
Series creator Soo Hugh also made the decision to forego the structure that was built into Min Jin Lee’s novel, where each era of Sunja’s story was separated into different books. For example, the introduction of Solomon’s struggles in 1989 would appear chronologically near the end of the novel. Instead, the series juggles different timelines and character perspectives (Kim Min-ha’s Sunja, Youn Yuh-Jung’s Sunja, and Jin Ha’s Solomon) continuously. Some of this timeshifting is made easier by having the older Sunja dissolve directly over her younger self, but it can still be confusing. To aid in some of the location shifts, since Pachinko takes place in Japan and Korea (with English also appearing as a spoken language), the subtitles are color-coded to emphasize when the characters are speaking Japanese or Korean—it’s an important distinction because it shows how the Koreans had to assimilate into Japanese culture, and could no longer speak their own language.
Even though Pachinko is a story about Korean immigrants facing great adversity, their plight is important for American viewers to witness. In an attempt to get the Korean landowner to sell her property, Solomon decides to bring his grandmother with him as a bargaining tool. During their meeting when Sunja is served Korean white rice, she’s reminded of her heritage and what she left behind when she left Korea. It’s a subtle moment that is lost on Solomon, but through Sunja this white rice that we take for granted held great meaning. In another pivotal sequence, we witness the atrocities Koreans were faced with after a national disaster, as a man looks on while the Japanese murder his countrymen. It easily translates to slavery and racism in America, something that still dominates our lives. Japan’s history of xenophobia against Koreans is also on display here, which may not be something many Westerners were aware of.
Despite these many different elements to the series, the superb ensemble cast holds everything together. From the legendary Youn Yuh-Jung to the K-Drama superstar Lee Min-ho, everybody is bringing their best to Pachinko. Of note is the expressiveness that Youn brings to her scenes—especially one she shares with her sister-in-law, Kyunghee (Felice Choi). While Kyunghee is talking, the camera focuses on how Youn is reacting to the information. It’s much more than just listening to her sister-in-law, but rather internalizing what is being said through subtle facial movements. Youn is simply a remarkable actor, and thankfully the world is being shown her talent even at this late stage in her career. On the other hand, Lee, who has been a Korean sensation since his performance in the 2009 Korean adaptation of Boys Over Flowers, mostly makes his presence felt through his stature. Taking place during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the episode is a standout not only for Lee’s performance, but also for the captivating background of this enigmatic character. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention actress Kim Min-ha and her performance as Sunja—it’s here that Pachinko really sings, as she has a heaping amount of determination to survive. In another instance, she shows the audience the depth of her heartbreak while she journeys into an inhospitable new land.
Despite being a riveting adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s novel, there are few things that hold Pachinko back from being a perfect adaptation. The most glaring issue tends to be Solomon’s storyline and how it fits into the main narrative. His character is simply not as interesting as Sunja, and his negotiations with the Korean landowner are stretched too thin. Then there’s Solomon’s long-lost step-sister/lover Hana (Mari Yamamoto) that works as a mystery that needs to be solved, but the result of that story thread comes across poorly. While his arc does show how prevalent racism continued to be in Japan through the ‘80s, the burden of expectations from his family, and how a younger generation is affected by the Korean diaspora, it’s a step down from what’s going on with Sunja’s plight. Another issue is how the pacing seems in conflict with the story that’s being told. Teenage Sunja is given many episodes to develop in Busan, whereas her time in Japan is fractured. When Pachinko is finally ready to show Sunja trying to make it in Japan on her own, the season frantically ends without a cohesive stopping point.
Still, Pachinko is a sweeping epic filled with fantastic performances and a captivating story of survival. The entire ensemble is excellent, especially with Youn Yuh-Jung and Lee Min-ho showcasing their immense talent. Even though this is a specific story about Koreans and their lives over the last century, many of the hardships they face are universal. Apple TV+’s gamble has paid off— or in pachinko terms, they hit the jackpot.
Max Covill is a freelance writer for Paste Magazine. For more anime, movie, and television news and reviews you can follow him, @mhcovill.
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