Review: ‘Pachinko’ Turns Korean Woman’s Journey Into Must-Try TV
Apple+’s adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s historical fiction epic Pachinko oscillates between several phases of the life of its heroine Sunja: growing up in Korea under the yoke of Japanese domination, where she is played as a girl in the 1920s by Yu-na Jeon, and as a young woman in the 1920s. 1920 played by Minha Kim; then her retirement in the late 80s in Japan (where she is played by Youn Yuh-jung), looking back on the many triumphs, tragedies and compromises of her life. In a scene from 1989, Sunja and her banker grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) are at the home of another Korean expat, who surprises his guests by serving them Korean rice. Solomon can’t tell the difference from the type of rice he grew in Osaka, but Sunja explains that the rice grown in Korea is nuttier and a bit sweeter, though harder to chew. It’s too subtle a distinction for Solomon to grasp, but it means everything to his grandmother.
The pleasures and depths of Pachinkoadapted by Soo Hugh and directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, are so tactile that by the end of this magnificent eighth episode of the first season, you’ll feel like you’re tasting the sweet nuttiness that fills elder Sunja with so much joy unexpected.
The Japanese occupation of Korea, which lasted from 1910 until the end of World War II, has not been chronicled much in Western art. But even though it was well traveled territory, Pachinko covers the subject with such art and grace that it would always seem special. It is a family saga that combines the density of prose fiction with the specific advantages of television.
The first and most important example of the latter comes from the ability of actors to bring characters from the page to life in the flesh. The three Sunjas are wonderful. It’s no surprise coming from Yuh-Jung Youn, a legendary Korean film and TV star who won an Oscar last year for her role as a grandmother in minari. But it’s essentially the first on-screen role for Yu-na Jeon and Minha Kim, and they hold the screen just as easily as their revered septuagenarian counterpart. And their mannerisms are perfectly in sync, so when one Sunja smiles or cries, it instantly evokes memories of others doing the same.
There are fewer opportunities for the Kim version to smile, as she exists in the most emotionally and politically difficult phase of the story. After growing up in the relative tranquility of the boarding house her parents run in a rural village, teenage Sunja falls in love with Hansu (Lee Min-Ho), a vivacious and charismatic local official who has decided that the best way to survive the occupation is to collaborate with the Japanese and adopt as many trappings of their culture as possible. (An incredibly powerful later episode, involving the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, offers more insight into how he ended up this way.) Their affair inevitably becomes messy, requiring Isak’s intercession. (Steve Sang-Hyun Noh), a traveling kind. Christian missionary.
Sunja steps back a bit for the ’80s scenes, which feature Solomon returning to Japan from his life in New York to help close a huge real estate deal and to search for his long-lost stepsister once again. He and a Japanese colleague swap stories about how every American they meet likes to play “Which Asian am I?” guessing game. Because Korea is rarely a guess, Solomon says he just nods his head if someone suggests he’s Japanese. Over the course of the season, we see how he feels caught between the country in which he grew up, the one where he built his career, and the one his grandmother tells him about. And these questions of cultural identity hinge satisfyingly around an examination of the vibrant Japanese economy of the time, which hauntingly resembles the times before and after the housing bubble burst here at the end. of the 2000s.
Pachinko is technically impressive on every level – it’s visually stunning, with a knockout score from Nico Muhl. The show is equally beautiful to watch in every era it covers, with the lush greens of Sunja’s pastoral childhood just as vivid as the cold blues of Solomon’s modern world. The earthquake episode not only shifts its perspective to Hansu for an entire hour, but adopts a rawer, more impressionistic style to capture both the devastation of the event and its uglier aftermath, in which Japanese citizens used it as an excuse to murder Korean immigrants. But even more subtle devices like color-coding subtitles to clarify when characters are speaking Korean or Japanese — or sometimes both in a conversation — do wonders to make the story more immersive and poignant. And the opening credits – a dazzling musical sequence written on “Live for Today”, by the Grass Roots, and set in the pachinko parlor run by Solomon’s father, Mozasu (Soji Arai) – is, like those of Peacemakera great reminder that every show would be at least five percent better if it started with a dance number.
In the ’80s scenes, Solomon works for American-born Tom (Jimmi Simpson), an American assigned to their bank’s Tokyo office for mysterious reasons. When the subject of Japanese-Korean tensions comes up, Tom wonders, “Why can’t people just get over it? It’s the past. It’s done.” He’s far from the only character who, as the theme song says, only wants to live for today. But soon and often, Pachinko makes it clear that where our people came from and what they’ve been through is still part of who we are in the present. And it delivers that message with a force of precision throughout. Don’t miss it.
The first three episodes of Pachinko will begin streaming March 25 on Apple TV+, with the remaining installments releasing weekly. I saw the eight episodes of this first season.