As the “Pachinko” finale’s end credits rolled, I frantically sifted through the press materials to make sure it wasn’t a limited series. Part of this was a matter of correct categorization, but in main, I simply could not accept that these episodes as a one and done affair.
This eight-episode season lacks for little, delivering satisfaction on a cellular level entirely on its own. For that same reason, eight episodes is not enough. Every rich moment satisfies, and each will make you ache for more.
Assuming it gets picked up for the second season that it richly deserves, that yearning desire should be fulfilled eventually. But isn’t that something? In these days of too much TV overpopulated by mediocre stories that could play out just as well in half the time, here is one series you may never want to end.
“Pachinko” is a pure and flawless beauty, written by Soo Hugh with enough weight for the story to gently impress itself on the heart and the memory, and portrayed with an uplifting buoyancy that sails the plot from one port to the next as part of a journey swirling the past through the present, showing how each sets the stage for the other.
The directing, split equally between Justin Chon (“Gook”) and Kogonada, highlights the spirit of each time and the indomitability of its travelers. Their visuals quietly capture the dichotomies that pulling at the hem of its protagonists’ lives.
Here, the camera’s gazes note a mud splash on a white bridal gown. There, a string of pearls glows in the midst of ash, chaos and death. These minute visuals collaborate with the dialogue to evoke grandeur in the lives of a family that traces its lineage to a fishing village in Busan, Korea and through the life of a woman named Sunja, tenderly played by Minha Kim as a young woman and Academy Award winner Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari“) as an elder.
Operating like the game, “Pachinko” bounces between decades, mainly pre-World War II Korea and Japan, and the 1980s, when Sunja’s American-educated grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) is focused on closing a career-changing deal at his bank. In that era, his father Mosazu (Soji Arai) provides a comfortable life for Sunja supported by the pachinko parlors he owns – a business that’s legal if not entirely viewed as respectable.
Like the game, it’s very easy to give oneself over to the unpredictability of where it goes from scene to scene, rolling back and forth through the 20th century. Episodes aren’t built around flashbacks, but timelines running in tandem with each other, connected through small choices and interruptions. Hugh rejects the standard broad dramatic sweep in these episodes but gives us the world anyway via an ocean made of moments, each a clarifying drop allowing us to appreciate the ways that one’s ancestry travels across generations and through miles of water.
Sunja as a young, uneducated woman in 1920s and 1930s Korea could not fathom the champagne problems her career-driven grandson Solomon deals with. Solomon, as a 20-something battling for his piece of glory in the financial sector, never knew a world where a bowl of rice is a luxury.
Pachinko (Apple TV+)Time and again through “Pachinko,” Sunja’s past and her descendant present align in revelatory ways, crossing oceans of time and memory that, in some moments, Youn physically evokes through simply pausing to allow herself, and the viewer, to sink into the memory of what she’s lived that informs her perspective of Solomon’s present.
The common nature of Sunja’s journey makes “Pachinko” absolutely enthralling. Kim’s placid face wears her character’s incomparable resilience; she imparts more with her gaze and the subdued tone of her voice than the dialogue alone can say. In the times Chon and Kogonada lock the camera on her as those around her are talking, her silence or a stoic tear tumbling down her cheek are the details that slay the scene.
“It is not a shame to survive,” someone tells her in a situation that threatens to make her believe otherwise. Steadily and with sure footing, Kim’s performance realizes that wisdom for us.
Youn’s Sunja complements this performance, showing her on the other side of a mountain of triumphs and heartaches her young version has yet to travel, and only some of which we see in these hours. Hugh’s script makes the most of Youn’s talent for finding Sunja’s malleability in hard moments, giving her the way of a matriarch who refuses to apologize past circumstances, choose instead to be heard, understood and respected.
Sunja harshly reckons with the long reach of this bigotry and classism in her youth, spent first a Korea colonized by Japan before migrating to Osaka, where Koreans are treated as second-class citizens. Lee Minho’s Hansu, a charismatic bureaucrat Sunja first meets in her village, wakes her up to the world’s possibilities and its potential cruelties. But Sunja also lucks into relationships with people such as Steve Sanghyun Noh’s Isak and Eunchae Jung’s Kyunghee, whose kindness staves off any impulses she may have to slide into cynicism.
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Some of the situations Sunja and her community finds themselves in or the expectations foisted upon her feel similar to my family’s assorted personal histories. I suspect this is why so many connected with Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel upon which the story is based; Sunja’s history and Solomon’s modern frustrations follow live trajectories similar to that of most people.
Colonialism is common enough for many non-white viewers to relate to Sunja’s life, but it is just as crucial for “Pachinko” to receive recognition for its heartfelt view of a history with which Western cultures are only familiar from their point of view.
This is a distinct history about an Asian family moving through three cultures, speaking Korean, Japanese and English (clearly rendered via color-coded subtitles) conveying their experience of discrimination, overcoming and community. It’s also a tale with many characters whose stories have only begun to be told. Mosazu is introduced, but much about his life with Sunja hasn’t been explored.
Pachinko (Apple TV+)Another major character receives a full episode devoted to their origin story later in the season, teasing their continued importance in the series’ larger arc. In lesser shows their relative lack of development would be a blight. Here, they’re among a long list of reasons that this drama deserves a future.
The narrative’s refrain reminds us of all the ways that living is a game of chance, and like pachinko itself, every outcome is entirely unpredictable.
This brings us the show’s most wonderful constant: a vivid opening credits sequence (seen below) set to The Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live For Today,” where each the main characters rambunctiously dance inside of a polychromic spectacle of pachinko parlor, wearing clothing from their era. There’s no clear sense of when this place exists, only that it is where this family won its fortunate – mainly by enduring, certainly, but also holding fast to a will strengthened by a woman’s lasting love.
The first three episodes of “Pachinko” are available now on Apple TV+ with new episodes premiering Fridays. Watch the opening credits below, via YouTube.
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