At the start of the Apple TV+ series Pachinko, an arrogant child prodigy named Solomon – who is of Korean descent, but was born in Japan – tries to secure a huge real estate deal by getting an old Korean woman to sell her house in Tokyo. After regaling him with memories of his painful life, the woman suddenly said, “Tell me frankly. When old people talk about suffering, isn’t it boring? Solomon replies, “Isn’t that the point? burden we.”
He is wrong, but not completely. You’ll understand why when you watch this adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s best-selling novel, a deeply felt hit by a Korean-American team – writer Soo Hugh and directors Kogonada and Justin Chon. Chronicle of the difficult rise of a Korean family for 70 years, Pachinko offers a cornucopian narrative that is part multi-generational epic, part immigrant saga, part history lesson, part cultural bigotry, part high-class soap opera, and part celebration of women’s ability to survive even in the circumstances the darkest. Flooded with great emotion, this is not a series that shy away from trying to make you cry.
Juggle with the chronology of the novel, Pachinko interleaves two periods. The first begins during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century with the birth of Sunja, a poor girl who is obviously special. By the time she hits her teenage years – where she’s played by incredible newcomer Kim Min-ha – Sunja wins the love of two very different men: a handsome gangster (played by Korean idol Lee Min-ho) and a a Protestant pastor (Steve Sanghyun Noh), who marries her, then takes them to Japan, where they live in the miserable Korean ghetto of Osaka.
The second installment is set in 1989 Japan, where Sunja is now a grandmother brilliantly played by Youn Yuh-jung, who won the Oscar last year for minari. The action centers around his smug but anxious grandson, Solomon (played terribly by Jin Ha), who works at a New York bank and has returned to Japan to close the deal I mentioned earlier.
Solomon believes that such a financial blow will allow him to escape the stigma that comes with being both Korean and the son of a lower-class man who owns a saloon where people play pachinko, the pinball-like game of chance whose unpredictability becomes the story’s central metaphor. Unlike his grandmother, who mourns her lost home in Korea, Solomon yearns to shake off her heritage and become a modern cosmopolitan defined solely by her personal talents.
Time does not allow me to do justice to PachinkoDickensian profusion of living characters, who are beautifully acted and speak differently in Korean, Japanese, or English (with color-coded subtitles). I also can’t begin to tell you how much stuff happens across the eight episodes. You get death, murder, suicide, love affairs, arrests, illnesses, broken homes, broken hearts, fires, earthquakes, a few absurd coincidences, and many intimate moments of great delicacy.
Through all these changes are a few constants, including the hardships, losses and misery that befell Korea after the nation was annexed in 1910 by Japan, which proceeded to exploit its resources and workers. Such material exploitation is further aggravated by the vicious anti-Korean fanaticism of the Japanese, who have called the Korean people “cockroaches.” When Solomon enters Japanese boardrooms in 1989, he is still treated as a man of inferior blood who cannot really be trusted.
The other constant is the indomitable Korean portrayed by Sunja who, thanks in large part to Kim and Youn’s memorable performances, is both the backbone and the beating heart of the show. Sunja accepts all kinds of beatings, but refuses to submit, either to circumstances or to the Japanese. Even as she thinks longingly of her homeland or the distinctive taste of Korean rice, she wonders: what’s the point of clinging to the past?
In their own way, Sunja and Solomon both dream of Koreans finally earning the respect they deserve. And this series reminds us that they did just that – in pop culture terms, anyway. Just think. Parasite was the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. squid games conquered the small screens of the world. K-Pop group BTS is making international teenagers swoon. And come now Pachinkoa show whose groundbreaking take on Korean history in both its cruelty and triumph, will be remembered as a television landmark.