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The geography and the individual faces may change, but stories of displacement and the refugee experience are never far from our current reality, if we can be bothered to look. Ukraine. Syria. Guatemala.
Somebody might try telling you that Apple TV+’s new drama Pachinko seems inaccessible for various reasons. Most of the dialogue is in Korean and Japanese. Its historical context is seeded 80+ years in the past. Many of the actors are new to American television.
But Pachinko, adapted from the novel by Min Jin Lee, is ultimately only inaccessible if you lack empathy. The eight-episode drama, like its source material, is emotionally epic and tells a gripping yarn, one that is entirely specific to the experience of 20th-century Koreans in their home country and Japan but has traces of countless other immigrant experiences, forced and unforced. Pachinko is a harrowing portrait of suffering balanced against an elating tale of familial resilience and female strength.
TV showrunner Soo Hugh (The Terror) has kept the core characters and narrative from Lee’s book — one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years — but has given its structure a major shakeup.
Lee built her multi-generational saga over three “books,” told chronologically starting in 1910 and culminating in 1989. Hugh is, at all times, juggling two storylines simultaneously. The first introduces Sunja (Yu-na Jeon as a child, Minha Kim as a teen and young adult), raised by her mother (Inji Jeong’s Yangjin) and father (In-ji Jeong) in hard-working poverty at a boarding house in a fishing village a ferry ride from Japanese-occupied Busan. An interaction with a Korean-born Japanese fish broker (Lee Minho) with shady and powerful ties leads Sunja to Osaka, leaving everything behind for a new life in a country that wants no part of her.
Decades later, Sunja’s grandson, New York finance whiz kid Solomon (Jin Ha), is frustrated by his lack of advancement, but sees an opportunity to return to Japan to execute a key land deal involving a hotel stalled by a Korean landowner who refuses to sell. Going back to his roots lets Solomon reunite with his father Mozasu (Soji Arai), who has gotten rich off the gambling console game of pachinko, and his grandmother Sunja (Yuh-Jung Youn). The trip forces him to realize that while some things have changed in Japanese attitudes toward Korean residents, many prejudices remain.
Lee’s novel builds its characters and their journey in a methodical yet fast-moving push through history over 500 fully inhabited pages, with Sunja as the thread connecting things, if not always clearly the main character. It could have been adapted as a three-season TV show keeping Lee’s linearity, but then you’d have introduced audiences to characters who would appear in a couple of episodes and never return, keeping the seasons and the storylines separate — almost an anthology.
The approach here allows Ha to be a presence presumably for the duration of the series, prevents viewers from having to wait to get to Minari Oscar winner Youn, and lets a lesser-known star like Minha Kim build a profile across what will be multiple seasons. Though the intercutting of storylines takes on a whiplash pace, it allows Hugh and directors Kogonada (After Yang) and Justin Chon (Blue Bayou) to connect and underline recurring themes in a way that — while making this version of Pachinko perhaps a little more conventional than the novel — fits the new medium perfectly, accentuating every layer of generational adversity. And on a purely practical level, given that the show is being produced for an American streamer, it helps Hugh foreground the Solomon storyline (with co-star Jimmi Simpson as Solomon’s boss in Tokyo), in which some English is spoken as a gateway.
Apple hasn’t made English the dominant language in Pachinko, mind you, and Hugh very cleverly codes the Korean subtitles in yellow and the Japanese in blue. That’s helpful for Western ears unfamiliar with linguistic differences, but you could do the same thing by putting “[English]” or “[Korean]” in front of the subtitles. The strategy here adds a visual component, letting audiences see how a line from a Japanese authority interrupting a conversation between Korean characters could be an intrusion, in addition to hearing it. It also smartly concretizes how different assimilated characters code switch. When Solomon is speaking Japanese, but switches to the Korean word for “grandmother” or “family,” for example, the personalized nature of his choices becomes visually apparent.
The payoffs for this little bit of extra audience work are immediately clear and it’s a good way to push us more deeply into a world that is, at times, inhospitable for its inhabitants. Opening text, which gives the background for Japanese colonization and the wave of emigration it prompted, ends with “Despite this, the People endured. Families endured,” with “endured” as a carefully selected word. Pachinko isn’t a story about suffering, but it’s a story full of suffering, with the prejudice and poverty and disease in the foreground — and that’s before you get to a stand-alone episode, one created entirely for the series, that focuses on one of the region’s most devastating tragedies.
But it isn’t an inherently tragic series. The show’s title sequence is a glorious thing, starting with stern documentary footage of occupation and colonization and militarization, interrupted with the main characters joyfully dancing in one of Mozasu’s pachinko parlors to The Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live For Today.” Every dance move, every character placement is considered and, in keeping with the lyrics to the song, it’s a promise that every episode, no matter how bleak, will always have this slice of hope. It’s beautiful.
Kogonada and Chon maintain that beauty, seamlessly combining Korean and Japanese locations with scenes filmed in Canada and handsomely staging the evolution of two countries across years of formative change. It’s a natural beauty and a human beauty with consummate attention to detail, from the production design in every residence to the long stretches dedicated to ordinary rituals of making white rice or preparing kimchi for fermentation.
And the performances are beautiful as well. Youn benefits from a liberal expansion of Sunja’s story from the last third of the book, and no actor so conveys the polar extremes of the material’s sadness and ebullience, sometimes with precious little dialogue. Ha, who has been on the verge of stardom with roles in Devs and Love Life and with stage work, bursts through with a swaggering, thoughtful performance as a man torn between three worlds. Building off of what the other two Sunjas accomplish in their scenes, Kim embodies the series’ ideas about the power of resilience in two cultures dominated by men, and it’s astonishing how she takes a character weighed down into solemnity by a difficult youth and turns dourness into determination. I admired how Lee keeps Hansu inscrutable, if generally stylish and menacing, as well as strong supporting turns by Steve Sanghyun Noh, Eunchae Jung and Arai in roles that will become more central in subsequent seasons.
Because of Hugh’s structural choices, Pachinko moves through the book’s first third completely and gets to most of the closing third in this introductory season, but there’s an entire middle of the book that has barely been touched. I’ll be interested to see how that material is woven together with what I would assume will be new material from the Solomon story and possibly beyond.
My biggest regret upon finishing the book was not having another 500 pages of this story, so I’m not just interested to see how future seasons go — I’m eager. This is a strong, stirring, timeless start.
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