A family drama that matches The Godfather saga not just in combined length but also in sweeping epicness, the eight-episode adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko is the second great television show of the year. It’s worth noting that like the first—the cerebral sci-fi drama Severance—Pachinko also hails from Apple TV+.
Meticulously plotted and often overwhelmingly moving, it’s a tale rooted in the emotional reality of a very specific community, but so resoundingly universal in its themes of decency, identity, and human resilience that you’ll be convinced that you’re watching a show specifically about yourself. Four generations of one Korean family experience displacement and death in a story that seamlessly weaves the past into the present. They suffer humiliation for how they speak, what they eat, and where they come from—first at the hands of Japanese invaders and then American overlords.
It’s a tale that spans nearly a century; Pachinko begins in rural Korea in the 1910s, and over the course of eight lush episodes, travels to 1920s Yokohama and Osaka of the 1980s. Sunja, played by Jeon Yu-na as a child, Kim Min-ha as a young adult and the Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung as an elderly woman, is the connective tissue that binds the story as it goes back and forth in time with the grace of a debutante walking down an intricately carved wooden staircase. This is perhaps the show’s most significant deviation from the source novel, which presented its story in chronological order.
Like the pachinko gambling machines that both the book and the show are named after, Sunja’s life is shaped as much by events outside of her control as it is by her sheer determination to challenge her destiny. In an early flashback scene, we’re shown how the house rigs the pachinko machines ever so slightly in its favour. The gamblers are led to believe they have power, that with a slight variation in their hand movements, they can control the game. But they do not realise that power is an illusion; without hope, they’d have no reason to continue playing.
Priorities change with time; when Sunja was young, she experienced unspeakable hardship as she struggled to survive as an outsider in a foreign land. As a teen, she moved to Japan with her pastor husband, and there, started a kimchi business as a means to provide for their struggling family. As an old woman, she can only hang her head in shame as she watches her successful investment banker grandson Solomon, who is trapped (unknowingly) in an endless pursuit of wealth. Having assimilated into American culture, or so he believes, he returns to Osaka to close a real-estate deal that could help him move up the corporate ladder. There, he reconnects with the past that he was convinced he’d left behind.
In a terrific scene midway through the season, Solomon uses his grandmother as a trump card in his attempts at convincing another expat Korean lady to sell her prime property to his firm. She offers them a meal, and after one spoonful of rice, Sunja is almost reduced to tears. A confused Solomon asks her what’s wrong, and Sunja tells him that she has just been transported back to her homeland—what they’ve been served is Korean rice; it’s nuttier, chewier, Sunja tells him. When she was young, white rice would be a luxury; now, they eat it with every meal. No wonder Solomon doesn’t understand; he was sent to America as a teen, a privilege afforded for him by the sacrifices made by his elders.
She buys jarred kimchi these days, Sunja says, recalling the days when she would hustle on the streets of 1930s Osaka, selling the condiment to passers-by who’d scrunch their noses at its fermented aroma. We’re often told about Sunja’s stint as a hawker, but we see what this time in her life was like only towards the end of the season’s magnificent finale. Pachinko values the art of storytelling; tales of the past, and the desire to tell them, is often the only thing that older people have left. This is an idea that the show doubles down on in its stirring final moments, which I won’t spoil here.
And so, Pachinko allows its dense story room to breathe. Because of its non-linear structure, the emotional payoffs arrive late. The kimchi-selling sequence is just one example. The penultimate episode, for instance, focuses entirely on one character—the suave yakuza enforcer Hansu, played by perhaps the most famous person in the ensemble, Lee Min-ho. Hansu, we’re told, decided that the only way to survive as a Korean under Japanese rule was to pretend he’s one of them. Like so many other characters in the show, he fooled himself into believing that social ascension can only be achieved through appeasement. He enters into an illicit affair with Sunja, and remains a distant presence in her life in later years. But in episode seven, centred around The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, we’re taken into his past.
This episode, like three others, is directed by Kogonada, who brings a remarkable stillness to the story. I’ll assume that it was his idea to set the opening credits sequence to a vibrant dance number in which every cast member shakes a leg in the aisle of a pachinko parlour, since he did something similar in his recent sci-fi feature After Yang. The other half of the show is directed by Justin Chon, who has a gift for capturing an undercurrent of rage in his films, usually about minorities. In another example of the show’s visual inventiveness, the subtitles are colour-coded according to languages.
I’d imagine that most people who’ve been making trips to theatres in our country recently, to watch a certain film about the violent displacement of a persecuted community, might not be interested in watching a heartfelt eight-hour drama almost entirely in foreign languages. But Pachinko is a terrific example of how to highlight the harsh realities of the immigrant experience in a humanist manner, without compromising on anger against the oppressors, but making sure to not incite hate against them.
An important lesson imparted upon Sunja by her father is passed down from generation to generation, like an intangible family heirloom. Never underestimate the power of kindness, he told her. And it is out of this very kindness that the show, and the people in it, are offering us a piece of this inheritance. We mustn’t turn it down.
Creator – Soo Hugh
Directors – Kogonada, Justin Chon
Cast – Youn Yuh-jung, Lee Min-ho, Kim Min-ha, Jin Ha, Soji Arai, Jimmi Simpson
Rating – 4.5/5