Masterful ‘Pachinko’ spans generations in a story of the forces that shape a family
A Korean girl and her descendants face triumphs and setbacks in the beautifully photographed, magnificently acted Apple TV+ series.
The epic eight-part Apple TV+ series “Pachinko” kicks off with what might just be the most glorious and exhilarating opening credits sequence of any program this century, with the multi-generational cast dancing joyfully in a pachinko arcade to the sounds of the Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live For Today” — and the great news is, each episode that follows is a masterfully crafted, beautifully photographed, magnificently acted and profoundly resonant piece of work you’ll never forget.
This is storytelling at its best: culturally significant and specific, yet universal in its themes. Filled with moments of triumphs great and small, setbacks piercing and lasting. A tale of one family’s struggles and achievements spanning most of the 20th century that is pinpoint-accurate to its time and place, yet has a certain impressionistic, idealized and fable-like quality to it.
Based on the sprawling and widely acclaimed novel by Min Jin Lee, created for television for Soo Hugh (who wrote or co-wrote all eight episodes) and directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, “Pachinko” frequently switches between 20th century timelines as it follows one Korean family (and the people who will become the most important factors in their lives) across some 75 years. With different actors portraying certain central characters through the generations, languages switching from Korean to Japanese to English, and various locales, it could have been difficult to keep everything straight — but thanks to the crisp writing and the universally fine performances and just enough visual cues indicating where we are, it’s not a daunting task at all.
An eight-part series premiering with three episodes Friday on Apple TV+. A new episode will premiere each Friday through April 29.
“Pachinko” begins in the early parts of the 20th century in the small fishing village of Busan, where we meet Yangjin (Inji Jeong), whose alcoholic father has sold her off to be the bride of Hoonie (Dae Ho Lee), a town outcast with a cleft palate. As it turns out, Hoonie is a kind and gentle and truly noble man who dotes on his young daughter Sunja (Yu-na Jeon), a warm and sunny and bright young girl who loves spending time with her father, even during these dark times, as Japanese colonizers have occupied Korea and local troops rule the way with an iron hand. (Even a drunken conversation in which a local fisherman fantasizes about punching a Japanese soldier can have dire consequences.)
When Sunja is a teenager (now played by Minha Kim), she catches the attention of the dashing fish broker Hansu (Lee Minho), perceived as an authoritative but fair businessman. Hansu strikes up a romance with Sunja and impregnates her — and only then informs her that he has a wife and three daughters back in Japan. He will always take of her care and the child financially, but the idea of taking Sunja back to Japan is out of the question.
From time to time we flash forward to the late 1980s and the story of Solomon (Jin Ha), the American-educated, Korean financier who makes the journey to Osaka in pursuit of a major business deal. Solomon feels trapped between worlds; Americans usually guess he’s Japanese first, then Chinese, while he still faces Japanese bigotry toward his heritage. Soji Arai plays Solomon’s father, Mozasu, who runs a pachinko arcade in Osaka and is considering opening a second parlor, while the great Yuh-Jung Youn, introduced to a wide American audience in her Oscar-winning role in “Minari,” is now playing Sunja — who is the grandmother to Solomon.
Back in the 1930s, we see Sunja facing a choice that will reverberate through her family for decades to come: stay in Korea, where Hansu will always make sure she is taken care of financially but will never leave his family for her, or accept an opportunity to make the journey to Japan, where she will almost certainly struggle to make ends meet but will live with honor. Off to Japan she goes, knowing she might never return to her homeland.
These machinations are only the beginning of this sweeping, multi-faceted tale, which invokes monumental, real-world events into the storyline but often feels like an intimate, dialogue-driven, culturally acute extended family drama. With the beautiful score appropriately reflecting the mood of each scene, sometimes breathtaking cinematography and exquisite production design, “Pachinko” always feels of the time it means to capture. We are forever seeing how choices made by one character can have a ripple effect on others, years and sometimes decades down the line. As much as this is a meticulously detailed examination of one family’s journey, so much of what they experience will almost certainly feel familiar to you and your loved ones, no matter what your heritage. “Pachinko” is to be treasured.