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Apple TV+'s book adaptation weaves a sweeping, multi-generational family story
It's the gift of stories to take us places we could never go, sometimes to places we've never even considered much at all. That's true of tales of the fantastic but also of stories set in the world we know, whether they're set in some little-visited pocket of civilization, say a small fishing island not far from the Korean port city of Busan, or depict a historical incident that sounds incomprehensible on the page, say the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, a catastrophic event in Japan that took the lives of 140,000. The penultimate episode of the first season of Pachinko, an ambitious adaptation of Min Jin Lee's generation-spanning 2017 novel of the same name, brings that catastrophe to life through the eyes of its characters. Then it finds the history within that history, showing how the aftermath of that tragedy gave rise to rumors of Korean immigrants poisoning the drinking water and plotting violent revenge and vigilante mobs determined to kill every Korean they encountered, a dark chapter that's likely unknown to many.
That incident provides one of the darkest moments in Pachinko, a series unflinching in its depiction of the troubled relationship between Japan and Korea, particularly with regards to the difficulties of being a Korean under Japanese rule or in Japan itself, both as a first-generation immigrant and in the generations that followed. Spanning the early decades of the 20th century through the end of the 1980s, the series follows several generations of a Korean family that, as the series opens, seems unlikely to travel far beyond the village of Yeongdo, where they scrape together a living fishing and taking in lodgers. The forces of history, however, have other plans, particularly for Sunja (played as a young woman by Minha Kim), who falls into a relationship with Koh Hansu (Lee Minho), a powerful fish broker from Japan — at least most recently. His roots as a Korean living in Japan are later revealed to be part of his complicated story.
In scenes set years later, we meet an older Sunja (played by Youn Yuh Jung, best known to Western viewers for her Oscar-winning role as the grandmother in Minari) going about her life in Osaka, where her son Mozasu (Soji Arai) runs a pachinko parlor (with eyes on expansion) and where she soon welcomes back her grandson Solomon (Jin Ha), who's returned from New York on business. That this business involves attempting to buy a valuable piece of property owned by an elderly Korean woman standing in the way of a real estate development gets at the series' heart. Sunja and her descendants have made a place for themselves in Japan, but is it really theirs? And can they call it home?
Soo Hugh (The Terror) serves as the series' creator and showrunner and has the unenviable task of trying to adapt a 500-page novel with dozens of characters set across several eras into an episodic TV series. Splitting the narrative into two (and later more) time periods makes the story more manageable and, more importantly, it lets the characters and their situations talk to each other across the decades, finding rhymes between Sunja's experiences as a young woman and her experiences later in life, as well as those of her descendants. (Think The Godfather Part II.) The world changes, attitudes shift, but desires, prejudices, shortcomings, and the ability to forgive remain stubbornly persistent.
Beyond the smart construction, Pachinko benefits from remarkable talent both in front and behind the camera. Kogonada (Columbus, and the new After Yang) and Justin Chon (Blue Bayou) alternate directing duties. Each brings an intense attention to detail, both to the world of the series — whether it's a '20s Yokohama filled with American sailors or the cash-mad Tokyo of the 1980s — and the emotions of the characters. In this latter task they are aided by an abundance of fine, sensitive performances. For Western viewers, Youn and Ha are likely the best-known names, but Kim is no less a standout. She plays Sunja as a woman defined by her determination but aware of how dangerous the world can be.
The eight episodes of this first season also work quite well as a TV series, rather than a long story stretched across a set number of episodes. Though it's far from a soap opera, Hugh understands how to end an episode on a note that makes it hard to wait to watch the next. Sometimes that means unexpectedly bringing back someone who seemed to have left that story. Sometimes, as in the remarkable final moments of Episode 3, it means holding the camera on a character's face, watching her think as she contemplates a decision that will reshape the rest of her life — and the lives of the generations that will follow her into a demanding, unfair, but often beautiful world.
Postscript: 2022 is shaping up to be the year of great opening credits dance sequences. Pachinko has one to rival Peacemaker.
Premieres: Friday, March 25 on Apple TV+. Three episodes will be available, with the remaining five to follow weekly.
Who's in it: Jin Ha, Youn Yuh Jung, Minha Kim
Who's behind it: Soo Hugh
For fans of: Sprawling family stories, historical dramas
How many episodes we watched: 8