Apple’s stunning ‘Pachinko’ is so good it makes the competition look unworthy
When at its best, which is the case through nearly all its eight-episode first season, “Pachinko” is a lesson in how to do melodrama right. In its acting, production, respect for character over machination (though there is plenty of machination) and for stillness over action (there is some action), in its interest in domestic details and the limitless depths of the human face, it transforms the most well-worn narrative gambits into something that feels real and alive and lived. That is a sort of trick, of course — this is a TV series, after all, expensively mounted, with good-looking people in Dramatic Situations. Yet it makes the competition look obvious, overwrought, unworthy.
Adapted by Soo Hugh (“The Terror”), with significant additions and rearrangements, from the 2017 novel by Min Jin Lee, and directed variously by Kogonada (“After Yang”) and Justin Chon (“Blue Bayou”), it tells the story of four generations in a Korean family, first in Korea under Japanese colonial rule and then in Japan. The series is trilingual, with Korean and Japanese represented in different colored subtitles, English being the third language; who can or cannot understand whom adds a layer to the characters, and to the storytelling.
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for everything about the TV shows and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Set among the population the Japanese call “Zainichi” — Koreans who came to Japan during colonial rule and their descendants, who were subject to legal restrictions and general discrimination — it’s a story of racism, sexism, classism, submission, resistance, assimilation and the quest for self-knowledge in a society that tells you who you are, where you belong and what you can do. If you are not prepared to weep copiously, you probably have no business watching it.
Among a large cast of characters, the central figure, both in terms of storytelling and force of onscreen personality, is Sunja, compatibly (and soulfully) played as a little girl by Yuna, a young woman by Minha Kim and a grandmother by the great Yuh-Jung Youn, who won the 2021 supporting actress Oscar for “Minari.” All three have a gift for acting with their eyes, of expressing what they don’t, do and are in the process of coming to understand.
The series, which begins in 1915 and moves back and forth in time, takes Sunja from her family’s home in rural Korea to Japan, by way of an unplanned pregnancy with one man — the dapper Hansu (Lee Minho), a Zainichi Korean who travels from Japan to oversee the fish market — and a convenient but fruitful marriage with another, Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh), a Christian preacher on his way to Osaka. There they will join his brother Yoseb (Junwoo Han) and sister-in-law Kyunghee (Eunchae Jung), who will become Sunja’s best friend. In all the stages of her life, Sunja evinces a quiet, practical resolve; humble, she will not be humbled. She’s both an unusual and a classic sort of heroine, familiar yet fresh, like the series that contains her.
Solomon (Jin Ha), Sunja’s grandson, whose father, Mozasu (Soji Arai), runs the pachinko parlors (think slot machines) that have brought the family wealth, is what might be called the secondary main character, and for most of the season the storytelling shifts between the two of them. (They also share scenes, set in 1989.) Solomon, who has gone to school in America, works for a New York bank; frustrated over a delayed promotion — he’s a young man in a hurry — he suggests to his bosses he can convince a Korean woman, whose house is standing in the way of a client’s plans for a Tokyo hotel, to sell. He is brash, ambitious and disconnected from his roots, the product of a different generation and different material circumstances.
‘Minari’ actress Yuh-Jung Youn on the critically acclaimed family drama from Lee Isaac Chung and her legendary acting career.
He returns to Osaka, where he will reconnect with his family and interact uneasily with his American and Japanese co-workers; he’ll also begin receiving mysterious phone calls from Hana (Mari Yamamoto), the missing wild-child daughter of his father’s Japanese girlfriend, Etsuko (Kaho Minami), with whom he has history. We know that Solomon will suffer some sort of crisis because his is obviously a soul out of joint, and this is a story about the importance of kin and country, with a distinct anti-materialist slant, in which a character is content to turn down a billion yen. (I don’t know how that translates from 1989 yen into 2022 dollars but contextually, it’s a fortune.)
Matters of family versus blood course through the series. The Japanese association of ethnicity and nationality is the root of what bedevils Sunja’s family in both Korea and Japan, but one’s own ancestors and relations may stain one with shame, from within and without. And strong ties exist here between characters not biologically related, some Japanese, but as good as family.
Parallel events and characters are everywhere; cross-cutting between like actions, as simple as packing a suitcase, establishes a circular sense of history. The implied dialogue between the older Sunja and her younger selves is especially profitable, making it plain whose story this largely is, and adding an element of retrospective fatedness in the spirit of the novel. Meaningful objects turn up in different periods: a pair of little wooden ducks, a pocket watch, white rice.
Adaptation is tricky, and it’s worth noting that Lee has no official or even titular connection with the series (“I’m not an executive producer,” she told the New Yorker, “and I’m not talking about that right now”). The page is not the screen, and some of the invented material provides some of the series’ best scenes — but it’s also the source of its more obvious, less plausible, more aggressively sentimental moments. An easy labor in the book becomes a hard one in the series; an arrest over a matter of religion becomes a conventionally heroic matter of political resistance; a scene on the boat that carries Sunja to Japan, involving a Korean singer and a roomful of well-to-do Japanese, is straight out of “Casablanca”; and the portrayal of the Japanese officials in the earlier scenes, however much history may merit it, may remind one of American films from the Second World War. There are medical-drama tropes, including the evergreen Dying Yet Beautiful. This is part of the business of making Hit Television, to be sure. Still, apart from leaning a little too heavily on Nico Muhly’s score — and some instances where the normally settled camerawork goes crazy — the production for the most part succeeds through subtlety, even where the script does not.
The series does stumble a bit toward the season’s end. Oddly, the entire penultimate episode is spent creating a backstory for Hansu — in a different aspect ratio, even — seemingly to remind you that he’s part of this story too, but also in order to incorporate a historic natural disaster that led to a historic massacre of Koreans by Japanese police, military and vigilantes. This sort of late-in-the-game revelatory step backward has become a common device in long-arc television dramas, so much so that it is almost a disappointment when it happens here. While its events are artistically portrayed, it disturbs the momentum for relatively little payoff in the episode that remains; critically, it takes us away from Sunja for an hour, and a story that has focused on the ingenuity of women in what for some is a doubly challenging world. It would make more sense attached to a second season, which the unfinished business of the first implies.
We surveyed The Times TV team to come up with a list of the 75 best TV shows you can watch on Max (formerly HBO Max). And yes, your disagreement is duly noted.
I would be very surprised not to see one forthcoming. “Pachinko” feels timely, and not merely for riding the unbreaking, globe-inundating Korean Wave. Rising violence against Asian Americans and Asians in America (also resurgent among Japan’s far right wing), as well as the pernicious question of who belongs and who doesn’t, make it locally relevant as well. (It’s especially relevant to Greater Los Angeles, which has the largest population of ethnic Koreans outside Korea.) And finding success in the business that gives the series its name and central metaphor — a game of luck and a little skill — and historically one of the few businesses open to Koreans in Japan, is echoed in this country’s own immigrant stories.
With any luck (and given a lot of skill), we’ll be back here discussing how “Pachinko” really ends before too long.
Where: Apple TV+
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.