Inji Jeong, Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim

‘Pachinko’ masterfully dramatizes the universal trials and tribulations of an immigrant family

Lush visuals and complex storytelling come together in Apple TV+’s sumptuous historical drama spanning four generations

Inji Jeong, Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim

Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

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Words by Carolyn Hinds

As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. AppleTV+’s new epic drama seeks to examine this by chronicling the lives of a family that survived almost insurmountable odds, from 1915 Korea to 1989 Japan. The tour de force is the family’s eventual matriarch, Sunja, played by three captivating actresses through the decades-long story arc: Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-Jung as Sunja in her older years, Kim Min-has as the teenager, and Jeon Yu-na, the precocious child. 

Pachinko asks us to question just how much the world has improved when the people held down by misogyny, classism, and xenophobia are the very people instrumental to industrial and financial progress.

Lee Minho

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Based on the celebrated novel of the same title by Min Jin Lee, the eight-episode series is filled with moments of sorrow, joy, and quiet devastation, as it looks at the ways women and men each struggle to find their place within the societal constraints of the land of their birth and adopted homeland. Throughout the season, Pachinko asks us to question just how much the world has improved when the people held down by misogyny, classism, and xenophobia are the very people instrumental to industrial and financial progress.

It is worth noting that the series jumps around chronologically, a key departure from the novel. This nonlinear narrative sets up striking parallels between the generations as it coils through their interwoven lives as they attempt to find their way back to their heritage and identities. 

 

Yuna

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Before being divided into North and South at the end of WWII, Korea was under colonial occupation by the Japanese Empire which waged war on Korean culture and identity. In their own country Koreans were persecuted for speaking and singing in their native tongue, wearing traditional garb, and even eating rice grown in their own soil. It’s during this tumultuous time that our protagonist Sunja is born and raised.The daughter of a rice farmer, her simple life changes when a rich man (Lee Min-ho) seduces Sunja with tales of a great world beyond the pier of the Busan fish market he meets her in. 

Though the show is centered on Korean identity during a period of time when its very existence was punished, this is a truly universal story, intimately relatable to anyone who has experienced marginalization, particularly immigrants and women of color.

Minha Kim

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Their brief romance results in Sunja becoming pregnant, and the quiet, confident young minister Baek Isak (Steve Sang-hyun Noh)—fearful that she will end up an outcast—marries her and takes her to Japan, where they build a life and home with Isak’s brother Yoseb (Han Jun-woo) and sister-in-law Young Kyung-hee (Jung Eun-chae). It is here that Sunja puts down new roots and assumes her eventual role as family matriarch. 

Though the show is centered on Korean identity during a period of time when its very existence was punished, this is a truly universal story, intimately relatable to anyone who has experienced marginalization, particularly immigrants and women of color.

Yuh-Jung Youn

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Identity is examined not only as it relates to the land of birth—Pachinko deftly illustrates the way immigrants are expected to prove their loyalty to their adopted homeland, and how it affects men and women differently. This painful process of assimilation leads to identity crises that only escalate for later generations.

For Naomi (Anna Sawai), assimilation means miserably adopting a flawless Western accent to illustrate her ‘professionalism’ in a male-dominated society, a brand of code-switching instantly recognizable for any viewer who has grown up in a colonized country.

Anna Sawai and Jimmi Simpson

Courtesy of Apple TV+

For Solomon, Sunja’s ambitious grandson and Pachinko’s second lead, assimilation means turning his back on his Korean heritage, and attempting to use his own grandmother to manipulate another elderly Korean woman (Park Hye-jin) out of a plot of land coveted by the bank he works for, a plot of land that represents the hardships she overcame to find a place for herself and children in Japanese society. Solomon’s failure to grasp this and his condescension towards the tearful old women demonstrates the extent of his assimilation, but ironically ends up unraveling all his carefully laid plans to secure his big promotion.

In one intricately layered scene ostensibly about blood types, we see the way immigrants are never truly allowed to fit in. Many East Asian cultures believe that, like a person’s facial features, blood type can reveal certain characteristics. In Japan, this is called the “Japanese Blood Type Personality Theory,” or Ketsuekigata, and in this scene a Japanese character employs this pseudo-science to inquire about a Korean character’s personality, but actually asks where his loyalty lies. Is it with his Korean heritage, or the Japanese company he works for? Any answer is a double-edged sword. These “micro-aggressions” demonstrate that to many, being ethnic Korean Japanese (Zainichi Korean) means being constantly reminded that no matter how well one speaks Japanese, no matter how much money one earns for their employer, there will always be more hoops to jump through. 

This remains true for millions of people from marginalized communities around the world, held to certain societal standards to fit in, unknowing that they’re being set up to fail. Nothing they do is ever considered enough, as the fabled brass ring, and goal posts of societal gender, racial and able-bodied acceptance keep moving further out of reach. 

The true tragedy is when they come to believe this is the way of the world, and stop perceiving how the system is rigged against them, a reality demonstrated in an iconic scene where a Pachinko player is seen leaving the parlor in defeat, having no idea that before they entered, the odds were already stacked against them.

Jin Ha

Courtesy of Apple TV+

One of the most unassumingly powerful aspects about Pachinko are its subtitles. As a joint American and Korean production, Pachinko is AppleTV+’s first Japanese language, and second Korean language, television production (Dr. Brain released in 2021 was the first in Korean). Given that Min Jin Lee wrote Pachinko in English, the show could have featured a cast speaking accented English, as done in Memoirs of a Geisha. The creative choice of having Korean and Japanese language lines, performed by native Korean and Japanese speakers, demonstrates irrefutable commitment to bringing nuanced realism to an international audience.  

Screenwriter and showrunner Soo Hugh has done a stellar job giving each line of dialogue multiple meanings as they relate to what’s happening in the present, what transpired in the past, and what will occur in the future. 

Jin Ha is excellent as he creates a balance between the arrogance of a man striving to reach the top of the mountain of success and status, and the naïveté of someone who has no idea just how the world really works.

Jin Ha

Courtesy of Apple TV+

The subtitles for Korean lines are yellow, while Japanese are blue, and audiences are able to follow, for instance, the different ways Solomon speaks to the various people in his life with a subtle hint of condescension showing a lack of respect for his elders, an attitude influenced by his time in America, and a desire to fit into Japanese society. These scenes speak volumes about the effects of assimilation on immigrants, and Jin Ha is excellent as he creates a balance between the arrogance of a man striving to reach the top of the mountain of success and status, and the naïveté of someone who has no idea just how the world really works. Or pretends he doesn’t.

Pachinko excels in the acting, writing, and all other technical departments. With films like After Yang, and Ms. Purple, the respective directors Kogonada and Justin Chon have built their calling cards around lush visuals, emotionality, and complex storytelling; this all comes through superbly with this series. The decisions of the characters echo throughout their lives like ripples in a pond, executed with flawlessly intuitive editing by Susan E. Kim, Simon Brasse, and Sabine Hoffman.

Inji Jeong, Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim

Courtesy of Apple TV+

The scene transitions tell a story beyond the dialogue, but just as deeply resonant. Memories of traditional Korean folk songs, once outlawed, are now freely played by younger generations; a life passing on as a new one enters. Repeated sequences of the past and future show three generations performing the same actions, but with different intent and purposes, and what was thought to be an improbability is proved to be a possibility in modern times.

One of the main throughlines of the story is that as time changes, so do webut certain themes remain the same. As evidenced in the way the lives of three generations are mirrored throughout the years, it’s sometimes impossible to break free from making the same mistakes as our ancestors, try as people might. Certain actions seem almost as inevitable as a genetic trait.

At its heart, Pachinko is an allegory about what’s lost to the younger generations due to the choices made by their elders. It asks, and in many ways answers, what happens when what makes us who we are is held against us? How much does this painful abuse force us to reshape who we are? It asks viewers to pay attention to women who are expected to gratefully keep sacrificing for others without complaint, and expect nothing in return. Audiences will find Pachinko an engrossing saga full of rich characters you’ll want to know more intimately—because in them, there’s a bit of all of us.

Pachinko premieres globally on AppleTV+ on March 25th, with episodes being released weekly on Fridays.

Published on March 25, 2022

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Words by Carolyn Hinds

Carolyn is a Tomatometer-Approved Critic, Journalist, Podcaster and YouTube. Her published work can be found on Observer, ButWhyTho?, Shondaland, Salon and many other. She’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), co-hosts So Here’s What Happened Podcast! and is the host of Carolyn Talks…, and Beyond The Romance Podcasts. You can find her regularly live tweeting her current Asian drama watches using #DramasWithCarrie, and the weekly Sci-Fi watch along with #SaturdayNightSciFi.