The Day – Review: Apple’s superb ‘Pachinko’ is so good it makes the competition unworthy


When it’s at its best, which it is for most of its eight-episode first season, “Pachinko” is a lesson in how to do melodrama well. In his acting, his production, respect for character rather than machination (although there is a lot of machination) and stillness rather than action (there is action), in his interest in domestic details and the limitless depths of the human face, it most transforms a well-worn narrative embarks on something that feels real, alive and lived. It’s kind of a trick, of course – it’s a TV series, after all, put together at great expense, with beautiful characters in dramatic situations. Yet it makes the competition obvious, overworked, unworthy.

Adapted by Soo Hugh (“The Terror”), with significant additions and rearrangements, from Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel, and variously directed 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 being represented in different colored subtitles, with English being the third language; who may or may not understand that adds a layer to the characters and storytelling.

Set among the population that the Japanese call “Zainichi” – Koreans who came to Japan during colonial rule and their descendants, who were subjected to legal restrictions and general discrimination – it is 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’re not ready to cry profusely, you probably don’t have to watch it.

Among a wide cast of characters, the central figure, both in terms of storytelling and on-screen personality strength, is Sunja, played compatibly (and emotionally) 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 the gift of acting with their eyes, of expressing what they are not doing, what they are doing and are in the process of understanding.

The series, which begins in 1915 and travels back in time, takes Sunja from her family’s home in rural Korea to Japan, through an unplanned pregnancy with a man – dapper Hansu (Lee Minho), a Korean Zainichi who travels from Japan to oversee the fish market — and a convenient but fruitful marriage to another, Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh), a Christian preacher on his way to Osaka. They will join her brother Joseb (Junwoo Han) and her sister-in-law Kyunghee (Eunchae Jung), who will become Sunja’s best friend. At all stages of her life, Sunja demonstrates a calm and practical determination; humble, she will not be humiliated. She’s an unusual yet classic heroine, familiar yet fresh, just 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 brought the family wealth, is what you might call the secondary main character, and for most of the season the storytelling switches between the two. (They also share scenes, set in 1989.) Solomon, who went to school in America, works for a bank in New York; frustrated by a delayed promotion – he is a young man in a hurry – he proposes to his bosses to convince a Korean woman, whose house is obstructing the project of a client of a hotel in Tokyo, to sell. He is brash, ambitious and disconnected from his roots, the product of another generation and other material circumstances.

He returns to Osaka, where he will reconnect with his family and interact uncomfortably with his American and Japanese colleagues. he will also begin to receive mysterious phone calls from Hana (Mari Yamamoto), the missing wild daughter of his father’s Japanese girlfriend, Etsuko (Kano Minami), with whom he has a history. We know that Solomon will suffer some sort of crisis, as he is obviously a disjointed soul, and this is a story about the importance of family and country, with a distinct anti-materialist streak, in which a character just spins down a billion yen. (I don’t know how that translates from 1989 yen to 2022 dollars, but contextually it’s a fortune.)

The series stumbles a bit towards the end of the season. Oddly enough, the entire penultimate episode is devoted to creating a backstory for Hansu – in a different aspect ratio, even – seemingly to remind you that he’s part of this story as well, but also to incorporate a historic natural disaster that led to a historic massacre. Koreans by the Japanese police, army and militiamen.

It would make more sense attached to a second season, which the unfinished nature of the first implies.

I would be very surprised not to see one coming. “Pachinko” seems timely, and not just to ride the unbroken, world-swamping Korean wave. The rise in violence against Asian Americans and Asians in America (also on the rise within Japan’s far-right), as well as the pernicious question of who belongs and who does not, also make it locally relevant. And finding success in the business that gives the series its name and central metaphor – a game of luck and a bit of skill – and historically one of the few businesses open to Koreans in Japan, finds its way into the stories. immigrants from this country.

About Wendy Hall

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