The opening moments of 'Pachinko' feel almost other-worldly. A young expectant mother (Inji Jeong), burdened with great emotional pain after losing several children, stands in a forest and pleads with an older woman for a curse to be lifted from her. She receives a prophecy that her unborn child will be healthy and that through her, a family will endure and thrive. From here, an epic family saga spanning generations unfolds across this eight-part adaptation of Min Jin Lee's best-selling novel. It is grand in scale and hugely ambitious, yet always feels deeply personal and intimate in tone. Despite its rather mysterious and prophetic opening, 'Pachinko' is one of the most human, heartfelt tales in a generation.
The story takes place between 1910 and 1989 across Korea, Japan and the United States and told in three languages, following one Korean family across generations. At the heart of the story is Sunja, who we follow from a young child growing up in colonial Korea, to being a mother struggling to adapt to life in Japan and later, in the 1989-set portion of the story, as the family matriarch who welcomes her grandson back to Japan from New York City. Her grandson, Solomon (Jin Ha), has travelled to Japan to close a business deal that he hopes will earn him a promotion in the US. Whilst home, he reconnects with people from his past including his father, Mozasu (Soji Arai) - who runs a local Pachinko parlour - something that Solomon feels ashamed of. His father is now in a relationship with Etsuko (Kaho Minami), the mother of Solomon's high school sweetheart Hana (Mari Yamamoto), who has disappeared and hasn't been seen in some time.
In between all of this, we jump back in time to Sunja as a young child and explore the loving relationship between her and her father and then to her as a young woman, where she meets the mysterious Hansu (Lee Min-Ho), who will change her life forever. This intricate family story unfolds against the backdrop of Japanese-occupied Korea and shines a light on the discrimination and struggles faced by the Korean people during this time. There's a lot going on in 'Pachinko' and a large cast of characters to get to know, but the show weaves it all together beautifully and makes this family story quite unlike any other that you've seen before.
Sunja is played through the years by three different actresses: Yu-na Jeon, Minha Kim and Youn Yuh-jung, who many will know from her scene-stealing performance in 'Minari', for which she earned an Academy Award. Each portrayal of Sunja is so unique, yet all incredibly familiar to one another, with each version of her bearing the immense weight and emotional turmoil that the character has had to carry throughout her life to that particular point in time.
Yu-na Jeon's portrayal of a young girl wise beyond her years and fully aware of what's happening around her during the colonisation of Korea is heartbreaking, even when her banter with the adults and emotional maturity bring moments of levity. Minha Kim carries this strength and vulnerability forward as Sunja during her teenage years, filled with struggle and quiet determination. Here, Sunja spends her days working at her mother's boarding house and experiences the same racism that she witnessed others go through as a child, which is often juxtaposed with Solomon's far more luxurious lifestyle and his tunnel-visioned business mindset later on.
Sunja's life is thrown into chaos when she falls for the mysterious market boss Hansu and becomes pregnant with his child, setting her life on a drastically altered course. Youn Yuh-jun as older Sunja really carries the weight of the character, with her past hardships and the impact of everything that's come before in her life being felt at every turn. Such a rich and complex character could have easily been muddled but all three actresses bring to life someone who is the heart and soul of the show and a character that feels truly lived in. It's in the moments where each of the plot threads and timelines in 'Pachinko' are intertwined through Sunja that it's at its most special and emotionally impactful.
Whilst Sunja may be the show's beating heart, the wider cast of characters are every bit as rich and fully formed. Lee Min-Ho plays the enigmatic Hansu with a hypnotic energy that commands your attention every time he's on-screen and his scenes with Minha Kim are some of the show's most engrossing moments. Steve Sang-Hyun Noh brings a contrasting light to Hansu's darkness as Isak, a good-natured Pastor who crosses paths with Sunja during a time of need. In addition, Jin Ha's stunning portrayal of Solomon is complex and masterfully highlights his internal struggle as he battles with his own conscience, his desire for success and coming to terms with his past. His experiences are also paralleled with those of his Grandmother and the show explores the similarities between the two and how the events of the past impact the present day. The show also uses these parallels to highlight the casual racism and discrimination that Solomon faces in 1989 and the suffering felt by the Korean people in scenes that can be heartbreaking to watch.
These fantastic performances are what make the show's emotional scenes feel all the more impactful and at times, downright devastating. The show made me weep during each episode because I'd become invested in the characters so quickly. One scene in particular where Solomon and Sunja visit an elderly woman whose property Solomon's firm is looking to buy hit me like a ton of bricks. A later scene between Sunja and her mother before she departs for Japan had me fighting back tears and stuck with me for several days afterwards. My heart ached for Sunja and everything that she'd gone through up until that point in her life. It also made me think about my own family relationships, which the show often does during its eight hours and those broader themes of family and identity at play throughout always feel relatable and personal.
As gut-wrenching as the show can be at times, there's also joy here and moments that will make you smile. A special mention has to be given to the fantastic opening credits, set to 'Let’s Live For Today' by The Grass Roots which brings the entire cast together as they have fun and dance their way through the bright lights of a Pachinko parlour. Considering the number of times the show brought me to tears and just how brutal some moments can feel, the intro is certainly jarring in terms of tone - but one that I never wanted to skip once and that's been stuck in my head ever since. It's easily one of the catchiest and most fun intros that I've seen on TV.
Unlike the book, which tells the story chronologically, the series jumps back and forth in time throughout. Fans of the book shouldn't be concerned about the change; however, which is effectively used to echo what's happening at a particular moment between generations. This lends itself so much to many of the big emotional payoffs throughout the season and it's hard to imagine the adaptation being told any other way. Each timeline comes together in such a satisfying and complementary fashion and the story never becomes difficult to follow, even as the same character is portrayed by several different actors across timelines and dialogue is being spoken in several different languages all at once. The eight episodes are sublimely constructed and immersive to the point that audiences will be left feeling like they've been transported in time and to another world, thanks to Soo Hugh's writing and impeccable direction from Kogonada and Justin Chon.
I particularly enjoyed the use of different colours in the subtitles to show which language was being spoken, especially when characters speaking Korean would sometimes break into Japanese and then back again during sentences. This level of care and attention to detail extends to the cinematography, which is simply breathtaking. Some of the sweeping shots of beautiful landscapes and transitions between scenes used to highlight the parallels of simultaneously occurring events left my jaw on the floor. Even smaller scenes set during family dinners or moments set at the busy marketplace are akin to visual poetry. The show uses music for great emotional effect throughout too with its beautiful score and soundtrack, which had me reaching for Shazam on my phone several times. One moment at the end of episode four, in particular, perfectly highlights how well the show does this.
It's hard to pinpoint any flaws with 'Pachinko' and it's a tough show to talk about without treading too far into spoiler territory. There's so much going on in the show that I haven't even touched on here, but to do so would only take away from your viewing experience. One very minor gripe that I had was wanting the show to spend more time exploring the relationship between Solomon and his father in the 1980s-set portion of the story - but everything in this show is so flawlessly executed and the story so captivating, that it's almost a non-issue entirely. One particular episode later in the show moves away from the main story completely to focus on the backstory of one character. As the episode began, I wasn't overly keen on abandoning the main cast for a whole hour; however, this is actually one of the strongest and most important episodes of the series. I would have, of course, preferred a ten-episode run but when a show leaves you wanting more as badly as this one does, it's hard to call it a complaint. Make no mistake, this is as about as close to flawless as television can get.
'Pachinko' is a beautiful, unforgettable piece of storytelling that had me utterly captivated from start to finish. An intimate story of family, love, survival and what could have been that is told on an epic scale and woven together masterfully with rich, fully-formed characters and deeply moving performances. It all crescendos into a finale that left me speechless and one that I haven't been able to stop thinking about since the credits rolled. Television doesn't get much better than this.
'Pachinko' premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday March 25th with the first three episodes. Each subsequent episode will premiere on Fridays through April 29th.