Pachinko, the TV adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s bestselling 2017 novel, begins streaming today on Apple TV Plus. Fans of the book were moved by the tale of family, survival and persevering women. When Apple first announced its exclusive original series, one overarching question arose: Would Min Jin Lee’s beloved novel be adapted in a way that captures the spirit and humanity of its characters while honoring the source material? The short answer is, yes. It’s elegant, it’s sad and it’s darn good.
Told in Korean, Japanese and English, Pachinko flows like a river thanks to outstanding cast performances that ground this family’s multigenerational journey. Helmed by showrunner Soo Hugh and directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, the sweeping story pulls from all three parts of the novel. Though the first season is hard to watch at times, it’s a must-see. Youn Yuh-jung, Minha Kim, Steve Sang-Hyun Noh, Jin Ha and K-drama star Lee Min-ho breathe life into their characters with sincerity and nuance.
Pachinko features Youn, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2021 for her role in Minari, as Sunja, the humble family matriarch whose destiny is foretold before her birth. In 1915, a shaman’s words to Sunja’s mother set the stage: “A child is coming. She will thrive. And through her a family will endure.”
As a young girl, Sunja has a twinkle in her eye and is nurtured by her devoted parents. But this early part of the story illustrates one example of its symbolic title. In real life, Pachinko is a pinball machine-like game that’s often rigged against its players, making it difficult to win. Yet people keep gambling on it, hoping that fate smiles in their favor. In Lee’s tale, Pachinko represents how nothing in life is assured. Loss makes it necessary for Sunja to work in the family business in Japanese-occupied Korea, and from there, her unpredictable path begins to unfold.
It’s a period in time that was roiled in conflict. Between 1910 and 1945, Japan colonized Korea, taking land and suppressing Korean culture through laws and martial rule. It became illegal to speak the Korean language in schools or to teach from unsanctioned texts. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans encountered bigotry, forced labor and harsh punishments for not following the new rules set by the Japanese.
This historical aspect is weaved into Pachinko through language flips and shadowy cinematography that sets the tone. As Sunja’s narrative follows her as a small child, young adult and mature woman, the backdrop bounces from bright and airy to subdued. More importantly, the series demonstrates how decades of colonization and mistreatment may have impacted one’s identity and loyalties to their own culture, family or self. What to say, how to say it and what to do affect one’s freedom. Through these eight episodes, love, war, hope and fear play a role in the characters’ lives, and it’s often Sunja and the other women in the story who inspire — and prevail.
Through masterfully executed time jumps that move backward and forward, we’re taken into 1915, the 1920s and 1989. Minha Kim becomes Sunja in her early twenties when she meets and falls in love with the much older Hansu (Lee Min-Ho). Dressed in his signature white linen suit, he steals her heart — without telling her he’s married with children. After Sunja gets pregnant, he wants to financially provide for her as his mistress. However, rather than live under shameful circumstances, she accepts an unexpected marriage offer from a kind stranger.
These scenes play out nearly verbatim as they do in the book. You’ll be invested in Sunja’s relationship with Hansu, her life with the pastor Isak (Steve Sang-Hyun Noh) in Japan, and her two sons, Noa and Mozasu. The overwhelming sadness — and sense of responsibility — that she feels throughout this stage of her life is palpable. And that twinkle in her eye doesn’t have quite the same luster. She goes through a lot.
This pain permeates the entire series and touches every character in the show, but there are lessons to glean for everyone, even the viewer. How do compassion, resilience and dignity show up? How much do immigrants give up? Sunja, who never learns to read or write, leaves her life in Korea behind for a future in Japan.
Season 1 introduces her adult son Mozasu as a successful Pachinko parlor owner who carries his own resentments. And Mozasu’s son Solomon is torn between preserving his integrity and keeping his job at a hotshot Wall Street firm. Though it’s an undercurrent running in the background, you’ll understand how their fates are connected to all the struggles that Sunja weathered in life. She walked so they could run. It’s relatable, fascinating to watch and will give you pause about the mothers and grandmothers in your own life who did the same.
Youn shines as the elder Sunja and anchors the story. As Sunja reflects on her life, you can’t help but wonder if she still has any of that sparkle in her eye. She’s endured so much heartbreak and sacrifice that it feels like you can only count her moments of joy on one hand. But they are there, and you’d be hard-pressed not to root for her and see her as a hero.
Even if you’ve never read the book, Pachinko is a story you need to experience. The first three episodes stream on Apple TV Plus on March 25, and the remaining five installments of the series will drop weekly on Fridays.
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