With the panache of a historical epic and a format that focuses on one family across decades, “Pachinko” evokes memories of other ambitious TV sagas, most notably “Roots”. This deeply emotional eight-episode Apple TV+ series barely scratches the surface of the novel it’s based on and is sure to leave a core audience wanting more.
With a great cast, the story begins in Korea in the early 20th century with its colonization by Imperial Japan and continues into the 1930s and the looming specter of World War II. This alternates with the challenges faced by the main character’s grandson, who returns to Japan from America in 1989 to make a big financial deal, but whose experiences will force him to reconsider both the family history and his own.
Alternating between Korean, Japanese and English (with cleverly color-coded subtitles), the heart and soul of the international production revolves around Sunja, played by Minha Kim as a young woman and Yuh-Jung Youn – an Oscar winner for “Minari” – as an older one. With a twinkle in her eye and the weight of all the hardship she’s endured, Youn should be in the running for more trophies, though the ensemble nature of the story makes it hard for any of the leads to stand out.
With her poor family working under Japanese rule, Sunja quickly falls in love with Hansu (Lee Minho), whose sharp looks show that the feelings are mutual. But a gruesome turn in the relationship puts her on a different path, one that, compared to the future version of her, raises tantalizing questions about what’s happened over the past few years.
Written and produced by Soo Hugh (“The Terror”), with Kogonada and Justin Chon sharing directing duties, “Pachinko” is riddled with heartbreaking situations and brilliant dialogue. As a little girl, Sunja’s father says to her, “I would do anything not to let the ugliness of the world touch you.” Later, when the older Sunja cries, a contemporary rebukes her grandson, saying, “Don’t look down on her tears. She has earned the right to do so.”
She did, and for those unaware of that story, parts of the series — adapted from Korean-American author Min Jin Lee’s book — will surely provide education. Still other aspects support broader concepts, such as an emotionally devastating scene in which young Sunja has to leave home, an equally good depiction of the immigrant experience – with hopes chased and loved ones left behind – as you can see.
“Pachinko” also echoes HBO Max’s “Peacemaker” (otherwise an unlikely comparison, admittedly) by making the most of its opening credits, which see the cast dancing to the 1960s grass roots song “Let’s Live For Today.” . It’s an improper choice that, like almost everything else here, works beautifully in the way it’s executed.
Television and film have taken on a more international character, with the success of “Squid Game” and “Parasite” among recent examples. In the case of streaming services, this is partly due to the need to look beyond the US to find products to keep their shelves fresh.
Hopefully, Pachinko will benefit from this increasing openness to watching “closed-captioned content” that will capture your attention — and occasionally your tears — from the first frame to the last.
Pachinko launches March 25 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: My wife works for an Apple unit.)
https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/25/entertainment/pachinko-review/index.html ‘Pachinko’ Review: A stirring family saga deserves your tears on Apple TV+