Min Jin Lee’s sophomore novel Pachinko is a stunning book about the life of a three-generation Korean family living in Japan during World War II. The story sprawls for almost eight decades and all the characters each get fleshed out intimately in every chapter of the book. So when it was announced that AppleTV+ would turn the novel into an eight-part miniseries, it caused both worry and excitement among Lee’s fans. But after watching the screeners, and even though there are narrative flaws here and there, I’m glad to say that the show mostly delivers.
Moving back and forth between the 1920s and 1989, the show focuses on a young woman named Sunja (Kim Min-ha) who was born to a very poor family in Busan, South Korea. Her mother Yangjin (Jeong In-ji) runs a small boarding house for fishermen, while her father Hoonie dies when she’s 13. Though the mother-daughter pair lives in poverty, they always find things to be grateful for and even take in two orphans to be a part of the family. When Sunja turns 16, she becomes drawn into Koh Hansu (Lee Min-ho), a rich Korean fish broker who moved to Japan when he was a teenager, and not long after, she’s pregnant with his child. Though Hansu genuinely cares about Sunja, he cannot marry her because back in Japan, he already has a family.
Afraid that she and her unborn child will be outcasts if everyone finds out she’s pregnant out of wedlock, Sunja agrees to marry a kind-hearted pastor named Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh) and moves to Japan with him. For a large part, Sunja’s new life in Japan becomes the show’s main focus. We closely follow her from her first step in a new country and we also witness all her hardships throughout. Though at first this feels like just a story of a woman trying to survive and find a new life, what Pachinko depicts through Sunja is more than that. In fact, the show actually unveils a big part of Korean history that not a lot of people have heard before.
During World War II and under Japanese Imperialism, many Koreans decided to immigrate to Japan to seek a better life. While the number of opportunities that arose for them there seemed much more promising at first, the reality was anything but. Not a lot of Japanese wanted to hire Korean immigrants because they thought of them as less, often calling them as dirty and reek of garlic—this happened to the fact that many of the Koreans liked to make Kimchi at home. These microaggressions and racism are what Sunja and the other Korean immigrants face every day in Japan. And Pachinko, both the book and the adaptation, does not shy away from addressing it. In fact, through the plotline centering on Sunja’s grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) this theme is emphasized even more.
Unlike Sunja who has to experience the war directly, Solomon lives a far better life. He continues his study in America, and when he’s back in Japan, a great, high-paying job comes to him rather easily. But even then, he still has to face lots of discrimination from his co-workers who are mostly Japanese. When he achieves something, it’s the company’s name that gets celebrated, but when he fails at something, it’s his Korean blood who gets the blame. The world that Solomon lives in may have changed from 1930, but for an immigrant living on foreign soil, not much really has changed. Ultimately, this is what makes the show such an eye-opening and compelling watch.
While the main premise sounds very bleak, Soo Hugh, the showrunner, isn’t just highlighting Sunja’s struggles. If anything, it’s her resilience that Pachinko wants to give emphasis to. For all the challenges she’s facing, the show always makes sure that the ways she bounces back from them are also told. Pachinko, in the end, is a show that champions immigrants but in a way that doesn’t feel preachy, reminding us that they’re just like everyone; people who just want to love and feel loved, to live and also feel alive.
The duality of the story—on one hand tender and heartwarming, but on the other hand devastating—is vividly captured by Kogonada and Justin Chon, who each directed four episodes. They manage to show all the layers of the story without relying heavily on the premise’s darker parts only. What the two explore the most is the emotional journey of the characters, and while doing so, they’re also able to draw phenomenal performances from the ensemble. Lee and Youn are the two standouts. The former successfully offers empathy underneath his character’s tough personality, while the latter’s performance, though much less flashy than her Oscar-winning turn in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, will break your heart easily. The little details in Youn’s acting—the small, occasional pauses, the head tilts, the long gaze, the way she controls her breath—are signs of an actor at the top of her career. It’s just masterful.
It’s unfortunate that the show leaves out one integral part of the book—a storyline revolving around Sunja’s first child Noa when he’s a teenager— that would have made it twice a knockout. Still an epic, breathtaking multigenerational family drama, Pachinko will grab your heart and make it feel full by the time you finish the final episode. This is a love letter for immigrants everywhere, but especially for the Koreans living in Japan.
Apple TV+ will release Pachinko on March 25, 2022. The series will be told in three languages — Korean, Japanese and English — and debut with the first three episodes followed by new weekly installments each Friday during its eight-episode season through April 29, 2022.