Based on the immensely popular and award-winning novel of the same name by author Min Jin Lee, the Apple TV+ series Pachinko is a glorious and enriching adaptation. From each technical intricacy to the stunning performances, including newcomer Min-ha Kim in a pivotal role, the series, directed by Kogonada (After Yang) and Justin Cho (Gook) exudes poise and artistry through the mastering of details. It’s soon to tell, but there’s little question that this is already the year’s best.
Following the hopes and dreams of four generations of a Korean family, Pachinko, beginning in 1910 and traveling to the show’s current day in 1989, follows them in a sweeping saga that takes place in Korea, Japan, and America. Beginning with a forbidden romance between teenager Sunja (Kim) and the perfectly tailored Hansu (Lee Min-ho), the series follows their love affair and its breaking, along with the wounds and experiences that are inflicted upon Sunja and her family, her two sons and grandson, up until the modern-day.
Light spoilers below
We watch the shifting of the generational dynamics and how each character inherits the priors’ trauma and legacy and how they perceive success ,how they chase it or don’t.
Playing the older Sunja is Minari star and Academy Award winner Youn Yuh-Jung, who, even without seeing her past, would be able to convey the weight she’s borne her whole life through her eyes alone. Diverting from the pacing of the book which was strictly linear in its narrative, the series, to its benefit,blends past and present, time and cultural shifts, both narratively and visually as shots bleed into other eras.
It’s this distinction that immediately imbues it with a spark that sets it apart from contemporaries. Visually Pachinko is a marvel to take in and the work between Chon and Kogonada is tremendous, especially how from the start they’re able to distinguish time and place. They showcase a fluidity where sequences set in modern Tokyo will seamlessly transition to aerial shots of rural, 1920s Busan. Giving it that extra, narrative edge though is how they keep it all cyclical. Be it the death of a family member in the present contrasted with past Sunja learning of a pregnancy, or the staying power of food and the tradition that goes into it, the parallel storytelling keeps both parts of the story crucially intertwined.
Lush, vibrant, and leaping from the screen due to how much life and texture is infused into each frame, there’s a soulfulness to each transfixing scene. There’s a crisp and structural beauty to how the series is framed, aided by the telltale Kogonada shots (architectural, balanced, quietly grandiose) which are exacerbated by angular architecture that gives scope to the world and centers the characters as untethered to modern spaces. Actors stand isolated beneath building arches, or solitary in office spaces with the night sky encompassing them, or, in the past, against mountain ranges as their backs bend in work, overwhelmed by the ferocity and power of nature.
It isn’t just the direction and cinematography that breathes such textured nuance into the series but in the costuming as well led by costume supervisor Jaida Hay. The significance of their dress is highlighted, shown, for instance, through suits worn by Hansu and Solomons where both, in their way, are worn like well-tailored masks.
These are only parts of what elevates an already engrossing story and almost every technical level is sublime but the score by Nico Muhly deserves special mention. It’s the not-so-secret weapon, a piece of art that can both lay beside the television series as a separate entity as well as embellish and further allow the story to leave an impact. In its sweeping numbers, it’s at times whimsical and others operatic.
As for performances, each actor delivers one humming with distinction. One of the most important elements of the series shows how each character was affected by the pain and trauma already endured by the generation before them. The journey they’re all individually on is just as much their own as it is shared. Kim as teenage Sunja is an exceptional find with a freshness and open face that makes her later world-weariness all the more emotional. This is especially true as, when we first meet her as a child, she must bear witness to the evil of the world (though she sees beauty too) with youthful curiosity. All the while her parents hope to keep humanities ugliness out of her sight. The brutality she sees at the hands of Japanese men to people she knows is shot through her vantage point.
As a credible veteran, there’s little surprise that Youn Yuh-jung can do more with her face than many actors can do with their whole body and she and Kim share a similar set to their shoulders and brow that makes the convergence of time credible with the two playing the same character.
Min-ho, a big star in Korea, is a sturdy, and perfectly alluring presence whose ability to attract attention is obvious and he and Kim share palpable chemistry as the two characters begin to bond, despite his cynicism. The love story that blossoms between Sunja and Honsu is instantly stricken with a sense of doom based solely on their positions in life but they make us believe that tucked away in their secluded piece of woods, they’ve found solace and recluse with one another through conversation alone.
Jin Ha has a difficult role as the note is easy to gauge Solomon. Conflicted and ambitious, he plays the character with a necessary delicacy so that we don’t just see a shrewd businessman but someone who fought for his position in life.
It’s the story about the family that struggled, left their home, and chased success that leaves the impenetrable mark. There are often lines in the series that make mention of living through difficult periods of times, endurance, resilience, and strength. It shouldn’t have had to be and there’s plenty to explore, like resilience and how much it ends up feeling like a consolation prize for those who have suffered. However, there is unquestionable beauty there as well in someone’s story where they were able to survive hopeless situations.
In Pachinko, people and families, their culture, and their pride, all persevere and always with a cost. The visceral and vital beauty is found not just in having done so though, and the horrors and losses – in all measures – are explored. Instead, it’s shown through the universality of the story, of how a community can be broken then repaired, of how a family member’s kindness, a father’s unbridled love, or mothers tireless determination, can have lasting effects on the legacy of their families.
You can watch the trailer below. Season one of Pachinko premieres Friday, March 25th on Apple TV+.