Apologies in advance for referring to “Bridgerton” while talking about a qualitatively superior show like “Pachinko”, but while reviewing the former, I wondered what the purpose of period dramas should be. To invoke a sense of nostalgia by taking viewers on a trip through history? Or to unearth certain traditions and customs that have been lost in the sands of time? I came to the conclusion that the driving force for a show (or film) set in that genre can be any one or an amalgamation of those reasons. But most importantly, the makers should use its ability to retrospect to make us introspect about the threads that tie the present with the past. And I’m glad to report that “Pachinko” does that and more.
Based on Min Jin Lee’s 2017 epic historical fiction novel of the same name, “Pachinko” was created by Soo Hugh and directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon. The show starts in the mid-1910s when Yangjin (Jeong In-ji) visits a shaman to lift a curse that she thinks she has as every child she has with Hoonie (Lee Dae-Ho) dies after childbirth. Soon after, the couple is blessed with Sunja (Jeon Yu-na). She grew up in Korea dominated by the Japanese under her mother and father’s overprotective eyes. That narrative is interjected by Solomon Baek’s (Jin Ha) story, which is set in 1989. Solomon is the son of Baek Mozasu (Soji Arai) and Sunja’s (Youn Yuh-jung) grandson. He works in an American company where he’s been stopped from getting a promotion for unspoken racist reasons. Solomon takes that up as a challenge and goes to Osaka to head a project, thereby reuniting with his family, specifically Sunja.
The first three episodes of “Pachinko” are largely centered around the theme of identity and finding the will to reclaim it. Yangjin and Hoonie are essentially outcasts because of Yangjin’s “curse” and Hoonie’s cleft-lip and crippled leg. With the arrival of Sunja, they find the confidence to be a part of society. But then there’s the looming presence of fascist Japan that has stripped them of their traditions and prevented them from thinking and moving freely. A teenage Sunja (Kim Min-ha) discovers sexual liberation with Koh Hansu (Lee Min-ho). However, that comes with the burden of pregnancy, heartbreak, and potential societal ostracization (again). Solomon is the product of the hard work and sacrifice of his parents and grandparents. That said, in a so-called independent America, he faces subtle forms of racism and oppression. An aging Sunja, who has apparently erased all sentimental connections with her homeland to move on and let her wounds heal, seeks to go back upon realizing there’s nothing better than home.
As the grandchild of refugees who had to travel to what’s now known as West Bengal during the 1947 partition of Bengal, it’s not really tough to put myself in the shoes of Solomon. And as someone who is seeing similar sentiments of division based on religious ideologies simmering in India right now, it’s not very hard to notice the timeliness of “Pachinko.” The show acts as a privilege check for the more modern generations who have it “easy.” I say “easy” because it’s actually not. Now, we’re battling the demons of capitalism and hustle culture. Putting that aside for a hot second, the recounting of Sunja’s journey feels particularly melancholic as it serves as a reminder of the pre and post-partition stories I used to hear and take for granted. You know, because they sounded like stories. However, the subtext of those memories (as well as Sunja’s) feels heavy, as the danger of history repeating itself due to the whims of a megalomaniac doesn’t seem that inevitable.
When it comes to visual storytelling, “Pachinko” is perfect from the first frame itself. Before the title sequence hits you (because it’s quite refreshing to see the cast dancing to “Let’s Live for Today” by The Grassroots in an era of self-serious intros), you get to marvel at the production design, costume design, cinematography, sound design, direction, and editing. Which sounds like something that should be common in every TV show ever. But you’ll be surprised to learn how rare it actually is. Thankfully, with Kogonada, Justin Chon, and Soo Hugh at the steering wheel, every second of this show seems like it has been meticulously placed and cut together to evoke the maximum amount of feeling without diminishing any of its intimacy. There are sweeping shots of Japan and Korea’s ever-evolving landscape and cityscape. The sounds and visuals of the fish shop Sunja walks through or the offices Solomon visits are intricate enough to make you feel like you can touch and smell those locations. And then the showrunners let the frames breathe so that you could soak in all the drama and smile, laugh, and ponder with the characters.
Going into “Pachinko” after watching the trailer, I had a feeling that the show was going to make me cry. But I didn’t expect the waterworks to begin in the third episode itself. To be clear, every single performance up to that point where I straight-up started sobbing was magnificent. Yu-na Jeon as young Sunja is a revelation. She’s so expressive that it makes you wonder if you even have the brain cells to read such complex emotions and then act them out on camera. Jeong In-ji and Lee Dae-Ho’s performances are filled with so much sadness and have a subtle undercurrent of hope. Minha Kim’s performance is mostly restrained. It’s only after Koh Hansu’s betrayal that she gets to flex a little more. Lee Min-Ho is as charming as he is cruel. Steve Sang-Hyun Noh is impactful in the few minutes he is on-screen. The same can be said about Jimmi Simpson and Anna Sawai. But, yes, Youn Yuh-jung (with the ever-amazing Jin Ha) is the one who opens the floodgates while simply reminiscing about the things she has lost while migrating from Korea to Japan. It’s such a raw and powerful moment that even the coldest of hearts will melt before her.
Every frame in “Pachinko” is a painting. Those paintings are filled with a wide array of emotions spanning a few decades and continents. Then, those emotions are framed with historical context to give every decision behind the stroke of the proverbial paintbrush a sense of weight. To put it simply, this is a great show with such attention to detail (the Korean subtitles are yellow, and the Japanese subtitles are blue to denote the switch! Who does that? It’s amazing). Kogonada and Justin Chon have done it again after the critical success of “After Yang (2022)” and “Blue Bayou (2021)”, respectively. And if you take the combined popularity of Youn Yuh-jung, Lee Min-ho, and, of course, Min Jin Lee’s book into consideration, Apple TV+ certainly has a winner on their hands. But, as always, only time will tell how it fares with the general audience.
“Pachinko” is a period drama television series created by Soo Hugh for Apple TV+.