‘Pachinko’ – “Episodes 1 – 3” Recap: A committed, if unsteady beginning
This spring sees the premiere of the long-awaited television adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko on AppleTV+. The biggest Korean names in film and TV are attached to the project, including showrunner, writer, and executive producer Soo Hugh, Kogonada and Justin Chon (who split directing duties), with Youn Yuh-jung, Jin Ha, and Lee Min-ho as performers. With the first three episodes released on March 25th, we start off with already a third of the epic multigenerational Korean drama to sink our teeth into.
Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family across four generations, starting in the early 1900s though the 1980s. Episode one begins with the foreboding birth of Sunja, our main protagonist and common thread between all the timelines the show jumps between. A chilling mention of a curse within her family ancestry pre-empts her arrival, as does the promise of endurance. We are then taken to 1980s America where a persistent and calculated Solomon Baek is passed up for a promotion at a corporate land development firm. Solomon proposes a plan to convince a Korean landowner in Japan to fold under a development deal in exchange for VP status at his company.
If that latter plot sounds sterile, convoluted, and disconnected, it kind of is. As far as I’m aware, the adapted series is eschewing the linear format of the novel (which is divided into three time periods) and instead attempts to move both of these narratives forward simultaneously. On the outset, the split format is pretty interesting, but as the series continues, it struggles to connect the two timelines together naturally. The past timeline is vastly more robust, explorative, and has higher stakes than the 1980s timeline, and I found myself wanting to stay in the past as each transition became more jarring. I’m open to the idea that it gets better from here, but with other contemporary series that tackle the split timeline thoroughly well, (i.e. Yellowjackets) there’s much more to be desired.
The story of Sunja’s childhood spans the entire pilot where Japan has recently annexed a reluctant and impoverished Korea. Child Sunja portrayed by Yu-na is offered tremendous range in this single episode. Her laughter, observations, and fear are all highlights of her performance, and I wish we could see more of her. A sequence in which she dives underwater for shellfish is particularly tense and triumphant all in one. Sunja’s father Hoonie (played by Lee Dae-ho) offers a brief, loving, and tortured appearance.
The series adopts a high contrast visual style with predominant cool tones that serve its historical dramatizations well. Depictions of a 1900s wounded Korea feel blistering even through tranquil natural rhythms of tall grass and rocky shores. Even though the 1980s narrative tends to falter, scenes of Solomon’s passage into a rapidly technologizing Japan are engaging, with prime points being the tactile glitz of his father’s pachinko parlor and the quiet temperance of older Sunja’s home.
Speaking of, Youn Yuh-jung plays older Sunja in the 1980s and Solomon’s grandmother. Following her Best Supporting Actress Award in Minari, it feels appropriate to see her in Pachinko with a larger degree of autonomy and another opportunity to flex her decades of experience. Her performance feels sharp with a long-lived stare of a lifetime spent swirling in untold hardship. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of her.
Episode two jumps nine years ahead in the past timeline to a teenage Sunja (played by Kim Min-ha) and an introduction to Koh Hansu (played by Lee Min-Ho), a merchant and fish broker from Osaka who regularly lords over the market Sunja visits. Sunja’s irreverence and beauty catches Koh Hansu’s eye in a muted cat and mouse romance that is as compelling as it is cliche. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Solomon further embeds himself in the Tokyo branch of his company while older Sunja cares for her ailing sister-in-law. Meanwhile, Solomon’s father (Soji Arai) runs into trouble finalizing a loan for a new pachinko parlor.
The second episode feels like it’s catching up on the 1980s timeline more than anything else. Several narratives flesh out around Solomon’s family, while his mundane corporate espionage develops into a slightly more interesting commentary on the personal costs of his ambitious career-centric mindset. Compare this with the past timeline, which has Sunja and Koh Hansu dancing in a truncated “will they won’t they” procedure that ends with a sexual encounter between the two of them.
Episode three features Koh Hansu and Sunja reckoning with her certain pregnancy, and Koh Hansu’s unwillingness to marry her upon admission of his own family in Osaka to Sunja’s crushing disappointment. Right after, an ailing minister named Baek Isak arrives at the boarding house run by Sunja’s mother. In the 1980s timeline, Solomon pursues negotiations with the Korean landowner holding the land deal hostage, who, as it turns out, is his grandmother’s close friend.
On balance, episode three feels the most settled so far. The past and future timelines share space more legibly. Solomon and Sunja are having clear influence on the other. Past Sunja’s stakes are getting higher as she’s confronted with Koh Hansu versus Baek Isak for the first time. Thankfully this initial triple feature ends well and teases the best.
I should also mention how incredible it is to see English, Japanese, and Korean intertwining actively on screen. Huge credit to the entire crew, the editors, and the cast for pulling this off. Moving between the languages feels seamless and I can only hope that Pachinko paves the way for more multilingual stories to unlock to the public.
Pachinko starts off shaky in its first three episodes, but sticks the landing enough for another shot. I’m glad we were given this much of the show to start with and am hoping that the series keeps its momentum. What big choices will Sunja have to make for her child and for herself? How will Koh Hansu re-emerge into her life? What’s going to happen to the pachinko parlor? And will Solomon learn the evils of neoliberal capitalism? Only time will tell.
Keep up with us as Pachinko plays out.
Score: 3.5 / 5