Pachinko arcade-style games offer the lowest gambling stakes legally available in Japan. Given its associations with vice, it is not a very prestigious business, but Solomon Baek’s Korean-Japanese family could never afford snobbery.
Yet, his father was only able to make a modest success in the pachinko business, and only succeeded at all because of the sacrifices Solomon’s grandmother made. Sunja is the matriarch of the Baek family and the source of their resiliency. Her strength in the face of poverty and hardship drives the family saga of Min Jin Lee’s novel, “Pachinko,” which Soo Hugh has adapted as the eight-episode series.
It all starts with Sunja’s unfortunate mother in Korea, who accepts an arranged marriage with the sickly Hoonie, after her family is left destitute by the Japanese occupation. Young Sunja loves her doting father, but his premature death forces her to work long hours assisting her mother. Rather fatefully, she catches the eye of the new fish-broker, Koh Hansu, who has returned to Busan after making good in Japan. He has a reputation for ruthlessness, but also for integrity. Even when he loses Sunja, through his own rigidity, he secretly keeps tabs on her, even when she emigrates to Japan.
Sunja’s story intercuts with that of her grandson, Solomon Baek, from her second son Mozasu, the pachinko parlor proprietor. By 1989, the grandson has attained respectability as a dealmaker for a top American investment bank, but to secure a plum promotion, he must return to Japan to close a deal, by buying a critical parcel of land needed for an ambitious development. As fate would dictate, the last holdout is a Korean-Japanese woman very much like his grandmother.
Although Lee’s novel proceeded in linear chronological order, Hugh constantly flashes backwards and forwards, from the early events from Sunja’s life in Korea and her hard times as a recent arrival in Osaka, and back to the 1989 timeline.
However, the series adaptation considerably truncates the final third of the source novel, largely jettisoning the storyline involving Sunja’s first son, Noa. Frankly, the sixth and concluding eighth episodes both feel choppy, like Hugh was struggling to cram in all the necessary plot to conclude the story. However, the flashback seventh episode, which explains Koh’s origins is quite notable for its harrowing depiction of the 1923 Tokyo-Yokohama Earthquake and the anti-Korean scapegoating that followed.
It is too bad the series so rushes to conclude, because the first five episodes are quite masterful. Indeed, the best scenes, directed by either Justin Chon (“Blue Bayou”) or Kogonada (“After Yang”), are allowed to patiently unfold. Honestly, Sunja’s initial courtship meeting with her future husband, pastor Baek Isak, will leave many viewers teary-eyed. Likewise, a boardroom negotiation scene involving Solomon and the holdout granny represents some genuinely smart and tense drama.
Throughout it all, Youn Yuh-jung (last year’s Oscar winner for “Minari”) gives the film great depth of soul as the elderly (but still forceful) Sunja. She personifies toughness, but she also has some keenly sensitive moments with her family. Likewise, Kim Min-ha believably passes for the younger Sunja and she is nearly as powerful on-screen. In fact, she has the aforementioned standout scene opposite Steve Sanghyun Noh, as her soon-to-be husband.
Jin Ha is also quite charismatic as Solomon, the privileged grandson. Even though Soji Arai does not have a lot of showcase scenes as Mozasu, he still brings a sly energy that frequently lifts the series. Lee Min-ho is also terrific as the ambiguous villain Koh. It really is a strong ensemble, with memorably poignant supporting turns coming from Bomin Kim and Yeji Yeon, as Donghee and Bokhee, the two destitute sisters working at the boarding house owned by Sunja’s mother.
“Pachinko” can also claim the coolest opening credit sequence of any show this year, featuring the cast members dancing down the aisles of the pachinko parlor, dressed in the costumes of their era. Yet, the accompanying song, the Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live for Today,” adds an ironic note, considering how many pleasures of life Sunja will defer, for the sake of her family’s future benefit. Indeed, music is always used in thoughtful and effective ways, especially Nico Muhly’s lithe minimalist score, which perfectly highlights and underscores the dramatic moods.
The decades-spanning “Pachinko” is a much grander macro-tale than the micro-focused “Minari,” but both are very definitely immigrant families’ stories (that each happen to star Youn). Faith also plays an important role in each film, especially for Sunja’s Christian in-laws (who hail from Pyongyang in the North, which might strike viewers as a further irony, in retrospect).
The best episodes are absolutely heartbreaking and even spellbinding. Arguably, Hugh’s adaptation really should have had a second season to fully resolve Lee’s narrative and her characters’ fates, but three-quarters of the episodes delivered are really quite accomplished.
Recommended for fans of historicals and family dramas, “Pachinko” starts streaming on March 25 on Apple TV+.
Directors: Kogonada, Justin Chon
Stars: Youn Yuh-jung, Lee Min-ho, Kim Minha, Jin Ha, Soji Arai
Running Time: 8 episodes
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Release Date: March 25, 2022
Rating: 3.5 out of 5