clock menu more-arrow no yes
Sunja sitting in her house Photo: Apple TV Plus

Filed under:

Pachinko turns a heralded novel into a laser-focused epic

The adaptation puts Sunja at the center of her story

Historical epics aren’t new. Nor are family dramas that span generations, or period pieces. We’ve all seen them: shows with perfectly curated and historically accurate set decor; intergenerational family dramas which end with the youngest generation learning about their heritage and coming to a new understanding of themselves; stories of enslavement, torture, resilience, and struggle. And yet, Apple TV Plus’ newest drama, Pachinko, manages to take all of these tropes and refine them into something beautifully specific and new: a Korean family epic.

Pachinko doesn’t fit into one genre box because it escapes the trappings of traditional historical fiction (see: Downton Abbey’s penchant for style over substance). The intricacy of the sets and the costumes is gorgeous, but unlike other period shows, the eight-episode series doesn’t suffer from being so overloaded with visual detail that it sacrifices the story. It tackles the history of the Japanese occupation of Korea and racism in Japan and abroad without being too educational or preachy. Most importantly, it tells the story of one woman surviving tragic injustices without fetishizing her suffering.

Based on Min Jin Lee’s bestseller of the same name, Pachinko follows two main characters, Sunja and her grandson Solomon, in two main time periods, the 1930s and 1989. The season begins in 1989, when Solomon (Jin Ha) is denied a promotion at his American bank job and decides to return to Japan to close a deal that should solidify his reputation at the company. But Solomon is really an entry point into Sunja’s story, which takes up a bulk of the mini-series. Played by three different actors — Yu-na Jeon as Young Sunja, Minha Kim as Teen Sunja, and Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung as Older Sunja — her life unfolds over the season, and is interspersed with Solomon’s reconnection with his Japanese and Korean roots.

Through Sunja, we see the horrors of the Japanese occupation. As a child, she witnesses the arbitrary brutality of Japanese officers who arrest any Korean suspected of speaking against their colonizers. As a teenager in the 1930s (the main timeline of the show) she is the victim of a racist attack, and later, after she moves to Japan, she and her family live as second class citizens. There’s no dumbing down the history of colonialism and tension between Korea and Japan thanks to characters like Koh Hansu (Lee Min-Ho), a Korean-born businessman who embarks on an affair with Sunja. He works on behalf of the Japanese running the local fish market, and has learned how to find success in Japan as a Korean. Koh Hansu’s apparent allegiance to Japan makes him neither good, nor bad; instead it’s the way he treats Sunja that is the true test of his character.

And yet, Pachinko is not driven by Sunja’s trauma, but her resilience in the face of it. Pachinko consistently avoids veering into trauma porn; it’s clear that showrunner Soo Hugh respects the historical importance of how Sunja’s story fits into the horrors of the Japanese occupation, but they also understand that to focus on her suffering would erase the humanity of her story. Instead of using Sunja as a way to tell a story about the occupation, Pachinko leans into this being her story, allowing her journey to dictate how much of the historical context is given.

When Koh Hansu finds out that she’s pregnant, he is overjoyed, and offers her a life as his mistress. Yes, she will have to live with the public shame that comes with being an unwed mother, and her son will not have his name, but Hansu will take care of her and her mother financially. Hansu thinks he can control Sunja because of her situation, but she refuses him. She would rather live in poverty as an outcast with her child than live by Koh Hansu’s rules. As an unwed pregnant teenager with no prospects, no money, and no reputation, Sunja is hardly in a position to turn down Hansu’s offer, but she does. And later, when Isak appears like a lifeline, proposing to her and offering to give her child his name, she is in even less of a position to turn him down. But instead of jumping at the chance, she takes her time considering the proposal.

Played by Minha Kim with a quiet defiance, Sunja makes it clear that she is the master of her own destiny. Sitting in the noodle shop with Isak, Sunja tells him, “I am here even though I shouldn’t be. And now, my child is here even though he shouldn’t be. And he will be loved.” Men may have put her in this position, but she will find a way out; Sunja doesn’t need saving from her misfortune. Isak might give her an opportunity at a new life, unburdened by the shame of unwed motherhood, but he’s not a knight in shining armor. Just as Sunja chooses to walk away from Koh Hansu, she chooses to marry Isak and move to Japan with him.

Pachinko’s focus on Teen Sunja’s story is a slight departure from the book, which covers more of her adulthood, raising two boys in Japan, and goes into the life of her eldest son, Noa. But by zeroing in on Teen Sunja and her journey from Korea to Japan, Pachinko allows Sunja’s story to be wholly her own This is evident in the work of directors Kogonada (After Yang) and Justin Chon (Blue Bayou), who split the episodes and also act as executive producers. Save for one episode, Kogonada and Chon never let the camera linger too far from Sunja. Even in the first episode, when Young Sunja witnesses Japanese officers arrest and beat a Korean fisherman, the camera focuses on her reaction to the horrors, not the violence she’s witnessing. The camera is consistent in prioritizing Sunja’s reactions and how she relates to the world around her. It makes clear that Sunja doesn’t exist to serve someone else’s story, or the story of her family, or even the history. She is her family story, she is that living history, and the show’s commitment to her perspective makes it all the more touching and relatable.

Soloman sitting at a pachinko machine in the Apple TV show Pachinko Photo: Apple TV Plus

Such dedication to Sunja’s early life, especially her young adulthood, makes the series incredibly focused, leaving many questions unanswered. Throughout the series, there are references to Noa, her eldest, but he never appears as an adult, and his nephew doesn’t seem to know he existed at all. Then there’s the question of how much Sunja’s son and grandson even know about her experience as an immigrant. The show also stops short of Japan’s entry into WWII, which would certainly have created even more hardship for Sunja. It’s unclear whether or not Pachinko will get a second season (right now it’s billed as a limited series, but showrunner Hugh’s plan is to run for four seasons) but one hopes that these facets of Sunja’s life were left unexplored to create space for more futures in the story.

At its core, Pachinko is about the intergenerational trauma of colonialism and immigration; it would have been easy to focus primarily on Solomon, learning and using Sunja’s story as a way to force him to confront his family’s past. It’s certainly a tried and true formula. Solomon does go through his own journey, specifically in processing his experience growing up as a second-generation Korean Japanese citizen. But he doesn’t do this through his grandmother. Her painful past does not make him enlightened, similar to the seminal 1993 film Joy Luck Club. By prioritizing Sunja, Pachinko allows not only for her to have more agency and ownership of her own story, but for Sunja and Solomon’s experiences to stand on their own. Sunja and Solomon might be tied together as family living through turbulent times, but that doesn’t mean their stories need to be identical or complementary. The experience of an immigrant who moves to a land where she doesn’t speak the language and is treated like a second-class citizen is not the experience of a second-generation man who struggles to balance his identities as Japanese and Korean. And they don’t need to be.

The first three episodes of Pachinko are now streaming on Apple TV Plus. New episodes drop every Friday.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon