“Pachinko” is based on the book “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee. It’s an emotional, expressive look back at how Koreans were affected by the Japanese colonization of Korea in the 20th century. In honor of the stories that won’t be in the history books, like the women who tried to keep their families alive. It is an impressive, grandiose work that is told over eight episodes, many of which are over an hour long and show a lot of care from the production team. There is one big problem, though: It makes you want to read the book because some parts of the plot don’t seem to be there.
The story is about four generations, all centered around Sunja. When the story is told, she has the story’s wet, sometimes hopeful, eyes and a strong heart. If you look at Yu-na Jeon as a child, she is very smart and doesn’t let the adults’ fears stop her from trying to help them. But she starts to see how the Japanese occupation of Korea affects the people around her, and she can’t help but be sad. When her father is in front of the Japanese police, people like him start to get scared. It has also made women like Yangjin’s mother, Inji Jeong, and the girl orphans at her mother’s boarding house even less important in the world.
Sunja, played by Minha Kim in a breakout role, has to deal with so much as a teenager. There is kindness in the world. Her father wanted her to know that before he died, but she doesn’t see that much. Seeing this performance built out of nervous energy is heartbreaking because her younger, more brave fire has been extinguished. Even when she’s sitting across from someone who wants to help her, like Isak, she can’t look them in the eye (Steve Sang-Hyun Noh). When Sunja meets Koh Hansu (Lee Min-Ho), a fish market player, she has been through a lot of heartbreak and has lost even more faith in the world. She also has shame about being pregnant out of wedlock. Isak gives her a way out, but it means leaving Korea for good.
In 1989, Sunja is a kimchi-making grandmother in Osaka, Japan. Youn Yuh-Jung, who recently won an Oscar for her work in “Minari,” plays Sunja. Sunja is played by Youn Yuh-Jung. Sunja has been through a lot of things in her life, but now she keeps most of it quiet. She takes care of her sister-in-law Kyunghee, and when her grandson Solomon comes home, she tells him off for bad cooking habits. Older Sunja thinks about her previous life all the time. The time-hopping editing sometimes fades her younger face into her older one, showing how these memories of longing have been preserved. Stateless Sunja, who moved to Japan from Korea and became a citizen of no country, wants to return there.
Solomon is portrayed by Jin Ha in a very realistic way, and he shows the dreams and hunger that have been passed down through the generations. Sunja, for example, kept her money in crammed spaces for most of her life, but Solomon wants to be in charge of the money instead. He is now able to throw away old boxers because he is fluent in English, Korean, Japanese, and world economics. His American bank, Shiffley’s, wants him to work on a big deal for a hotel. A woman who looks a lot like his grandmother doesn’t want to leave her house, even if there is money to pay for it. The hotel plans were put on hold. It doesn’t help that Hana (Mari Yamamoto) is calling him in his Tokyo office. She hasn’t been there for many years, but she knows about all of Solomon’s major moral decisions.
Watching Kogonada and Justin Chon make “Pachinko” is part of what makes it so exciting to watch. These two directors have a way of making movies that is almost like their best work. Kogonada is a wide-angle filmmaker, and he makes beautiful creeks, bustling fish markets, and sulky boarding houses into places that make us feel. “Columbus” and “After Yang” are two films by the South Korean-born filmmaker that have been well-received. In “Columbus,” he used modern architecture in a graceful way. Here, Kogonada is working with a lot of time and a lot of space, but he still has a lot of personal touch.
Then there’s Chon, who used to be in “Blue Bayou,” “Ms. Purple,” and “Gook,” among other things. A lot of what he does is bring the viewer right into the lives of his characters. We can see their joy and pain as if we were looking into a mirror. It’s Chon who directs episodes 4, 5, 6, and 8. They’re all about letting the tears flow or letting the pressures of the past come out, which are things that make him feel. When the Korean singer on the Japanese cruise ship started singing, a tear started to roll down her cheek. With a steak knife in her hand, she kept singing. When he directs young Sunja and later when he directs older Sunja, he shows how these different systems have impacted her and how they have changed her. This is true for Chon as well. Solomon has an epiphany mid-series that sends him scrambling through a rainy Tokyo while dancing to live music, as well as running through the streets of Tokyo.
If you watch “Pachinko,” you want each period to feel like the present, even when it’s flashing back between memories. It’s a visual masterpiece with a lot of attention to detail and clothes that look great in all of its periods. When the story’s emotions are strong or sad, there are fluttering strings and soft piano chords to help make it even more real, making the story even more alive. The production design tells its own story, with its focus on clothes as a class, or when it stops to watch how Korean food is made, making us appreciate how rice from Busan is different from rice from Japan.
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However, the series isn’t as great as it could be because of how it tells its stories. It’s better at showing this strength than it is at building with it. It makes episodes that have sadness and a sense of danger and life, but they don’t have a lot of momentum. Even the mystery with Hana, one of its most obvious ways to show voices from the past coming out in unexpected ways, doesn’t build as it should. Instead, it looks like it takes up space from other stories.
After a while in the series, “Pachinko” adds more members of the family and ends up undercutting them, which makes their storylines a little less interesting. In a quick look at the book’s format, it looks like these lives are given a lot more attention than they are here because of the time-jumping approach. If you’re looking for a show that doesn’t believe in endings too much, this one might be right for you. Even if these characters don’t get that in the way they live, our way into their lives feels incomplete. People who lived these lives say a lot of things that sound rushed, like Solomon’s father Mosazu (Soji Arai) and his pachinko parlor business. We start to care more about what these characters mean than how the story makes us feel.
If “Pachinko” doesn’t have the grandiose, accumulative power that it wants, it still has a lot going for it, like the power of its storytellers, both in front of and behind the camera. All of these performances have the real world and history of the story inside of them, as shown in scenes that make us feel like we’re in the time and on these hard-fought spiritual journeys.