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Apple TV+'s Pachinko is a sublime epic that questions cultural identities, national histories and intergenerational memory and mourning

  • "Pachinko will undoubtedly land differently with various audiences depending on their proximity to the show’s historical context, but ultimately, this is a story in search of a spiritual response — one that will linger indelibly in a viewer’s consciousness," says Sara Merican of Soo Hugh's adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel. Merican adds: "The nonlinear construction of time in the Pachinko series marks a significant departure from Lee’s novel, which progresses chronologically, turning this adaptation into a radically different project. Some of Pachinko’s jumps between past and present play out majestically — fleshing out themes like displacement, cultural identity, death, migration, yearning, and ambition. Being able to witness the full expanse of history, it is easy to grow fond of Pachinko’s characters, understanding the past strife that they are burdened and enlightened by. In these better juxtapositions, Pachinko’s achronological movements imbue the present with the gravity of the past and the sacredness of the grand stories of old."

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    • Pachinko is so good it makes the competition look unworthy: "When at its best, which is the case through nearly all its eight-episode first season, Pachinko is a lesson in how to do melodrama right," says Robert Lloyd. "In its acting, production, respect for character over machination (though there is plenty of machination) and for stillness over action (there is some action), in its interest in domestic details and the limitless depths of the human face, it transforms the most well-worn narrative gambits into something that feels real and alive and lived. That is a sort of trick, of course — this is a TV series, after all, expensively mounted, with good-looking people in Dramatic Situations. Yet it makes the competition look obvious, overwrought, unworthy."
    • Pachinko starts off great, but the back half of Season 1 doesn't work: "Pachinko develops what I call a Julie & Julia problem, in which the relatively minor travails of a younger character are hopelessly overshadowed by the much higher-stakes adventures of an older character," says Inkoo Kang. "The burden that Solomon carries of having to ensure that all the self-sacrifices of prior generations bear fruit through him is a heavy and, for probably many viewers, resonant one. But Solomon’s ethnic angst and 'bamboo ceiling' woes at the office can’t compete with Sunja’s or those of any other woman of her generation, whose sorrow won’t brook self-pity: What family doesn’t have stories like hers? Already measured in its pacing, the series slows to a crawl in the penultimate chapter, which leans on prestige-TV formula by detouring into a side character’s backstory. In this case it’s the villain’s, and not only is it narratively unnecessary, but it looks shockingly unappealing, especially compared with the rest of the season’s lavish production and handsomely lit direction (by Korean American filmmakers Justin Chon and Kogonada)."
    • Pachinko fulfills a dream of a show that could go on forever: "Pachinko is not a realization of my imagined forever story, but it achieves all the feats of scope and sharpness I was longing for," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "The series slides among several decades at once: The protagonist, Sunja, is born in early-20th-century Korea, and Pachinko spends time with her in her early childhood (when she’s played by Yuna), her young adulthood (played by Minha Kim), and as a grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn). Sunja’s life encompasses several titanic changes in global history and in her family line. As a child, Sunja lives in Japanese-occupied Korea and grows up with the perpetual awareness of colonial rule. As a young adult, she moves to Japan. As an elderly woman, her family has put down roots in Japan and the U.S. while maintaining a bedrock of Korean culture and identity. (For audiences who tend to view world history through the lens of western history, Pachinko is a vital reminder that, believe it or not, other countries and cultures exist, as do non-western forms of prejudice and non-Eurocentric colonial pasts.) Although Pachinko moves freely in and out of several periods in Sunja’s life (chiefly her young adulthood in the 1920s and her grandson’s early adulthood in the 1980s), it does so in a way that resists frantic flashback-style finger-pointing. Its pace is urgent but measured."
    • Pachinko gains a rhythm that’s absent from the novel from its constant switching between time periods: "In the process, it makes stirring dramatic parallels, as in the prophetic opening scene that splices scenes of Sunja’s mother, Yang-jin (Jeong In-ji), consulting a shaman about childbirth in 1915 with Solomon speaking English at a New York business meeting in 1989," says Anzhe Zhang. "For all of Pachinko’s rich multi-generational plotlines and compelling secondary characters, it’s Sunja who remains the story’s heart. From the older Sunja grappling with her trauma to the resolute decisions made by her teenage self (Kim Min-ha), so determined to have her baby even though the father isn’t in the picture, the character’s life—particularly her time growing up in Korea—lends Pachinko its dramatic heft and most heart-wrenching moments."
    • Pachinko is the closest TV can get to a shared memory: "Very often, TV adaptations of books naturally play out like fixed objects," says Steve Greene. "There’s a built-in framework for an episodic journey that fulfills what’s on the page as an exercise in transposing. Aside from the emotional richness of the new Apple TV+ series Pachinko, it becomes apparent very quickly that what sets this eight-episode season apart is that it plays out more as a collective memory than a written history. Drawing from Min Jin Lee’s sprawling bestselling novel, which traces the fate of a Korean family across multiple countries and generations, Pachinko is a gorgeous drama built around observing both the crisp and hazy all at once. It’s a century-spanning tale that draws on the untidy nature of remembering the past to fashion an experience all its own."
    • Pachinko succeeds with both style and substance: "In the race among the big streamers to focus more and more on content with global appeal — a challenge Netflix has been facing for years as it’s more or less hit a ceiling with stateside subscribers — Apple TV+ has hit the jackpot with Pachinko, a trilingual prestige drama that’s sure to rack up award nominations, appeal to the coveted Asian markets, and stun audiences anywhere with its Dickensonian soul and miraculous performances," says Stephan Lee. "It’s clear that Apple has thrown its unparalleled resources into the new series, but unlike some of its other high-budget marquee projects, which often feel a bit airless for their slick production, Pachinko backs up the style with gritty authenticity and daring creative swings. 'Miraculous' is a word that constantly came to mind while watching the eight-episode first season."
    • Pachinko is only inaccessible if you lack empathy: "The geography and the individual faces may change, but stories of displacement and the refugee experience are never far from our current reality, if we can be bothered to look. Ukraine. Syria. Guatemala," says Daniel Fienberg. "Somebody might try telling you that Apple TV+’s new drama Pachinko seems inaccessible for various reasons. Most of the dialogue is in Korean and Japanese. Its historical context is seeded 80+ years in the past. Many of the actors are new to American television. But Pachinko, adapted from the novel by Min Jin Lee, is ultimately only inaccessible if you lack empathy. The eight-episode drama, like its source material, is emotionally epic and tells a gripping yarn, one that is entirely specific to the experience of 20th-century Koreans in their home country and Japan but has traces of countless other immigrant experiences, forced and unforced. Pachinko is a harrowing portrait of suffering balanced against an elating tale of familial resilience and female strength."
    • Pachinko has a contemporary sensibility, unlike Min Jin Lee’s novel: "Lee employed what could be seen as either verities or convenient clichés about Koreans — stubbornness, passion, capacity for hard work, shrewd business instincts — in the service of a substantial melodrama," says Mike Hale. “Pachinko, the book, is a page-turner, but its attention to the details of character and period (it takes place over eight decades, beginning in 1910) and its steady, unforced narrative drive give it considerable power. It has the feel of something from the 19th century, like the Victorian novels devoured by one of its characters, the scholarly Noa. By contrast, Pachinko the TV series has a thoroughly contemporary sensibility, and it works overtime to ingratiate itself with all possible viewers. That desire is evident in the opening credits sequence, set to a pop tune, the Grass Roots anthem 'Let’s Live for Today': The central cast members, in their period costumes but out of character, dance among the pachinko machines, sliding and spinning and mugging for the camera. It’s hard to imagine anything more out of tune with Lee’s book."
    • Pachinko is storytelling at its best: "Culturally significant and specific, yet universal in its themes," says Richard Roeper. "Filled with moments of triumphs great and small, setbacks piercing and lasting. A tale of one family’s struggles and achievements spanning most of the 20th century that is pinpoint-accurate to its time and place, yet has a certain impressionistic, idealized and fable-like quality to it."
    • Pachinko brings to life a Korea you would never have gleaned from Squid Game or K-pop: "It’s a vast, sumptuous, dynastic political TV series of the kind scarcely made any more, complete with swooning strings from Nico Muhly’s score," says Stuart Jeffries. "It reminds me of the historical television dramas I grew up with – Roots, Tenko, The Forsyte Saga. But there is a difference. Pachinko sophisticatedly cuts across continents and eras, from a rustic fishing village under the Japanese yoke in 1915, to braces-wearing financial workers greed-brokering deals on green computer screens in 1989 New York and Tokyo."
    • Pachinko reminds us of how adaptation can be an art form in its own right: “The first line of the revelatory and critically-acclaimed novel Pachinko, by author Min Jin Lee, is one of literature's best openings to a story that only just gets more meaningful from there," says Chase Hutchinson. "Bound up in the tragic trajectory of history, it is an acknowledgment of how cruel the world can be while also serving as an expression of how people find a way to endure. It isn’t fair or just, though a slimmer of hope can be found in the courage of those who fight for those they love. The novel is an extension of this, expansive in scope though focused in its emotion as it takes us on a journey through multiple generations of a Korean family as they try to survive for themselves and each other. As we follow them as they are scattered across the globe from Korea to Japan and America, it reveals itself as a rich text that is powerfully confident in its craft while also remarkably delicate in the creation of its characters. It is therefore a high task to capture the brilliance of such a work in an adaptation. Yet the new eight-episode Apple TV+ series does just that, bringing the characters to life on screen with such a sense of care that it proves itself to be one of the best adaptations of not just this year but of all time. Created by longtime writer Soo Hugh, it reminds us of how adaptation can be an art form in its own right in how she makes the story leap off the page. When paired with directors Kogonada and Justin Chon, who each helm four episodes apiece, the series weaves a tapestry that finds as much art in the quiet intimacy of conversations between its characters as it does in the vastness of the landscapes they inhabit over the many decades."
    • Pachinko manages to turn the well-worn tropes of period pieces and family dramas into something new and special: "Historical epics aren’t new," says Olivia Truffaut-Wong. "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."
    • There’s an unwavering universal resonance with the show’s—and its source material’s—exploration of freedom and identity: "Pachinko is timeless in how it grapples with the complexities of immigration during very specific times, and the writing accurately captures the longing for—and meaning of—home," says Saloni Gajjar, adding: "The production design and cinematography are just as key to Pachinko, as the characters travel from boardrooms to narrow cobbled lanes, scenic islands to big cities, and devastation to solace. Kogonoda and Justin Chon’s direction elevates the script. Through their eyes, even something as simple as white rice holds court onscreen, whether it’s Yangjin preparing it as a final luxurious meal before her daughter leaves or Youn’s Sunja recognizing the nutty taste of her homeland’s staple, now easily available food."
    • Beyond the smart construction, Pachinko benefits from remarkable talent both in front and behind the camera: "Kogonada (Columbus, and the new After Yang) and Justin Chon (Blue Bayou) alternate directing duties," says Keith Phipps. "Each brings an intense attention to detail, both to the world of the series — whether it's a '20s Yokohama filled with American sailors or the cash-mad Tokyo of the 1980s — and the emotions of the characters. In this latter task they are aided by an abundance of fine, sensitive performances. For Western viewers, Youn and Ha are likely the best-known names, but Kim is no less a standout. She plays Sunja as a woman defined by her determination but aware of how dangerous the world can be. The eight episodes of this first season also work quite well as a TV series, rather than a long story stretched across a set number of episodes. Though it's far from a soap opera, Hugh understands how to end an episode on a note that makes it hard to wait to watch the next. Sometimes that means unexpectedly bringing back someone who seemed to have left that story. Sometimes, as in the remarkable final moments of Episode 3, it means holding the camera on a character's face, watching her think as she contemplates a decision that will reshape the rest of her life — and the lives of the generations that will follow her into a demanding, unfair, but often beautiful world."
    • Pachinko is technically impressive on all levels: "It’s visually stunning, with a knockout score by Nico Muhly," says Alan Sepinwall. "The show is also gorgeous to look at in in each era it covers, with the lush greens of Sunja’s pastoral childhood just as vivid as the cool blues of Solomon’s modern world. The earthquake episode not only shifts its perspective to Hansu for an entire hour, but adopts a rawer and more impressionistic style to capture both the devastation of the event and its uglier aftermath, in which Japanese citizens used it as an excuse to murder Korean immigrants. But even subtler devices like color-coding the subtitles to clarify when characters are speaking Korean or Japanese — or sometimes both in one conversation — work wonders at making the story feel more immersive and poignant. And the opening credits — a dazzling musical sequence scored to 'Live for Today,' by the Grass Roots, and set at the pachinko parlor run by Solomon’s father, Mozasu (Soji Arai) — are, like the ones from Peacemaker, a great reminder that every show would be at least five percent better if it began with a dance number."
    • There were many factors working against creator Soo Hugh and executive producer Theresa Kang-Lowe as they began shopping the concept for Pachinko around to streaming services: "Not only did the show need to have an all-Asian cast, but it also needed to be told in three languages: Korean, Japanese, and English, as its characters migrated across the world," explains Time magazine's Andrew R. Chow. "Asian histories told by Hollywood, excluding war stories like Letters From Iwo Jima or The Last Samurai, were few and far between. And the Pachinko team was requesting an enormous budget, on par with that of The Crown or Succession, in order to convey the book’s epic scope. Kang-Lowe says that while many streamers were initially interested in the concept—especially enticed by the allure of courting Asian audiences—they balked at the price tag. They told her: 'We wouldn’t do that for this show.' Kang-Lowe says Apple and Netflix eventually offered what the creators were looking for—and the team decided to go with Apple, thanks in large part to the support of executive Michelle Lee, who is now the streamer’s director of domestic programming. Apple was trying to position itself as a home for international series and prestige fare with shows like Dr. Brain, and Pachinko hit both targets. Having an executive like Lee was 'everything,' Hugh says. 'She also comes from the immigrant experience and knows these characters inside out.'"
    • Jin Ha on juggling speaking Korean, Japanese and English: “I actually didn’t have time from when I was cast to when I started shooting to learn the fundamentals of Japanese, so I just had to start, and then never stop, memorizing my Japanese lines,” he says of the difficulty of switching languages. “It was really hard, but at the same time, incredibly fulfilling. I can’t believe that I’m a part of a project where they have decided to honor the language and the linguistic storytelling because of how important that is to the experience of the characters. As difficult as the Japanese learning was, never for a second did I want to do anything else. I wanted to tell the story in the most authentic and accurate way possible.”
    • Pachinko team says the show pushes TV toward a more connected future: "I think the show breaks incredible barriers. Just the fact that it's the first of its kind or it speaks English, Japanese, and Korean," Justin Chon, who directed four episodes of the series. "This is truly an original, it's a worldwide show." 
    • Creator Soo Hugh wanted to make a "global show" that didn't make the past look too distant: “Even though this is a very specific Korean story, this is not a Korean show. It’s not a Japanese show and it’s not an American show,” says Hugh. “We really did feel this was a global show.” Hugh adds: “When I was writing the season overview, in terms of the tone and style, the one thing that was very important to me is that the past, any of the past, doesn’t feel like masterpiece theater. We (wanted to make sure) that these characters who live in the past don’t feel like they’re at an arm’s throw from us.”
    • What Hugh sees as the show’s thesis statement is that every generation, whether directly or indirectly, is in dialogue with the ones before and after them: “Every generation in this dialogue is either refusing what’s been given to them or accepting of it,” says Hugh. “That’s a complicated way of saying that we are all very much following the footsteps of those who have come before us. The question is some people want to veer on their own paths, and don’t want to follow in those footsteps, and some people do. In this show, I wanted to figure out who are the characters who understand that those footsteps were made with great sacrifice and love, and who are the characters who say, ‘No, I tread my own path.’ That was really intriguing.”

    TOPICS: Pachinko, Apple TV+, Jin Ha, Justin Chon, Min Jin Lee, Soo Hugh, Theresa Kang-Lowe


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