Pachinko feels at once epic and intimate, tracking one family’s journey across countries and decades with detailed care. The 8-episode miniseries, arriving March 25 on Apple TV+, is based on the New York Times best seller by Min Jin Lee. Her highly acclaimed novel follows protagonist Sunja from her humble beginnings in the fishing village of Yeongdo, Korea to her new start in Osaka, Japan. From there, it the story of her children and grandchildren unfolds, traversing to Tokyo and New York over 70 years later.
Aside from being the first Korean drama announced by the streaming platform – though Dr. Brain aired before Pachinko in the end – the cast also garnered buzz for the project. The original Kdrama heartthrob Lee Minho was chosen to play the infamous yakuza boss Koh Hansu, and the fact that he had to audition for the first time in a decade only increased the allure. Yoon Yuhjung, who recently won an Oscar for Minari, plays the matriarch Sunja and adds even more prestige.
With so much hype surrounding it, and such a pedigree behind it, can Pachinko possibly live up to expectations? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is, as always, a little more complex. As someone who devoured the book many moons ago, I would consider the series a perfect companion to it. One cannot replace the other, but side-by-side, they each bring nuance. The novel took a much more linear and focused approach, while the Apple TV+ works from the outside in – and works outside of time to boot.
Pachinko Is A Visual Feast And A Homecooked Meal
Food may be a strange metaphor with which to begin this review, but what I mean to say is that Pachinko may seem like it’s just all dolled up to fit the bill of an epic saga at first glance. But the beating heart of the Baek family is still found throughout the first three episodes, which is what this (non-spoiler) review covers, and the series never lets you forget that their individual experiences and close-knit ties are what propels the narrative forward.
Current events (current as of 1989, that is) are remarked on in Pachinko, bookending Japan’s imperial history and hammering home its effect on Korea. The show dives into the politics behind the Japanese occupation of Korea (from 1910 to 1945) sooner than the novel did, which widens the scope of the narrative, but it’s almost always meant to add context to characters’ choices characters. The flow of languages can also be dizzying at first, but color-coded subtitles make it easy to follow. And from a historical perspective, it’s fascinating to hear the cadence with which Korean is spoken at start of the century as opposed to near its end.
The performances in Pachinko are stellar across the board, but it is especially impressive to see Lee Minho thrive in a role that’s very unlike what fans have come to expect from him. Partially because he’s speaking Japanese for such a large portion of the time, but also because his Ko Hansu is by no stretch of the imagination a good guy. Hard and cold, danger lurks below his gaze even when his eyes light up at the sight of Sunja.
Their romance, which kicks off the events of Pachinko, feels both tragic and inevitable from the start. Lee Minho and Minha Kim (who plays the teenage Sunja) have a chemistry that walks the tightrope between repression and passion, something which makes their scenes fiery yet uncomfortable to witness. Kdrama fans should know what I mean when I compare their dynamic to Lee Junho and Lee Seyoung’s in The Red Sleeve.
Speaking of Sunja, all of the actresses portraying her help breathe life into such a central character and emphasize important aspects of her personality at different stages. Child Sunja (portrayed by Jeon Yuna) is full of exploration and excitement, sassing the fish sellers when they fail to give fair prices. Young adult Sunja is more cautious and quiet, perhaps due to the hardships she suffers early on and the unsettled nature of the world around her. Yoon Yuhjung’s elder Sunja is, of course, as much of a standout as ever. The wisdom, warmth and melancholy are perfectly combined in each of her scenes.
The time jumps may be jarring for book readers, but they enrich the viewer’s experience of the generations of Sunja’s family. Though it feels strange to meet certain characters at later stages of their life first, like reading the skipping to the final act before watching the first one, it’s a comfortable rhythm to fall into after a few episodes. I never would have imagined seeing Sunja and Kyung Hee (played by Felice Choi in the present) growing old together before I saw them meet, for example, but those early interactions are sure to color their blossoming friendship in a beautiful and bittersweet way.
Some may also complain that Pachinko is too slow, and I won’t deny that it takes its time unspooling the necessary plot threads. But it all lends to the full circle feeling that the series seems to be going for. Besides, once the meat of the plot gets going, it’s easy enough to get invested without constantly harkening back to how things turn out. Not to mention that the shuttling back and forth exposes parallels between Sunja’s past and Solomon’s present that may not be as obvious when reading the book – and adds more that didn’t exist in the book to begin with.
Also: shoutout to Jin Ha’s Solomon for being such grounding force, both in terms of his performance and his character. Not only does he need to reflect the generations that came before him in his speech and mannerisms, but he must also deliver dialogue in Japanese, Korean and English with varying levels of certainty and familiarity. He may be one of the most delightful surprises in the series for the uninitiated, but I would expect nothing less from a man able to tackle the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton.
One thing I wished the early episodes of Pachinko had indulged more in is the interactions between Sunja and her mother Yangjin (lovingly portrayed by Jeong In Ji), as well as her lovely dynamic with the household staff and boarders. Another character that perhaps gets the short end of the stick in these early episodes is Baek Isak (played by Steve Sanghyun Noh). Finally, in later episodes, there’s a gaping hole from a thematically relevant arc – one that should be centered on a character whose name I dare not speak yet – that’s replaced with material that doesn’t do as much to expand on the theme of what parents pass on to their children.
There are all an understandable changes from a practical perspective, given the casting choices for Hansu and older Sunja, but they do hurt the story slightly. Then again, they also add an element of mystery that the skips through time would otherwise rob the series of completely. This is one of the biggest reasons I would encourage everyone to both read or listen to the book as well as watch Pachinko: both are part of a larger tapestry.
One final surprise, but of the best kind? The opening theme song, which is NOT what I’d expect when watching Pachinko. It immediately called another recent series intro to mind, but I wouldn’t wish to spoil the fun for anyone by saying it out loud. You’ll know when you see it, though – unless some other review beat me to the punch.
Are you looking forward to Pachinko? Have you read the book and, if so, how would you choose to adapt it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or on our social media, and don’t forget to check out Pachinko on Apple TV+ March 25.