Pachinko Is a Lovely Adaptation, Marred by 1 Baffling Choice

WJapan annexed Korea on 10/10/1910. The occupation was far more than a simple political act. Japanese leaders began to take aim at Korea’s culture as they faced ever more harsher colonial responses. The strategy of forced assimilation saw destruction of cultural treasures and historical documents. Koreans saw their language, religion, commerce, agricultural industry, and news media supplanted by the invaders’ institutions; they even had to adopt Japanese names. Many thousands of Koreans fled their home country because there were no employment prospects.

This atrocity, whose impact on the Korean people still reverberates in the present, forms the backdrop of Min Jin Lee’s magnificent 2017 novel Pachinko. The rare National Book Award finalist that is also a bestseller, populated by rich characters and suffused with emotion, Lee’s story comes to television with a lavish adaptation premiering March 25 on Apple TV+. This epic multilingual, multi-generational story about immigration and family was hard to adapt for the small screen. Soo Hugh, creatorThe WhispersWorking with Kogonada filmmakers (Yang, ColumbusJustin Chon (actor turned director Justin Chon) beautifully portrays the spirit and sweep of the novel. A stellar ensemble cast also helps. The only major misstep is a structural choice that undermines Lee’s carefully paced storytelling.

It covers most of the 20th Century. Pachinko The Japanese-occupied Korean countryside in 1915 is flooded with sunlight. Yangjin—a young woman born into poverty, married to the cleft-lipped son of a family that owns a boarding house and reeling from the deaths of three consecutive infant sons—has come to secure a blessing for her fourth pregnancy. “There is a curse in my blood,” Yangjin (Inji Jeong) tells the female shaman. Now the action leaps to New York in 1989, after three quarters of a century. An ambitious young finance guy, Solomon (Jin Ha), strides confidently into a meeting with a pair of white, male superiors, who unceremoniously inform him that he’s not getting a promotion they all know he’s earned.

When we meet Yangjin, she’s just months away from giving birth to the show’s heroine, Sunja, whose life will be shaped by what she endures during the occupation. Solomon is Sunja’s grandson. And this eight-episode first season (of four that Hugh hopes to make) patiently fills in the intervening decades, though not with the simplistic tale of immigrant bootstrapping that newcomers to Lee’s story might expect. In one of the two parallel narratives, set in the ’30s, a teenage Sunja (played with grace, vulnerability, and grit by Minha Kim) becomes entangled with a Korean businessman, Koh Hansu (South Korean megastar Lee Min-Ho), whose flexible morals have helped him prosper in Japan. Their romance catalyzes her departure for Osaka—although, again, not for the reason you might assume. The other core story line follows Solomon’s return to Osaka, where his family still lives, with a plan to prove he’s worthy of a VP title by facilitating a crucial deal that only an employee of Korean heritage could possibly close.

The structure is structured in a way that magnifies certain aspects. Pachinko’s most salient themes. Even though they’re poor in the ’30s and relatively rich in the ’80s, the family is constantly forced, in both eras, to choose between impossible binaries: money and integrity, safety and authenticity, assimilation and persecution. But it’s not exactly difficult to glean these ideas from Lee’s chronological structure, which I greatly prefer. There’s a trend toward multiple timelines in TV these days; complicated storytelling has become the marker of prestige drama—of television as art. But Pachinko TV was not art until it became TV. The bifurcated narrative only adds too many transitions that disrupt the series’ emotional throughline and sows confusion around characters that turn up episodes before they’re properly introduced. Readers eager to see the book’s absorbing middle chapters onscreen will have to cross their fingers for a renewal.

This kind of big mistake could lead to a lower show but not in any other way. Pachinko—like its heroine—is too singular and alive to fail. Kim, as she was in her youth. Minari Oscar nominee Youn Yuh–jung at older age. Sunja is an example of immigrant perseverance without becoming a standard character. Hugh doesn’t want to make her a victim or an exemplary success story. This was a good decision. It is now possible to combine Korean and Japanese dialogues; the color-coded subtitles convey effectively how characters code-switch and mix tongues. The art direction surpasses that of TV’s most immersive historical dramas, including Crown. Complementing this intricate mise-en-scène and the cast’s fiercely physical performances is cinematography that lingers on textural details: the hem of a wedding dress, the pudgy foot of a newborn, the snowy brilliance of Korean white rice.

Yes, this adaptation is less than perfect; the disservice it does to the structural integrity novel that gains momentum and poignancy as the decades progress shouldn’t be understated. It gives the impression of a fragmented masterpiece that has been reassembled in a random order. That’s frustrating. Even when you account for its shortcomings, though, TV’s Pachinko This rare exhibit is of historic and artistic importance remains. It is a must-see for everyone. However, you might want to read it first.

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