Monday, May 16, 2022

Pachinko Review: A Captivating Historical Epic on Apple TV Plus

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Watching pachinko is to have an audience with something very sacred and profound. Adapted from Min Jin Lee’s bestseller of the same name, Apple TV Plus’ most ambitious project yet is a sublime epic that questions cultural identities, national histories, and intergenerational memory and mourning.

The eight-episode series follows Sunja through the upheavals in her life in the 20th century, from her birth in the southern coastal city of Busan during the Japanese colonization of Korea. Exceptional boldness and veracity of vision reverberate through every layer of pachinko: The story is full of searing humanity, the casting is thoughtful and the project boasts a formidable multinational team of producers, consultants and crew. Even details like the subtitles—colored yellow for Korean dialogue and blue for Japanese—describe cultural nuance and complexity, prompting a lesser-known viewer to actively interact with the text.

pachinko will undoubtedly come across differently to different audiences depending on their proximity to the historical context of the show, but ultimately this is a story seeking a spiritual response – one that will linger indelibly in the viewer’s consciousness.

Directed by Justin Chon (Blue BayouGook) and Kogonada (after YangColumbus), the series jumps between the early 20th century in Korea and the 1980s in Japan, taking many other detours. We meet a slew of characters from Sunja’s life: her parents, suitors, children, sister-in-law and brother-in-law, boarders living in her childhood home, and grandson Solomon Baek. Sunja’s character is played by a cast of three phenomenal actresses, Jeon Yu-na (in her childhood), Kim Min-ha (as a teenager), and Academy Award winner Youn Yuh-jung (in her later years). pachinko also stars Lee Min-ho (Koh Han-su), Anna Sawai (Naomi), and Jin Ha (Solomon Baek).

The nonlinear construction of time in the pachinko series marks a major departure from Lee’s novel, progressing chronologically, turning this adaptation into a radically different project. Some of pachinko’The leaps between past and present take place majestically and give substance to themes such as displacement, cultural identity, death, migration, desire and ambition. Witnessing the full expanse of history, it’s easy to grow fond of Pachinko’s characters and understand the past struggles that burden and enlighten them.

In these better juxtapositions, pachinko’s chronological movements imbue the present with the seriousness of the past and the sacredness of the great stories of yesteryear. For example, a bowl of Korean white rice (“nuttier” and “sweeter”) that Sunja eats while visiting another zainichi lady’s house suddenly takes on old meanings: a resonance of childhood, the generosity of a grain seller, and a mother’s parting gift. With knowledge of past events through the alternation of scenes, these meanings are touched by the sacred sorrow of all that one has loved and lost, but also softened by the comfort that memory brings.

At other times, though, it’s questionable whether these temporal jumps decentralize Sunja’s experience for the sake of TV suspense and interrupt the emotional journey a viewer might have with Sunja. pachinko might have worked better if it had been stingier with the number of cuts between past and present so viewers could stick with the characters and grow with them. An episode to the later part of the series also takes a historical detour that feels particularly disconnected from the rest of the story. Yet these bumps don’t take away the shine from pachinko – the sheer power and momentum of its story emphatically drive it from start to finish.

Besides the preoccupation with time, pachinko is also a meditation on land. Solomon Baek, Sunja’s grandson, is well-groomed and American-educated, caught between different identities and cultures. Despite having a record of successful deals, he’s been denied a raise and promotion — and the respect that comes with it — at his New York-based financial firm. To impress senior management, he takes on the challenge of scooping up one last, tiny patch of land on a Tokyo lot earmarked for future hotel development. He is unfazed by the “one landowner hold”[ing] the whole deal held hostage” —an elderly person zainichi Korean lady, grandmother Han. She refuses to sell her home on the site and turns down repeated offers from developers.

Image: Apple

A bird’s eye view shot of giant construction cranes and equipment already on site shows the ground being leveled around. The area has turned bleak brown, ready for the development of Tokyo’s spires and towers, inviolable proof that the machines of cosmopolitanism and capitalist progress are alive. We learn that Grandmother Han – who moved to Japan in 1929 – bought the plot of land in 1955 for 4,000 yen. In addition to sharing stories about his grandmother and their similar cultural backgrounds to break the ice, Solomon tries to charm grandmother Han with rare gifts and an increased offer of a billion yen, but she remains stubbornly unwilling to sell the house. He reassures her, “Grandmother, you won. Today you will secure great wealth for your children and their children.” Solomon’s colleague, the brash Tom Andrews, cannot understand and calls Grandmother Han’s plot a “little piece of shitland”. Another colleague, Naomi, tactfully suggests, “It’s not about the money, not about her.”

Grandmother Han painfully tells Solomon that her children, born and raised in Japan, “don’t even know the language their mother dreams in.” The Japanese occupation of Korea tore the soil of her homeland from under her feet, forced her to move to Tokyo, and split her native Korean language from her children and descendants. If land is the beginning of solidarity, then colonization is the traumatic breach of this principle: the colonized becomes an exile in his own home. For the elderly Korean woman who does not want to sell her house in Tokyo, holding onto this plot of land in her colonizer’s land is therefore a radical act – it is a redeeming rebellion, a reclamation of space born from the ashes of personal and national tragedy.

In many ways, the sheer size of the pachinko series goes way beyond the small screens we watch it on. It speaks to – and also challenges – our cultural moment. pachinko is a (long-awaited) redefinition of what “tentpole” content from a major streamer can be: whose story it tells, where it comes from, and who should have more seats at the table. Pachinko has the qualities to become the new standard-bearer of what a show on a streamer can aspire to, given the international resources, extensive global reach and creative expression that a streaming platform like Apple TV Plus offers. In pachinkoApple has interwoven an extraordinary project that will hopefully usher in much more.

pachinko will premiere on Apple TV Plus on March 25.

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