‘Pachinko’ Review: A Gorgeous Family Drama That’s the Closest TV Can Get to a Shared Memory

This beautifully rendered Apple TV+ series traces the evolution of a family of Korean immigrants across opposite, parallel sides of the 20th century.
Pachinko Sunja Minha Kim
Apple TV+

Very often, TV adaptations of books naturally play out like fixed objects. 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.

Despite its circuitous path, “Pachinko” is at least clear in the main individuals along the way. There’s Solomon Baek (Jin Ha), a young upstart employee at a giant international firm called on to help with a lucrative land deal. In a return to his hometown after studying in America, he reconnects with his father Mozasu (Soji Arai) and grandmother Sunja (Youn Yuh Jung). The Sunja we see at the present of the 1980s is the main focus of the series’ other vital half, first as a young child in Busan and then as a young woman seeing the circumstances of her life take her well beyond the walls of her family home. Combined with these two other stretches — courtesy of captivating performances from both Yu-na Jeon and Minha Kim, respectively — this three-pronged look at Sunja’s life becomes a lens for not just one family’s journey but an entire era within the region.

For a family history story so sweeping, “Pachinko” never feels comparatively dense. This adaptation is more intent on tracing the reverberations across generations, rather than sticking to a series of plot point markers. Lee’s novel follows a more chronological path, while series creator and writer Soo Hugh opts instead to follow the younger Sunja and Solomon along parallel tracks.

Pachinko Sunja Youn Yuh Jung
“Pachinko”Courtesy of Apple TV+

Those thematic parallels find a pair of worthy visual stewards in series directors Kogonada and Justin Chon, who each bring their respective rhythms and fascinations to the various chapters of Sunja’s lifelong arc. Each of them find ways to keep the season’s time-separated halves from being easy, flattened complements. The outdoor fish market of Sunja’s youth and the boarding house that was her family’s livelihood in her early years are each bathed in the glow of sunlight peeking through rooftops and through windows overhead. They may not have some of the colors of the boardrooms and train stations in Solomon’s future all those years later, but there’s a sharpness and brightness to many of Sunja’s memories, even in moments of tragedy.

The show’s more impressionistic approach wouldn’t work without an acute attention to detail across all of these disparate locations. In the opening episode, hewing closer to Sunja’s relationship with her father, there’s a richness in seeing the two of them framed against shoreline vistas, expansive fields, or the bustle of the coastal village they call home. Similarly, Solomon’s search for a tether in the late 1980s doesn’t have the usual blaring signifiers of the decade. Like his Korean-born relatives of the past, he moves through a lived-in world of Japan’s busy metropolises, even if he feels echoes of the same uneasiness that they felt as outsiders.

The rhyming of Sunja’s and Solomon’s stories is reflected in those performances. With a show so rooted in conversations, whether about family obligations or control over one’s own destiny or a duty to preserve a particular heritage, “Pachinko” requires its ensemble to be able to calibrate each change and reaction, particularly when Kogonada or Chon have these actor’s faces filling the entire screen. Kim brings the poise of a seasoned veteran to Sunja, showing both the character’s vulnerability and resilience. Those qualities are bridged perfectly in Youn’s Sunja, who carries that painful past without letting it consume her. There’s a patience and charm to Solomon’s moments in the spotlight, but Ha takes care to keep the certain edge of a man who often sees life as something to be won.

Pachinko Solomon Jin Ha
“Pachinko”Robert Falconer

“Pachinko,” while undeniably gentle and delicate at points, has its share of hammer blows. Whether they take the form of late-season episodes or firm, definitive statements on the metaphorical and tangible relationship between the various homes of the Baek family, these doubly underline the historical underpinnings present throughout the whole season. The weight of these repeated ideas is sometimes as much a burden for “Pachinko” as it is for the characters who comprise it. When that pressure mounts, it’s the patience of this storytelling, either through figures that become core to the questions of family that the show continually raises (Lee Minho is stellar as Hansu, the well-dressed local fish broker in Busan) or though that circular perception of time, that lets the audience sit with the gravity of each small decision along the way.

Yet, even at the most explicit connections across the decades, there’s a boldness in this story’s telling that’s hard to deny. With that confidence comes a certain amount of freedom. One of the motivating drives behind “Pachinko” is the question of identity, not just in the one informed by birthplace or lineage, but dealing with the pressures of generations and to what extent someone can forge their own path. So it only makes sense that this show feels intentionally amorphous at times, in the way that some memories exist as vivid extended scenes while so many others appear only as a fleeting bit of sensory detail. Goodbyes and ultimatums are bathed in deep reds and blues, while  composer Nico Muhly builds at least one main melodic idea out of a single, sparsely repeated note.

In constructing a show that folds in on itself by design, “Pachinko” gets to have it both ways. There’s the power of seeing an idea or an object make its way down year over year, as parents give way to the lives they hoped to leave for their children. But there’s something intentionally elusive about “Pachinko,” too. Particularly in Solomon’s case, he and his loved ones seem to be guided by foundational choices that remain more of a mystery. That idea of having a clear glimpse at some portions of the past and only being able to grasp at others seems fundamental to the idea of a shared family history. It makes “Pachinko” a lovingly crafted paradox, one worth giving yourself over to.

Grade: A-

The first three episodes of “Pachinko” premiere Friday, March 25 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be available weekly. 

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