Review: “Pachinko” brilliantly blurs the lines between past and present

The show memorializes the lasting effect of Japanese colonialism on Koreans by depicting stories of trauma and healing.

by Shaphnah Mckenzie | 5/5/22 2:00am

by Lucy Handy / The Dartmouth

On April 29, Apple TV+ aired the final episode of “Pachinko,” an eight-episode television drama based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Min-Jin Lee. The series was such a success that, on the same day the final episode aired, Apple announced the renewal of “Pachinko” for a second season — a well-deserved achievement. 

“Pachinko” tells the story of four generations of a Korean family from 1915 to 1989. The television series takes a different approach to Min Jin Lee’s novel, switching back and forth between past and present rather than following the chronological timeline of the novel. While some fans of the book were off-put by this directorial choice, I believe it is the greatest strength of the television adaptation. 

At the center of the story is Sunja, depicted from childhood to elderhood by Yu-na Jeon, Minha Kim and “Minari” actress Youn Yuh-jung. The series artfully intertwines Sunja’s past life as a daughter and wife in a Japanese-occupied Korean Peninsula with her life as a mother and, presently, a grandmother in Osaka, Japan. In Japanese-occupied Korea, Sunja struggles with an unexpected pregnancy and the difficult choice of leaving her mother behind to seek a better life in Osaka. In 1989, Sunja wrestles with the historic ghosts of the past while her grandson, Solomon (Jin Ha), ignores them in an attempt to fit into Japanese society.

The constant segue between Japan and Korea in the 1930s and 40s and 1989 Osaka lends to one of the central themes of the series — the immutability of the past and its pervasiveness within the present. “Pachinko” generates a dark irony through characters who insist that there’s no point living in the past, yet find themselves unable to resist its pull. The story is at once poignant and powerful in its blurring of the lines between past and present, and the ability of the cast to convey the emotions of the characters with subtlety and authenticity makes the execution particularly effective.

“Chapter Four” of “Pachinko” is one of the most brilliant examples of the show’s genius in blurring past and present. In the latter part of the episode, two Korean women — an old landowner in 1989 and a young Korean singer in 1939 — mirror each other throughout a series of alternating scenes, their actions and choices eerily similar despite occurring decades apart. In 1989, Sunja’s grandson Solomon sits in the boardroom of his company in Osaka, waiting for the Korean landowner to sign the contract in front of her, relinquishing her home of many years. In 1939, a dinner party for Japanese elites takes place aboard a ship en route to Osaka. The only Korean present is an accomplished female singer; the other Koreans are below the deck of the ship, struggling to endure the heat and the lack of ventilation.

As the episode alternates between past and present, we see that both the singer and the landowner feel a sense of alienation among the Japanese. Both women were offered a substantial amount of wealth in exchange for their most valuable assets — the singer for her talent and the landowner for her home. As past and present blend together, both the singer on the ship and the Korean landowner are confronted with the choice of denying their Korean identity or embracing it. By signing her land over to the Japanese investors, the landowner betrays the memories of the injustices committed against her and her ancestors by the Japanese throughout the decades. Similarly, by continuing to sing only opera for the Japanese elite, the singer sacrifices the music of her people and her pride as a Korean.

The use of the Korean language elicits anger from the Japanese in both the past and present scenes, showing the continuing legacy of Japanese colonialism. Instead of signing the paper right away, the landowner turns to Solomon and begins speaking to him in Korean. This action is mirrored by the woman on the ship, who suddenly bursts into a soulful Korean ballad. Up until this point in the series, Solomon has told Sunja and the Korean landowner that the past is in the past. These two scenes, juxtaposed against each other, fully reject that notion. They show that the past is still very much present, justifying the Korean landowner’s adamance against signing the contract.

Near the conclusion of “Chapter Four,” both the landowner and the singer have chosen to hold the Japanese accountable for their reprehensible actions. The landowner gazes intensely into Solomon’s eyes and tells him about the injustices her predecessors faced upon moving to Japan. She tells him that they were called cockroaches, nothing but pests to be crushed underfoot. Her words cause Solomon to finally acknowledge the still-present trauma of his grandmother and the landowner. “Don’t sign,” he tells her; the Korean landowner smiles at Solomon, then leaves the room without signing the contract. Her exit becomes an act of martyrdom that is mirrored by the singer on the ship, who stabs herself in the neck before she can be caught and arrested for her act of disloyalty. They have chosen to reclaim their dignity and embrace their Korean identity, even though it means the loss of a fortune and the loss of a life.

The power of these scenes would be lost on the audience if not for the stellar ability of the actors to transcend dialogue in their depiction of the characters’ emotions. The eyes are the windows to the soul in “Pachinko.” The series features numerous silent scenes in which the actors use only their eyes to communicate joy, grief and longing when they are lacking words. Lee Min Ho demonstrates this prowess in “Chapter Four,” in which Sunja makes her decision to move to Osaka with her new husband, Isak. Ho’s character, Koh Hansu, has a Japanese officer bring Sunja to his office at the fishing market. When she doesn’t respond to Hansu’s advances, he tells her that she will regret her decision to move to Osaka, and that when she is begging for him to come save her, he won’t even remember her name. Sunja leaves, but the camera stays behind to show us the tears glistening in Hansu’s eyes. They reflect a vulnerability that would have otherwise been hidden from the audience’s knowledge. They tell us that Hansu, no matter how hard he tries, will never be able to forget Sunja’s name.

“Pachinko” is a modern masterpiece that unflinchingly approaches the painful history of Korea’s colonization by Japan. With artful symbolism and stellar acting, it brings to life those stories of pain and suffering that exist as part of the Korean consciousness today.