Photo: Juhan Noh/Apple TV+
In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. This annexation turned into a 35-year occupation, marked by the extraction of Korean resources and erasure of Korean culture, sexual slavery of Korean women, and the forced removal of millions of Korean citizens to places all over the globe, including Japan.Adapted from Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel, Apple TV+’s latest drama series, Pachinko, is the story of one Korean family — or more accurately one woman and the family that grows around her — and how they endured the aftermath of Japanese occupation.
“Chapter One” begins in 1915 in Japanese-occupied Korea, opening on a distraught Korean woman who begs a mudang (Korean shaman woman) to save her unborn child from the early death that met her previous three children. “There’s a curse in my blood,” she wails as the camera cuts to New York City in 1989, where we meet Solomon, a young, ambitious Korean man who sits in front of two nondescript white guys. Solomon’s face falls as he is denied a promotion, and we get the sense that the pregnant woman’s curse may be a sort of inheritance, transcending time and space to make itself known in this conference room seventy years later. The curse, and what might lie at its center, becomes a thematic refrain for the rest of the episode as it shuttles back and forth between the 1910s and the 1980s.
Luckily for the upset pregnant woman, her plea for help is answered in the form of a daughter, Sunja. Sunja is precocious, clear-eyed, and full of wonder. In one early scene, we watch her wander through a field of tall pampas grass, chasing dragonflies. Full of burnished pinks and the twinkling unnameable hues of twilight, it’s a cinematographically gorgeous scene that also cues us into how Sunja may live in Japan occupied Korea, but she also begins her life deeply beloved by her father, who finds her in the tall grass and points out dragonflies to her. She’s our heroine, but here she’s also just a kid who loves her dad. Already, I don’t want any curse to touch her, though I know from the episode’s foreshadowing that my wish is naïve.
Sunja takes us through a child’s-eye view of the Japanese occupation of Korea. Played by a capacious Jeon Yu-na, child Sunja is led through a market by her doting father when a pair of Japanese soldiers walk through the stalls. A blanket of silence descends on the Korean people around them. They bow in a way that suggests the occupying Japanese militia has demanded this bowing. Later, Sunja watches the Japanese soldiers drag away a Korean man who protests his innocence. It is clear to her that something is deeply wrong with the world she is living in.
This nascent feeling of wrongness is solidified when a fisherman staying at the boarding house Sunja’s parents run gets drunk and speaks critically of the Japanese. Curses get invoked again when the fisherman says that hate is a curse. It’s not clear if he means the hatred he feels for the occupying Japanese or the dehumanizing hate the Japanese have for the Koreans, but the ambiguity is intentional — we’re meant to stay guessing what that blood curse from the first scene might be, our answer unlikely to be delivered before the episode’s end.
The next morning, plucky Sunja tells the fisherman to go away. She is trying to protect the other people at the boarding house who are visibly nervous about what the fisherman said. It turns out Sunja inadvertently warned the fisherman because two Japanese soldiers visit Sunja’s parents at the boarding house, interrogating them about the previous night’s events.
Beyond Sunja’s interactions at the fish market, it’s the first time we see up close and personal just how denigrating the occupying Japanese forces are toward the Koreans. I shivered a little at the end of the exchange when the soldiers, who had been threatening Sunja’s sweet father seconds ago, turned to Sunja’s mother and smiled, saying they had heard she was a good cook and that they’d like to try her food sometime. That cold switch from violent to smarmy drives homes how disorienting and oppressive such exchanges can be. Sunja’s mom can’t just be scared for her family, instead she has to perform and be a good hostess, telling the soldiers they’re invited to eat at the boarding house anytime, despite their menacing presence.
Despite her accidental warning, later Sunja sees the now-captured fisherman being dragged by the soldiers at the market. He is beaten in public, and something hardens in child-Sunja — a will to live, a sense of endurance, a realization of the reality she inhabits. When the story jumps nine years, Sunja is a young woman who refuses to bow as the Japanese soldiers walk through the market. Her calm but fierce spirit catches the attention of a white-suited stranger who gives off distinct love-at-first-sight vibes, but I suspect we will learn more about this in the next episode.
Meanwhile, in 1989, after Solomon is denied his promotion to VP, he convinces his superiors to reconsider their decision if he can secure a client in Japan. The client is Korean, and Solomon is sure he can seal the deal. The bankers are excited but confused — wasn’t Solomon Japanese? No, he says, looking resigned if a little bemused, he just grew up there. Solomon then flies to Osaka where we see him return to his childhood home. He reunites with his family: his Pachinko parlor-owning father, a woman named Etsuko, who I presume is a step-mother type figure, and his grandmother, Sunja, played by Youn Yuh-jung, who many will recognize from her heart-shaking performance in last year’s Minari.
Through Solomon’s story, we learn that whatever path Sunja takes, it leads her here, to an upper-middle-class house in Osaka, Japan, where she has playful banter with a painfully ambitious grandson. I wondered if Solomon was supposed to signify the end of the curse, a sort of American dream type answer in the form of a worldly, clean-cut young man aiming for a successful career. Instead, as Solomon looks at old family photos on top of a piano and rifles through mementos in his childhood bedroom, I get the sense that whatever the curse is, he’s dealing with it in his own way. In one scene, Solomon and Sunja stand at the kitchen counter together when Sunja informs him his father didn’t sell the pachinko parlor as Solomon had advised him to. He’s actually planning on buying another parlor. Solomon’s face falls, and Sunja scolds him, telling him his father doesn’t need to hear Solomon’s shame. Though Solomon tries to protest that he’s not ashamed of his father, Sunja persists, saying she’s lived long enough to know what shame smells like. In Sunja’s child-timeline, the fisherman says that hate is a curse. Here, I wondered if shame is a reincarnation of the same curse, running through the family even as it endures through Japanese oppression.
The choice to tell this story in flashback is unique to Pachinko as a series. In Min Jin Lee’s novel, the story is linear, starting with Sunja’s birth and carrying us through her life. Essentially, the narrative is a slow burn. It piles twists and turns until you begin to see a larger picture, something cumulative and like a crescendo in nature. I once heard a writer talk about flashbacks as being a cheap way to build momentum. I’m not sure that I agree that it’s cheap. I love a good flashback, à la The Godfather II, another story that explores two timelines in a family’s history. But I do agree that flashbacks build a different kind of momentum than the gradual build of the linear timeline of the novel.
In Apple TV+’s Pachinko, the story’s movement is more like a tide that ebbs and flows. When we meet Sunja in Osaka as Solomon’s grandmother, we naturally wonder how she got there, how the bright-eyed hard-bargainer of a tween we met earlier could be this loving but sharp-tongued grandma, making pajeon in a kitchen. In Solomon, we see the very same forces that Sunja once looked in the eye as a young woman, keeping her back defiantly straight. Because of the flashbacks, we get a beautiful sequence where Solomon hears the news that Emperor Hirohito has died. Voiceover of the official imperial death announcement plays as the scene shifts, taking us back in time to child-Sunja as she sits next to her father, now dying of tuberculosis. The dovetailing of timelines asks us to question who is the greater man. Is it the Emperor in whose name Korea was annexed, and millions murdered in war? Or is it Sunja’s father, who doted on his daughter and protected his family until his last breath? It’s a commanding moment made possible by the flashback, subversively questioning dominant narratives of power in favor of the family story we’ll follow through the season.
• Hello! My name is Nina Li Coomes, and I’ll be writing this season’s recaps of Apple TV+’s Pachinko, adapted from Min Jin Lee’s novel of the same name. I was so happy when it was announced Pachinko would be adapted for the small screen, having read the novel multiple times, and I am very eager to embark on this multigenerational, multinational saga with you all!
• We get a little glimpse of Anna Sawai in Solomon’s Tokyo office and the distinct sense she’ll be an important character later. I’m excited to see her on the screen. I’ve been a fan since her performance in the 2019 BBC drama Giri/Haji.
• I was wondering how the show would handle language — characters speak Korean, Japanese, and English. So far, the trilingual mix of languages is a delight, especially in Solomon’s speech, where he sometimes slides between different languages in one sentence. Also, as a Japanese speaker, I’m thrilled that they nailed the Osaka dialect and didn’t have everyone simply speaking standard Japanese.
• I love the opening title sequence. Saturated Showa-era colors, Asians dancing and having fun, a catchy theme song; just a very light, nicely made sequence to lead us into the episode.