Pachinko is a sweeping K-drama about a Korean family based in Osaka, Japan. The saga begins in the early 1900s and spans three generations. It’s based on a novel by the New York-based author Min Jin Lee. The show is an American production, though its creative team is predominantly Korean.
Not a few viewers will find this eight-episode series somewhat confusing, especially if one isn’t too familiar with Korean history and Japanese culture. Thus, we think it’s best to give a brief backgrounder on this eight-episode series. Admittedly, I had to do some research to get a full grasp of the plot.
The title itself is a Japanese word. A pachinko is a type of slot machine. Tokens are used, and whatever you win can’t be converted to cash because gambling is prohibited in Japan. The players will have to sell their tokens to other pachinko outlets. In the story, the son of the Korean heroine owns a pachinko outlet in Osaka.
Kim Sunja (played splendidly by newcomer Kim Min Ha) is the heroine. She was born and raised in Busan when Korea was under the oppressive colonial rule of Japan. Based on the social structure of those times, Sunja is destined not to marry well. Her father has a disability, which makes the girl less attractive to suitors.
Sunja, however, grows up to be a truly fetching teenager, and catches the eye of a fish broker, the well-to-do Ko Hansu (played by Lee Min Ho). He presents himself as debonair knight-in-elegant white suit worthy of GQ cover. He woos Sunja in Count Vronski-like fashion. They have a secret affair, and she gets pregnant. It turns out that he is married and has a family in Osaka. Just as her potential as a bride is about to go down the toilet, a Christian minister (played by Steve Sanghyun Noh) comes to the rescue and offers to marry her and raise the child as his own. They move to Osaka, where life isn’t any better. Racism and a lack of equal opportunities for Koreans are just among the numerous injustices they have to endure.
Fortunately, Sunja as a child had learned to be strong and resilient. Thus, whatever crises her children and grandchildren face seem so petty compared to what she has gone through. Academy Award winning actress Youn Yuh Jung plays the elderly Sunja.
By 1989, Sunja and her son are living comfortable lives, thanks to his pachinko business. Meanwhile, her Yale University-educated grandson Solomon (played by Jin Ha) is now a typical New York yuppie. His boss sends him to Tokyo on a mission that could make or break his career. It’s a job that threatens to offend the sensibilities of Sunja’s generation. And there’s his long-lost flighty Japanese girlfriend (played by Marie Yamamoto) who suddenly shows up because she’s dying of AIDs. Indeed, it’s so 1980s.
The plot of the original novel is told chronologically. In adapting the novel to a series, the filmmakers chose to tell it in non-linear form. It kicks off in 1989 when Solomon the grandson flies in from New York to visit his family in Osaka before setting off on his mission in Tokyo. Sunja’s epic saga is told through flashbacks. Following this format is a good move. It’s easier for viewers to understand the motives of the protagonists during the later years. We also see the sharp contrast in attitudes of the three generations. Had the story been told chronologically, it would be highly unlikely for us to see a pachinko during the first season, what with so much happening to Sunja in the earlier years. We’d then be wondering: why is this show titled Pachinko?
The storytelling is more intimate—it’s more about human relationships and less about spectacle
There’s also a marked difference in the way each generation is presented. Young Sunja’s story is told so delicately. She always appears to be in constant danger, and yet the filmmakers have somehow framed her in a picture that looks so innocent and carefree. It just so happens that the lovely picture is hanging precariously. The storytelling is more intimate and minimalist even in the face of tragedy. It’s more about human relationships and less about spectacle.
The plight of the third generation is straight out of Dynasty. It’s all about greed. Frankly, we don’t care about Solomon’s loose ex-girlfriend. We don’t know much about her, so having to sit through her sudsy storyline is an ordeal. She seems to play like the longtime girlfriend of Forrest Gump, who got into every disastrous situation at the time.
What makes the scenes set in the 1980s watchable is the elderly Sunja, who has several heartrending scenes. As poignantly played by Youn Yu-jung, she has a tired but determined face that wears all the suffering the younger Sunja had gone through. At this point, she may be living the beautiful life in Japan, but they still face a few social issues that Sunja had to confront in the past.
Strangely, an episode was written to tell the back-story of Hansu. Reportedly this wasn’t in the book, but the screenwriters wanted to show why Hansu became the brooding man he is. It also provided a chance to include an important chapter of the history of Koreans in Japan. And I guess it also offered an opportunity to expand Lee Min Ho’s part, since after all, he’s the show’s biggest star. It’s a compelling episode, well-produced and acted. It also allows the writers to create an epic scenario for the series. But it came out of nowhere. I thought I was a watching a different show.
Thirty minutes worth of back story for Hansu would have been enough. The first season ends with so many issues left unresolved. We could have at least seen some closure had that episode focused more on Sunja. Now we don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for the next season.
But there’s still a lot to like in Pachinko. We get to learn how so many Koreans suffered during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Sunja endures so much cruelty and heartbreak. Credit goes to the filmmakers for their keen ability to create fear and suggest violence without being gratuitous about it.
The three actresses who played Sunja as a child (Jeon Yu-na), young adult, and grandmother are superb. All the clichéd show business raves heaped on a young thespian that makes a tremendous impression in her first international lead role applies to Kim Min Ha (as the teen-aged Sunja). Foremost among them is “a star is born.” The rest of the cast is also brilliant.
Angelo is played by American actor Martin Martinez. He is said to have German, Hispanic, and Filipino blood
I’m not sure if this was intentional, but there is a noticeable difference between the actors who figure in Sunjan’s early life. They actually look more beautiful, as if they were meant to be in a fairy tale that doesn’t end happily ever after. Heartthrob Lee Min Ho looks so impeccable in his custom-made suits. Compared to him, Jay Gatsby as played by Leonardo DiCaprio is a slob. On the other hand, the actors playing the younger generation look real, accessible, and not too gorgeous.
On a curious note, there is a brief scene with Sunja’s son Mozasu (played by Soji Arai) and his young assistant called Angelo. The assistant has a talent for rigging pachinko machines so as to prevent customers from hitting large jackpots. He obviously isn’t Japanese or Korean; he looks Filipino. So I got into research mode again. Angelo is played by American actor Martin Martinez. He is said to have German, Hispanic, and Filipino blood. I may be wrong, but it may be in the author’s mindset that it takes a Pinoy to pull off something this nefarious. If this raised your eyebrows, just remember that Angelo just did what his Korean boss told him to do. Perhaps the second season or the novel has a more detailed description of him. It’s time to search for a copy at Book Sale.
Pachinko is now streaming on Apple+.