Pachinko review: Apple TV+ drama will hook you from its opening credits

Pachinko will hook you from its opening credits [Apple TV+ recap]

By

Pachinko recap: This sprawling tale of love and tragic loss will keep you spellbound.
This sprawling tale of love and tragic loss will keep you spellbound.
Photo: Apple TV+

In epic new Apple TV+ series Pachinko, three generations of a Korean family — caught between Japan, America and their homeland — eke out a living as times change and fortune fails to provide for them.

Series creator Soo Hugh and director Kogonada based the show on the bestselling book by Min Jin Lee of the same name. Frequently gorgeous, this show provides necessary context for modern Korean sociopolitics, while also delivering healthy doses of gripping melodrama.

The series, which debuts Friday on Apple TV+, also boasts what might be the best opening credits sequence of all time.

Pachinko recap: Season one opener

The year is 1915. Hoonie and Yangjin (played by Inji Jeong) have had trouble conceiving a child. So she goes to a doctor (not a licensed one, if you catch my drift) and asks for a special kind of ritual to be performed. But this comes with a warning: Nothing is ever given freely.

Nine months later, a daughter, Sunja (Yu-na Jeon), is born. She’s like an angel in the lives of the people in her seaside hamlet. Every merchant loves her, including a hard-drinking malcontent who Sunja takes a fierce shining to.

When he starts bad-mouthing the colonizing Japanese forces too loudly, and some of his neighbors tell the police, Sunja’s heart is broken. She watches as the police drag him through the market and beat him. Shortly after, Sunja’s father dies. The prophecy of the doctor fulfilled.

1989

The year is also 1989. Solomon (the fabulous Jin-Ha) pleases his bosses at the investment firm by tempting them with a deal. He’s going to go to Tokyo and buy a hotel no one else can land.

He suspects it’s because others sent white emissaries to do the job, but what about a Korean? Someone with ties to the land? Someone who knows the customs?

The only trouble is ingratiating himself with the people he left behind to become a big-shot American capitalist. Every glare he gets says “traitor.” And he’s rusty when it comes to the old ways of cooking and talking.

He’s overwhelmed by the sight of old friend Etsuko (Kaho Minami), but it’s really only with the American head of the Tokyo-based firm, Tom Andrews (Jimmi Simpson), that he feels at home.

He wastes little time in embarrassing himself in front of his grandmother … Sunja (Youn Yuh-jung). His father, Mozasu (Soji Arai), runs a local pachinko parlor. (It’s an enormously popular arcade game in Asia. I know I’m missing nuances here, but I’ve always thought of it as a sort of vertical pinball with higher stakes.) His dad’s profession perhaps explains why Solomon wanted more from life.

1931

The year is finally 1931 and Sunja (now played by Minha Kim) has caught the eye of a vicious merchant, the district fish broker, Hansu (Lee Min-ho). She doesn’t think anything of him (the memories of the Japanese, who he works with, killing her favourite fisherman still rings in her ears and she has learned to keep her head down). But one day Hansu saves her from being raped by a gaggle of Japanese thugs.

Later, they talk, and it becomes clear to her that the stories about him have been blown out of proportion. He’s actually a very nice man. They fall in love and sleep together, Sunja’s first time. But the curse rears its head once more. He’s already married. He won’t leave his wife and kids to marry her. When she begins crying, he starts accusing her of trying to force him to marry her.

He’s worried about my loyalty

Apple TV+'s marvelous new show <em>Pachinko</em>
Apple TV+’s marvelous new show Pachinko
Photo: Apple TV+

The first three episodes of Pachinko hit us with a lot of plot. That makes summarizing the events sort of difficult without having to either cut out whole subplots (including Etsuko’s long-missing daughter, a sex worker named Hana, whom Solomon once courted) or going so deep into details that a recap would read like a Wikipedia entry.

At the same time, I understand the decision to release the three episodes simultaneously, because they form such a beautiful and satisfying whole. Indeed, getting through post-adolescent Sunja’s whole exposure to the cruelty of the Japanese and the shock of her first love wouldn’t elicit the same heartbreaking effect if broken up by seven days. The episodes just work together.

Kogonada finds his niche

The trio of episodes were directed by South Korean-born director Kogonada, a frustrating figure who seems to have finally found the perfect place for his working method. Kogonada began as a video essayist, highlighting the techniques of master directors like Robert Bresson for audiences who were already buying Criterion Collection DVDs.

Kogonada segued into feature filmmaking in 2017 with the spare Columbus and followed that up with After Yang, which arrived about a month ago with no fanfare as a simultaneous day-and-date release on Showtime and in theaters. Distributor A24’s lack of confidence in it made sense. Despite Colin Farrell‘s presence in the cast, it’s a dour if thoughtful work with a hint of science fiction, just a step too far to the left of what’s popular right now. Even if it were a better film, it wouldn’t have been a hit.

Kogonada still leans too heavily into the tricks of artists whose work he used to highlight as a video essayist. The resulting films have been like mannequins across which are draped antique slips from famous designers.

It thus makes perfect sense that his episodes of Pachinko represent his best work. No longer charged with coming up with motivation for his thoughtful but televisual compositions, he can just think about how to bring the story to life moment to moment. He excels at that.

Florian Hoffmeister and Soo Hugh

It helps, too, that he’s got Florian Hoffmeister working the camera. The German-born cinematographer already proved himself one of the greats of the form in films like Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion and The Deep Blue Sea. Hoffmeister also did stunning work on the show The Terror, co-created by Soo Hugh, the showrunner on Pachinko.

Hugh is another prodigious creative, and she’s risen to a place of prominence in such a short time because she has a head for storytelling, talent searching, and unconventional approaches to the televisual form. In 10 years, she went from the writers room on AMC’s The Killing and the now-long-forgotten The River to creating The Whispers, The Terror and now Pachinko, three shows with ambition to spare.

She’s interested in a brand of TV show not content to replicate the successes of other shows. She wants to push boundaries. The Terror is one of the great feats of TV construction in living memory; if Pachinko doesn’t always live up to its standard, that’s only because little could. Pachinko is nevertheless a deeply felt and hugely affecting work of art.

A people divided

The writing does get bogged down occasionally in subtext-for-text. (“The whole Korean versus Japanese situation? Why can’t people forget that? It’s in the past,” says Jimmi Simpson’s Tom at one point, helpfully spelling out what we’ve just watched over two episodes.)

But mostly, Pachinko’s script is cleanly and carefully composed. The love story between Hansu and Sunja is so cautiously and slowly drawn, making full use of the time it can pull from an hour-long episode, that it’s quite unlike most romantic depictions I’ve seen on TV.

Yes it ends in a predictably tragic place an episode later, but getting there is so sublime it hardly matters. A meeting where Solomon watches as his grandmother and another elderly woman reminisce about growing up in Korea and ending up trapped in Japan is 10 kinds of tragic.

Solomon can’t see how lost he’s become because he has no motivation to find himself. His grandmother looks at him like a failure, practically a stranger, and his attempts to prove himself have come to naught with his own family. Meanwhile, these two women have lived whole lives watching happiness dance just out of their grip. This upstart can’t see any of it. There’s a language barrier here, and it’s not between the Japanese and the Koreans.

A cast of stars

The cast are all excellent, but special mention must be made of Minha Kim as middle Sunja. Her uncertainty and childlike remove from the world are magnificently realized. I also love Jimmi Simpson as an embittered capitalist functionary. A scene of him trying to learn details about a client from his underling Naomi (Anna Sawai) is a nifty little display.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Pachinko opening credits, which might be the best thing in the show. Over The Grass Roots’ song “Let’s Live for Today,” the entire main cast dances in a pachinko parlor. It’s the kind of gorgeously unselfconscious display missing from so much of modern storytelling. And it’s also a burst of happiness to round out the tragedy awaiting Sunja and her family.

Watch Pachinko on Apple TV+

Pachinko premieres March 25 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on subsequent Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.