In the season one finale of Pachinko, we see the beginnings of some life journeys and the end of others. Birth, rebirth, death, imprisonment and hope all mingle freely in Friday’s very captivating episode of this incredible show about four generations of Korean immigrants.
Series creator Soo Hugh and her creative team spin one last yarn worthy of this excellent first season. Apple TV+ just renewed Pachinko for a second season, so we’ll see what happens to these characters. But even if we didn’t, we’d have a very, very excellent saga to look back upon.
Pachinko recap: ‘Chapter Eight’
The year is 1938. Noa is at school making friends, though his father Isak (played by Steve Sang-Hyun Noh) wishes he was more serious about his schooling. He’s also worried that Noa is jealous of his new little brother Mozasu getting so much attention paid to him.
One day after school, Noa waits for an hour, but his father doesn’t show up. He’s been arrested for crimes against the state, and it falls to Sunja (Minha Kim) to try and free him. Sunja is in for a shock when she learns from some of the locals that her husband has been agitating for a revolt against the Japanese, organizing factory workers to rise up.
She’s horrified to discover his double life. And no testimony from the workers he was inspiring is enough to change her mind that he acted selfishly. The police pick her up a little while later and grill her for hours. She leaves the station just as Isak is being carted away. Noa gets to watch his dad get roughed up by cops, setting him on a dangerous course in life. And he’s not helped by a little unsolicited fatherly advice from a lurking Hansu (Lee Min-ho), who’s been keeping an eye on his son in the shadows.
Death in 1989
The year is 1989. Hana (Mari Yamamoto) is dying in a hurry. Her mother Etsuko (Kaho Minami) is inconsolable. Solomon (Jin-Ha), his father (Soji Arai) and his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung) are all here to help them during this awful moment.
Things are tense. Solomon tells his dad about his meeting with a shady super-capitalist who wants to open up pachinko parlors, and the old man explodes. Pachinko is OK for him, but his son was supposed to do better, be a different kind of man.
Hana, with her dying breath, tells Solomon she wants better for him than to waste his life like she did. He resolves to do better … if not in the most savory way.
Actor Steve Sang-Hyun Noh is exquisite this episode. He’s been fantastic all season but his work here, especially acting opposite the child actors who play his kids, exhibits incredible warmth and enormous depth of feeling. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to be on this show in season two, but this episode gives him a marvelous showcase with just a few minutes of screen time.
The Pachinko cast has been superlative from the word go. Jin-Ha makes for a spectacularly complicated vessel through which we see the shifting fortunes of the family. Minha Kim as Sunja is heartbreaking every episode. Youn Yuh-jung is devastating and expressive for a character meant to be defined by loss and absence and silence, of a world having passed her by. Everyone’s good.
Season one of Pachinko ends with Sunja selling kimchi in an open-air market to the disdain of the Japanese vendors around her. She’s taking her destiny by the lapels, making money for her family, making it work against the odds. The image is so stirring it can’t even be ruined by a silly decision to film the end of it with a drone, which then turns to CGI-animated streets, cars and people. This is a show good enough to break through its formal constraints.
But wait, there’s more
Then there’s a final addendum.
We see women, some as old as 100 years, talking to the camera about their lives, their time spent in thrall to Japanese attitudes and the country’s version of capitalism (one of the show’s main themes). It’s all still in living memory — the exodus, the racism, the hardscrabble lives cut short by circumstance, the happy families broken apart by the desire for just a little more freedom and security.
Pachinko isn’t the first show to deal with the Korean diaspora, but it’s perhaps the first Korean show made for American television that treats the journey of the South Korean people as the stuff of epic films like Once Upon a Time in America or Titanic.
It’s a worthwhile gesture, certainly, but it works — which is much more important. Even with my few hangups, even with direction that could use a little more confidence, I think Pachinko is a great series. I hope the people in charge do the right thing and it let it flourish. There can only be good things in store for this cast and these writers.
Watch Pachinko on Apple TV+
You can watch all eight episodes of Pachinko’s first season on Apple TV+ now.
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.