Rolling Stone


‘Pachinko’ is a sweeping epic mining the generation­al trauma and identity struggles of Koreans raised under Japanese rule


Apple+’s adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s historical-fiction epic Pachinko bounces back and forth between several phases of its heroine Sunja’s life: growing up in Korea under the yoke of Japanese rule, where she’s played as a girl in the 1920s by Yu-na Jeon and as a young woman in the 1930s by Minha Kim; then her late-1980s retirement in Japan (where she’s played by Youn Yuh-jung), reflecting back on her life’s many triumphs, tragedies, and compromise­s. In one scene in 1989, Sunja and her banker grandson Solomon ( Jin Ha) are in the home of a fellow Korean expat, who surprises her guests by serving them Korean rice. Solomon can’t tell the difference from the kind he grew up eating in Osaka, Japan, but Sunja explains that rice grown in Korea is nuttier and a bit sweeter, albeit harder to chew on. It’s too subtle a distinctio­n for Solomon to grasp, but it means everything to his grandmothe­r.

The pleasures and depths of Pachinko, adapted by Soo Hugh and directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, are so tactile that by the time you reach the end of this magnificen­t first season’s eighth episode, you will feel as if you can taste the sweet nuttiness that fills the elder Sunja with so much unexpected joy.

Japan’s occupation of Korea, which lasted from 1910 through the end of World War II, hasn’t been chronicled much in Western art. But even if this were well-trod territory, Pachinko covers the subject with such artistry and grace that it would still feel special. It’s a family saga that combines the denseness of prose fiction with the specific advantages of television, like the ability to have actors bring characters from the page to flesh-andblood life. All three Sunjas are wonderful, whether Minari Oscar winner (and Korean screen legend) Yuh-jung, or newcomers Jeon and Kim. Their mannerisms are perfectly in sync, so that when one Sunja smiles, or cries, it instantly conjures memories of the others doing the same.

There are fewer opportunit­ies for the Kim version to smile, as she exists in the most emotionall­y and politicall­y challengin­g phase of the story. The teenage Sunja falls under the spell of Hansu (Lee Min-Ho), a sharp and charismati­c local official who has decided that the best way to survive the occupation is to collaborat­e with the Japanese and adopt as many trappings of their culture as he can. Their affair inevitably grows messy, requiring the intercessi­on of Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh), a kind traveling Christian missionary.

Sunja recedes a bit for the Eighties scenes, which feature Solomon returning to Japan from his life in New York to close a huge realestate deal, and to search once again for his long-missing stepsister. He and a Japanese colleague swap stories about how every American they meet likes to play the “Which Asian am I?” guessing game. Because Korea is rarely a top guess, Solomon says he just nods if anyone suggests he is Japanese. Over the course of the season, we see how he feels caught between the country he grew up in, the one where he built his career, and the one his grandmothe­r tells him about.

Pachinko is technicall­y impressive on all levels — visually stunning, with a knockout score by Nico Muhly. Even subtler devices, like color-coding the subtitles to clarify when characters are speaking Korean or Japanese, work wonders at making the story feel more immersive and poignant.

And the opening credits — a raucous musical sequence scored to “Let's Live for Today,” by the Grass Roots, and set at the pachinko parlor run by Solomon’s father, Mozasu (Soji Arai) — are a great reminder that every show should begin with a dance number.

In the Eighties scenes, Solomon works for the American-born Tom ( Jimmi Simpson). When the subject of Japanese-Korean tensions comes up, Tom wonders, “Why can’t people just get over that? It’s the past. It’s done.” He is far from the only character in Pachinko who only wants to look forward. But early and often, Pachinko makes clear that where our people come from, and what they’ve been through, is always a part of who we are in the present. And it delivers that message with precision force throughout. Don’t miss it.

 ?? ?? Kim and MinHo navigate a doomed love.
Kim and MinHo navigate a doomed love.
 ?? ?? Yuh-jung looks back.
Yuh-jung looks back.
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