Pachinko, the title of a new K-drama based on Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel, takes its name from the pinball-like game originating in Japan. Its outcome has nothing to do with skill, as the show’s characters explain, but pure luck – will the ball rattle through the needles and disappear, or will it find a path to the winner’s well? Similar ideas around fortune and its unpredictability weave their way through the series, subtly driving the story forward.
Pachinko follows multiple generations of a Korean family, starting in the 1910s when Korea was occupied by Japan. It takes us into the lives of the Zainichi population – or Korean people who emigrated to Japan during the occupation – and on into the 1980s and the flashy financial playgrounds of New York and Tokyo. At its heart is Sun-ja, who we meet in three incarnations – a young girl (played by Jeon Yu-na), a teen (Kim Min-ha), and an old lady (Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung). Each version offers great insight into her character, from the shrewd perceptiveness of her youngest self to the elder’s longing for her home country.
When Sun-ja is in her teens and living at the boarding house run by her mother in Yeongdo, a small fishing island off of Busan, she makes daily trips to the local market. There, she meets Koh Han-su (Lee Min-ho), the market’s new fish broker, who she later begins an illicit affair with. Things don’t work out quite as she hoped and, to avoid bringing shame on her family, she must leave them behind and find a fresh start somewhere new. A twist of fortune – perhaps good or bad, depending on your perspective – gives her an avenue out of scandal and to a new home in Osaka.
More than 50 years later, Sun-ja is a grandmother and her grandson Solomon is in town from New York, where he works at a bank. He’s trying to land a contract that will give him a VP position that he’s been vying for but what he assumes will be a straightforward trip gives him much more to reckon with than his own success.
Pachinko is a masterclass in constructing a drama around a sensitive time in recent history – a time that, its cast members have shared in interviews, isn’t widely discussed in Korea, let alone the world at large. A moving eye-opener on the country’s history, it also holds up the minutiae of family life against the changing global landscape and how that shifts between a clan’s generations.
Alongside luck, survival and sacrifice crop up throughout the story, but it’s the idea of home that feels most pertinent here. The series grapples with both leaving and coming back; teen Sun-ja’s eyes widening as she departs to take everything in one last time and the contrasting feeling of returning when you’ve been away for decades. It delves into what it means to belong somewhere and the classism, racism and discrimination that can preclude one from being fully accepted.
Graceful and poignant, Pachinko slips back and forth through timelines without getting muddled or convoluted. No matter which era we’re in, its cast deliver some of the best performances on TV in recent memory, not least Kim, who expresses every emotion – betrayal, sorrow, joy, trepidation – in each tiny movement she makes. Youn is also unmissable, seamlessly picking up from the younger actor’s work.
Netflix might be light years ahead in sheer quantity of Korean drama, but with its latest offering, Apple TV+ may have scored the best. Its adaptation of Pachinko is masterful – the kind of quiet but utterly affecting show that haunts you for days, weeks and months afterwards.
‘Pachinko’ debuts on Apple TV+ (March 25)