This review contains minor spoilers.
Despite the periods of time and flashpoint moments that we relegate history to, despite how we make pretty the stories of great figures and national narratives, in truth history never ends. It is a living, breathing thing we create in front of us, that we see in the eyes of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This is the greatness of Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, the 2017 novel that follows the life of Sunja and the many family members and figures that come into her life. We read of their loves, hardships, joys and sufferings, witness births, deaths and the inevitable fading away of people Sunja once treasured: and it is this four-generational epic that Apple TV+ has now brought to screens worldwide in a way that spares no expense in doing the book justice.
Episode one jumps between two different timelines: in the earliest, 1915, we see Sunja’s birth and get to know the difficult circumstances her parents suffer. In the episode’s latter timeline, set in 1989, we follow her grandson Solomon. He has carved quite the career for himself as a banker in the States, but finds himself returning to Japan as an attempt to gain the promotion that he yearns for.
The complex history and political relationship between Japan and Korea is not a commonly taught topic in Western classrooms, but a few exact title cards at the beginning of the episode tells even the most unaware the basics you need to know: in 1910 Korea was occupied by Japan, impacting the lives of the many Koreans who were displaced from their homeland and endured terrible hardships for decades to come. The entirety of the book and its adaptation deals with the resulting issues of racism, identity struggles and stereotypes that these Koreans had to deal with, and even in the first episode of the show, such issues are highlighted to viewers in a multitude of ways.
Take, for example, one of the episode's storylines involving a boarder who lives in Sunja's family home. Pained to the bone by the deference and disenfranchisement he experiences during the Japanese occupation, some words slip out of his mouth during one night: the ultimate consequences of which reinforces to the young Sunja of her place in the world. Another example can be seen in the way Solomon mixes in Japanese and Korean words when talking to Sunja. Brought up in Japan, of Korean ancestry and yet effortlessly working in English, he exemplifies multilingual immigrant and third culture kids around the world, switching between languages to express himself (Korean and Japanese subtitles appear in different colours).
Yet other moments crafted by screenwriter Soo Hugh are so subtle that they are almost gut-wrenching to watch. Solomon navigates both the American and Japanese workspaces in the episode, and it is impossible to not soak in every little detail: from how he carries himself and how others carry themselves when interacting with him, to how he deftly deals with his identity and internal rhythm at different points in time. It is a nuanced performance, played with such truthful honesty and acceptance by Jin Ha that it feels like the actor may end up becoming one of the breakout stars of the show by the end of its run.
Much buzz around the production has also come from the casting of megastar Lee Min-Ho (Koh Hansu) as well as Oscar winner Youn Yuh-Jung (elderly Sunja). The former only appears for a brief moment alongside newcomer Kim Min-Ha (teenage Sunja) at the end of the episode, whilst the latter has a few quiet, if poignant, scenes in the show so far. I can guarantee this is the calm before the storm for both actors, and perhaps that is the best way to describe episode one of Pachinko. For those that have not encountered the book, the first episode may seem almost like a prelude. The narrative split with the beginning of Sunja's life and when she is an elderly woman does a good job in setting up anticipation for us to find out what has happened in the intervening sixty-five years of her life. This series opener lays the foundation not just for Sunja and Solomon’s characters, but also for the very tangible worlds they live in: the people, culture and lifestyle that has shaped them, that continues to shape them.
Episode one, for all its narrative setups, triumphs due to all the precious and intimate snapshots in time it makes us privy to. Despite the show’s grandeur and scope, the colour palette utilised is generally quite muted, meaning a stray pop of colour instantly catches the eye; within the first seven minutes of the episode, note the use of the obangsaek (오방색): the traditional Korean colour palette of yellow, red, blue, white and black that also represent the five elements and five cardinal points in Korean culture. The show’s music is also a quiet, but powerful actor across the episode. Classical composer Nico Muhly’s score haunts throughout like a contemporary symphony, never overwhelming, yet his gentle use of strings and woodwind sneaks up on your emotions when you least expect it.
For those that have already read the book, the utilisation of the dual narrative is an enjoyable change from the source material and in many ways heightens the emotional experience of the episode since we are constantly reminded of all that Sunja does - and will - go through. One of the book's strengths was how it addresses family connection and generational trauma, how the ripples of life continue to fan out from us long after we have thrown that first pebble: seeing Sunja and Solomon's stories next to each other helps to effectively highlight this. There are a few elements that are tweaked here and there, but in general the episode stays fairly true to the book whilst giving space to dramatise or highlight certain elements necessary for viewers that might be unfamiliar with the culture and heritage of the characters.
Overall, episode one of Pachinko is beautiful, painful and truthful to watch all in one go, an overall quietly intense episode that pulls the viewer into the lives of Sunja, Solomon and those that cross their paths. The show is not dramatic for the sake of drama, but instead captures the spirit of what made the book so great to begin with: that sometimes the greatest stories, the greatest sagas, are the ones that are as true and real to all life’s pain, confusion and love as can possibly be.