A world of foreign dramas has opened up to us via streaming services, and the latest is Pachinko (Apple TV +), a Korean series following multiple generations of one family. It is a quiet masterpiece.
The story takes us from Japanese-occupied Korea in 1915 to New York and Tokyo in the late 1980s. It unfolds steadily, with no cliffhangers or cheap tricks. Trauma is present – the trauma of a colonized nation, and of the individual stories therein – but this is not a misery-fest. Instead, the adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel is a tale of emotional resilience, its most poignant moments – displaced people yearning for home – and national tragedies balanced by endurance and hope for the future.
This determination not to be defined by the worst of times is signalled in the opening titles, which are the most joyful thing you’ll see all year. We cut from grainy period footage of Korean life to the cast dancing for all they’re worth in a colorful pachinko parlor (a games arcade), to the Sixties sounds of Let’s Live for Today by The Grass Roots.
There are two separate timelines, but the follows from one to another a historical period that is unfamiliar, to an era that looks pretty contemporary – is well crafted. We follow the character of Sunja from childhood (played by Jeon Yu-na) in an impoverished fishing village to early womanhood (played by Kim Min-ha), and then meet her again as a grandmother living in Japan – here portrayed by Youn Yuh -jung, who won the best supporting actress Oscar last year for Minari. It would be unfair to single out any of these performances, because all are terrific.
Another storyline focuses on the older Sunja’s grandson, Solomon (Jin Ha), a high-flyer in New York finance, who reconnects with her after a posting to Japan. His main task di lei is to persuade a stubborn Korean pensioner to move out of her home di lei, which is standing in the way of a proposed luxury hotel. When the pensioner meets the elderly Sunja, they reminisce about their childhoods and ponder how much they have gained and lost: they no longer want for food or home comforts yet “now my own children don’t know the language in which their mother dreams” .
It took me a while to realize that the subtitles are yellow to indicate that Korean is being spoken, and blue for Japanese. Solomon’s scenes with his American bosses are conducted in English. But language is no barrier when the drama is such a thing of beauty.