tv review

Pachinko Builds Epic Family Drama on an Exquisitely Intimate Scale

Pachinko moves freely in and out of several periods in the life of Sunja, played as a grandmother by Yuh-jung Youn, in a way that resists frantic flashback-style finger-pointing. Photo: Apple TV+

Years ago, while watching The Forsyte Saga, the 2002 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s multigenerational family epic, I began to wonder what it would be like to watch a TV series that continues forever. It could be roughly like The Forsyte Saga, I thought, or like the TV adaptation of Roots: the story of a family that follows each new generation, charting births and deaths and important transitions. It could act as a barometer for the changing world with one family line that registers and responds to enormous historical events on an intimate scale. It’s a thought experiment, one that gets to ignore all the logistical reasons a show like that is essentially impossible. But I thought about it again while watching Pachinko, the adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s generational saga about a Korean family that premieres March 25 on Apple TV+.

Pachinko is not a realization of my imagined forever story, but it achieves all the feats of scope and sharpness I was longing for. The series slides among several decades at once: The protagonist, Sunja, is born in early-20th-century Korea, and Pachinko spends time with her in her early childhood (when she’s played by Yuna), her young adulthood (played by Minha Kim), and as a grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn). Sunja’s life encompasses several titanic changes in global history and in her family line. As a child, Sunja lives in Japanese-occupied Korea and grows up with the perpetual awareness of colonial rule. As a young adult, she moves to Japan. As an elderly woman, her family has put down roots in Japan and the U.S. while maintaining a bedrock of Korean culture and identity. (For audiences who tend to view world history through the lens of western history, Pachinko is a vital reminder that, believe it or not, other countries and cultures exist, as do non-western forms of prejudice and non-Eurocentric colonial pasts.)

Although Pachinko moves freely in and out of several periods in Sunja’s life (chiefly her young adulthood in the 1920s and her grandson’s early adulthood in the 1980s), it does so in a way that resists frantic flashback-style finger-pointing. Its pace is urgent but measured. Gaps in Sunja’s life allow Pachinko to leave room for surprise and discovery, but the series avoids the clean, overly ordered logic of a jigsaw puzzle. When new pieces of Sunja’s history slot into place, they tend to arrive only after you’ve roughly sussed out what they must look like, giving Pachinko’s revelations the weight of poignant inevitability. At the same time, it is hard not to think of all the flashbacks on TV in the past few years where inevitability results in boredom, and the fact that Pachinko entirely dodges plodding obviousness feels almost like magic: It’s not quite family history as puzzle box, and it’s not family history as personality test either. Each era in Sunja’s life has its own pacing and internal momentum. When parallels occur, or when one story’s events answer some question that arose elsewhere, they arrive quietly and without fanfare.

All of that allows Pachinko to build a family saga that satisfies the minute, glorious, devastating human drama that genre invites. Marriages, deaths, pregnancies, affairs, gossip, betrayal, and romance — this is the stuff family epics are made of. Throughout, the series is transformed by the performances of each Sunja. Youn is excellent as the elder iteration, and Kim is absolutely astounding as Sunja in her youth. There is a clarity to her performance that becomes the foundation on which the whole series is built: Every monumental twist and turn in the family history seems to stem from a specific flash of emotion across her face. She is like a Rosetta stone, the code that translates Pachinko’s immense historical scope into palpable human reality. She is also a boulder in a river, resisting the rush of overwhelming events and preventing her family from getting swept away. So many of the other performances are fantastic — including Lee Minho as Koh Hansu, a figure who becomes the specter of an alternate history for Sunja — but they exist as reflections of and responses to Kim’s Sunja.

If the drama did not work on a tiny, individual level, a multigenerational drama like Pachinko could not get off the ground. But the real appeal, the thing this kind of story does that other family dramas simply cannot, is in charting the life of a family in concert with decades of national and global change. The most straightforward version sees the family as a microcosm of a particular historical thread: Japan has colonized Korea, and Sunja’s family reflects all the pain and horror of that particular international conflict. But Pachinko is too deft to fall back on something as simple as “This family reflects the world,” and it’s much too careful to allow the onslaught of 20th-century history to reflect an uncomplicated progress narrative. It is not a series about glorifying a simpler, more authentic past, and it is not a celebration of a more comfortable, more technologically complex modernity. If anything, it’s an admirable portrait of Sunja’s resilience. Even then, Pachinko avoids sliding into wholehearted boosterism for its protagonist. She is remarkable and she’s ordinary, and Pachinko does not see those as conflicting truths.

I have longed for a family drama that runs forever because that unending narrative could be such a striking refutation of so many myths. The title Pachinko comes from a game of chance, a series of little silver balls streaming past a group of pins and obstacles; sometimes the balls make it into the goal and sometimes they don’t, and it’s primarily luck. Family sagas set against a volatile timeline put the lie to short-sighted “arc of history bends toward justice” stories. They are also comforting reminders that our current experience of a nightmarish too-muchness is not special or unprecedented. We cannot get distance from our now, but we can see a family story play out for nearly a century and feel shaken out of the unbearable intensity of being blinded by current events.

It may seem superficial to tie all of this to Pachinko’s opening-credits sequence, like hanging a review on a book’s cover art or closing with observations about a movie’s trailer. But they are the best opening credits TV has created in years, standing on their own while being an almost uncannily precise distillation of the series. After a montage of evocative images meant to remind us of dark past events, the credits shift to a brightly lit pachinko parlor in which cast members from each era dance with ecstatic abandon to the Grass Roots’ 1967 hit “Let’s Live for Today.” They wear clothing contemporary to their time periods, and they dance without any organizing choreography or style, but they’re all dancing to the same song with the same lyrics in the same setting. It flattens the Pachinko timeline, erasing the implicit narrative of growth or progression: Here they all are at once while the lyrics “Live for today / and don’t worry ’bout tomorrow” play over them. Pachinko is an incredible expression of that idea, an illustration of the fact that sometimes that is all any of us can ever do. It’s a rebuke to my desire for a TV show that runs in perpetuity: I wish I could have something that lasts forever, but nothing does, and it’s futile to wish otherwise. Except … I do wish watching Pachinko could last forever.

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Pachinko Builds Epic Drama on an Exquisitely Intimate Scale