Pachinko | Season 1 Review

“A woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering” this particular quote from the best-selling novel written by Min Jin Lee was what struck me the most as I’ve leaped through pages after pages of her multi-generational epic. Because amidst all the other engaging subplots in her book, everything will always go back to its central character – Kim Sunja. 

The novel’s charm was that the reader would be able to get to know Sunja as a child, then they would eventually get attached to her and the people that surround her as she grows older. One would care about the characters like Solomon (Jin Ha) because he’s from Sunja’s family and you’d understand how different his surrounding was as compared to the war-inflicted times of Sunja’s younger years. But that charming build-up was lost as they transferred the written story into a moving picture. Instead in the series version of Pachinko, we got to know Sunja (the beginning) and Solomon (the end) at the same time. Her history intertwining in his present.

The non-linear presentation was an expected move from the producers given that they cast Youn Yuh-Jung as the older version of Sunja. It was obvious this seasoned actress would be a staple cast as the series traverse from one season to the next. But what wasn’t expected was how smooth and smart the transitions between the two timelines were. The past parallels the present in the most intriguing manner. They also used contrasting life points of characters that made both timelines compelling to watch. For instance, the birth of Sun-ja’s son was shown as the older Kyunghee died in the present timeline. It perfectly shows the start and end of a generation with just a few sequences. They also added scenarios that made things from the original material more impactful like, Ko Hansu (Lee Min-ho) and Baek Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh) crossing paths. One walked away from Sunja while the other walked towards her. The underlying symbolism they introduced in such scenes are a worthy exchange for the changes they made from the book.

The series really feels different from the novel but it is expected since the approach and medium are different. And the changes are mostly on the present timeline but with Sunja’s history, the series stick as close as possible to the original material. Despite the changes, the series still tells the story of family ties and how history affects the next generation no matter how they try to shrug things off or make light of the past. 

One of the changes I like about the serial version is Solomon’s character arc. The series starts with him grabbing a deal with his American company and I felt bad watching him fight for that land deal because I know from the start that it wouldn’t account for anything in the end. But I love how they highlighted this part so well. Solomon is an idealist type of character who believes that the current time has already changed. But he eventually learned that there are lingering issues from the past that still hound in the present – like gender biases, racial discrimination, and social classes. The story of the landowner and the way it changed Solomon’s mind was really more impactful in the series than in its book counterpart. I also like how they used Solomon’s interaction with Sunja to make him understand that there’s a reason why he couldn’t climb up the corporate ladder as easily as his colleagues. Solomon eventually learned that he wouldn’t be able to “defy gravity” if he didn’t know the history of the land that is currently holding him back. Because for someone like his grandmother, Sunja, who was forced to leave their homeland, a country isn’t just a piece of land on a map. It’s their roots. It’s tied up to them no matter where they would go.

Another change from the novel that I actually like is the introduction of Naomi (Anna Sawai). Based on Naomi and Solomon’s dynamic, I’m guessing she has taken the place of Phoebe, Solomon’s girlfriend in college in the novel. Add the Hana (Mari Yamamoto) story arc and it was obvious they made it this way to make a parallel of some sort to the Hansu-Sunja-Isak relationship arc in the past. These two complicated relationship triad both tell the story of choosing between the one who stayed and the one who didn’t.

And speaking of Hansu, his back story was something I didn’t expect to get. As Lee Min-ho said, Hansu is an evil character. His origin story was a nice addition for viewers to understand his decisions in season 1 and most probably, his decisions in the future (because yes, book spoiler alert, Hansu stays and lingers around Sunja most of her life).

There’s really a lot to be said about this series. All of the actors gave justice to the characters from the book and even gave them nuances that one could have missed in the written material. Kim Min-ha and Youn Yuh-jung breathed to life one of the best-written book heroines in recent times. The veteran actress in her scenes showed the depth of the history her character carries while the younger actress was able to capture the courageous spirit of a young woman and a new mother in a foreign land. They pulled off the scenes I was looking forward to watching on screen like Sunja eating white rice for her wedding and the pain of leaving her homeland. And this is important to accomplish because everything that happens and will still happen in this series will always be tied up to Sunja. No matter where the story veers, it is still Sunja who is at the center of it all.


-I have yet to read any news about season 2 but I’m betting it’ll revolve or delve mostly into the second generation they skipped in this pilot season – Noah and Mosazu. 

-I can’t put into words how I love the overall production of this series – from the costumes, the mise en scene in each timeline, the framing, and the color grading. Everything was well thought out. 

>>What you should know about AppleTV’s Pachinko adaptation

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