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‘Pachinko’ review: Youn Yuh-jung and Minha Kim are magnetic in the Apple TV Plus series

'Pachinko' review: Youn Yuh-jung and Minha Kim are magnetic in the Apple TV Plus series

Minha Kim as Sunja and Lee Min-ho as Hansu in “Pachinko,” which debuts on Apple TV Plus on March 25, 2022.

Apple TV Plus

Apple TV Plus Pachinko will be released on March 25, its adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s bestselling 2017 novel. Fans of the book have been won over by the story of family, survival, and persevering women. When Apple first announced its original TV series, an overriding question arose: would Min Jin Lee’s beloved novel be adapted in a way that captures the spirit and humanity of its… characters while honoring the source material? The short answer is yes. It’s elegant, it’s sad and it’s damn good.

Told in Korean, Japanese, and English, Pachinko flows like a river with exceptional cast performances that ground this family’s multi-generational journey. Although the first season is hard to watch at times, it is a must-watch. Youn Yuh-jung, Minha Kim, Steve Sang-Hyun Noh, Jin Ha and K-drama Star Lee Min-ho brings their characters to life with sincerity and nuance.

Pachinko presents Youn, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress 2021 for her role in Minari, as Sunja, the humble family matriarch whose fate is foretold before her birth. In 1915, a shaman’s words to Sunja’s mother set the stage: “A child is coming. She will flourish. And through her, a family will endure.”

As a young girl, Sunja has a sparkle in her eyes and is nurtured by her loving parents. But this first part of the story illustrates an example of its symbolic title. In real life, Pachinko is a pinball-like game that is often rigged against its players, making it difficult to win. Yet people continue to play on it, hoping fate smiles on them. In Lee’s tale, Pachinko represents how nothing in life is assured. The loss forces Sunja to work at the family business in Japanese-occupied Korea, and from there, her unpredictable path begins to unfold.

It was a period that was troubled by conflict. Between 1910 and 1945, Japan colonized Korea, taking land and suppressing Korean culture through laws and a martial regime. It has become illegal to speak the Korean language in schools or to teach from unauthorized texts. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans faced bigotry, forced labor and harsh punishments for not following the new rules set by the Japanese.

This historical aspect is woven into Pachinko through dark cinematography that sets the tone. As Sunja’s narrative follows her as a small child, young adult, and mature woman, the backdrop shifts from bright and airy to subdued. More importantly, the series shows how decades of colonization and mistreatment can have impacted one’s identity and loyalty to one’s own culture, family, or self. Throughout these eight episodes, love, war, hope, and fear play a part in the characters’ lives, and it’s often Sunja and the other women in the story who inspire and prevail.

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Youn Yuh Jung as Sunja.

Apple TV Plus

Through masterfully executed time jumps that rewind and forward, we are transported to 1915, the 1920s and 1989. Minha Kim becomes Sunja in her early twenties when she meets and falls in love with the much older Hansu (Lee Min-Ho ). Dressed in his signature white linen suit, he steals her heart – without telling her he’s married and has kids. After Sunja gets pregnant, he wants to support herself financially as a mistress. However, rather than live in shameful circumstances, she accepts an unexpected marriage offer from a kind stranger.

These scenes unfold almost word for word as they do in the book. You’ll be invested in Sunja’s relationship with Hansu, her life with Pastor Isak (Steve Sang-Hyun Noh) in Japan, and her two sons, Noa and Mozasu. The overwhelming sadness – and sense of responsibility – she feels throughout this stage of her life is palpable. And that sparkle in his eyes doesn’t quite have the same sparkle. She crosses many.

This pain pervades the entire series and affects every character on the show, but there are lessons for everyone, even the viewer. How are compassion, resilience and dignity manifested? How many immigrants leave? Sunja, who never learns to read or write, abandons her life in Korea for a future in Japan.

Season 1 introduces his adult son Mozasu as a successful Pachinko parlor owner who carries his own resentments. And Mozasu’s son, Solomon, is torn between preserving his integrity and keeping his job at a swanky Wall Street firm. Although it is an undercurrent in the background, you will understand how their fate is tied to all the struggles Sunja has been through in life. She was walking so they could run. It’s relatable, fascinating to watch, and will have you thinking about the mothers and grandmothers in your own life who have done the same.

Youn shines as the elder Sunja and anchors the story. As Sunja reflects on her life, you can’t help but wonder if she still has that twinkle in her eye. She endured so much heartbreak and sacrifice that it feels like you can only count her moments of joy with one hand. But they’re there, and you’d be hard pressed not to support her and see her as a hero.

Even if you’ve never read the book, Pachinko is a story you have to live. The first three episodes will premiere on Apple TV Plus on March 25, and the remaining five episodes of the series will drop weekly on Fridays.