“History let us down, but whatever.”
These are the words that greet us on the first page of Min Jin Lee’s epic novel”Pachinko.” The feeling of this opening line is embodied throughout the endurance story about a Korean immigrant family’s perseverance through generations.
Recently adapted into a television series, “Pachinko” follows Sunja, the matriarch of her family who uproots her life in Yeongdo, Korea, to re-establish her family in Osaka, Japan. At nearly 500 pages, the original work is divided into three sections with respective time periods and geographical locations, signifying a broad temporal and spatial encompassing. The adapted TV show was adjusted accordingly to overlay two of these three timelines. The first timeline begins in 1920s Korea with the childhood of Sunja (Yu-na Jeon, early) and follows teenage Sunja (Minha Kim, “Main Street”)’s rise to adulthood, while that the second timeline, set in 1980s Japan, centers on Solomon (Jin Ha, “Devs”), the grandson of Sunja (Yuh-Jung Youn, “Minari”).
With page-to-screen adaptations, there’s always a hint of foreboding about the transition of mediums, especially with a book as renowned and brilliant as Lee’s. But even from the earliest episodes, it’s evident that “Pachinko” took great pains to not only stay true to its source material, but to honor it. Rather than detracting from or overly condensing the content, the overlapping timelines allow the series to capitalize on a resonance within the story as a whole that a straightforward timeline format simply wouldn’t do justice.
In such a large ensemble cast, it’s easy to get lost in the ever-changing timelines, but the three Sunjas and Solomon really hold their own and balance the weight of their intersecting stories. Even the pilot alone does a terrific job of setting up the complex character relationships, hinting at future storylines, and establishing the contextual context of unfolding events. tensions between Japan and Korea that constantly persist, bleeding into each timeline.
Throughout it all, the real root factor is the inimitable Sunja herself. The three actresses are so incredibly in sync in their portrayals that when Sunja gives Solomon advice as his grandmother, you can feel the residue from young Sunja’s performances rippling through her words, the memories etched into her very features. .
Almost every immigrant family has a Sunja, the generation that sacrifices everything for the next. I see it in my own grandmother, in the way they are both reduced to mother figures of guidance due to the great “success stories” of younger generation immigrants. Tracking the three Sunjas throughout his life feels like more than a gimmick to provide historical context: it’s the focus of the story itself. His descendants may mean great things in life, but “Pachinko” doesn’t let you forget that Sunja is the reason for it all. She is the living, breathing embodiment of the story, the unyielding thread that stitches together its narrative elements.
Another unique facet of the show’s authenticity is its trilingual dialogue, with Korean subtitles in yellow and Japanese in blue. Distinguishing languages, something often ignored by English-speaking audiences, places a marked distinction on the use of each language in its context. In nearly every scene, Solomon fluently switches between Korean, Japanese, and English, sometimes switching languages mid-sentence. It’s not just about the specific character he finds himself with or the language he’s most comfortable with, it’s about imbuing meaning in the tone of his voice, not being able to say something thing in its truest form only in one language because the translation will not come across as accurately as he intended in another. In a scene where Solomon uncharacteristically cuts off in Japanese when talking to his grandmother, there’s a tangible disconnect in his words that’s amplified by the subtitle visuals; we can feel the cold layer of distance he momentarily creates in their conversation to signify his hurt.
Perhaps an indulgence on my part, but I love how this show breathes new life into the classic immigrant tale. For a drama driven by emotionally heavy storylines, there’s an incredible levity at times: elder Sunja watching TV with Kyunghee, her sister-in-law (Felice Choi, “The Wrestler”), or a younger Sunja strolling in the fish market with his father. In their simplicity, the audience is given the opportunity to breathe in the trauma suffered, as are the characters themselves.
As the cast dances in a literal pachinko parlor to The Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live For Today,” the opening credits scene exudes a joy that so perfectly captures the energy of the show itself. Because that’s what this story is really about: a family striving not just to survive, but to thrive in a way that heartbreaking, overly sensational immigrant stories are too often stolen. . The family may face insurmountable difficulties, but they just try to make the most of what they have, to live here and now and there is nothing more universal than that.
Daily Arts editor Serena Irani can be reached on [email protected].