‘There’s a curse in my blood’: ‘Pachinko’ is a fascinating exploration of endurance, family and time | Arts
“This one is going to fight.” Although describing the birth of central character Sunja (played by Yu-na Jeon as a child, Minha Kim as a teenager, and Youn Yu-jung as an elderly woman), this line sums up the spirit of the premiere of “Pachinko.” Released on Apple TV+ on March 25, “Pachinko,” directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, adapts Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel of the same name. The series chronicles the determination, desires, and dreams of four generations of a Korean immigrant family as they struggle to prosper in Japanese-occupied Korea, Japan, and the United States. Viewers watch Solomon Baek (Jin Ha) in 1989 as he attempts to rise through the ranks of a New York financial firm while recounting the story of his grandmother, Sunja, in her youth.
“Pachinko” is wonderfully atmospheric, especially when depicting 1910s Korea. Shots filled with dusty Korean hanboks and immaculate Japanese uniforms are fully true to their time. Highlighting the importance of the connection between people and the land, the first is filled with panoramic shots of dense forests, inky oceans and golden grain fields. The densely populated and slightly eerie Fish Market and the dark Boarding House are equally fascinating environments.
The use of sound and language is equally compelling. Opening its episodes with the message “Pachinko is presented in its two original languages, Korean and Japanese”, the show is particularly nuanced when watched with subtitles. Any text on the screen alternates between English, then Japanese, and finally Korean, an order reversing the family’s course. Korean and Japanese are subtitled in yellow and cyan respectively. The two colors are more than cues for listeners to distinguish between the two languages, acting as a visual distinction between Korean and Japanese to allow viewers to better understand each character’s state of mind. While in Osaka today, old Sunja speaks exclusively in Korean to Solomon, who often mixes up his Korean with Japanese vocabulary. In its captions, the cyan words often stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the sentence in yellow. When greeting his father for the first time in many years, Solomon refers to his father in Korean, then immediately proceeds to a conversation exclusively in Japanese.
The understated and calm acting suits the frenetic and almost melodramatic plot well. Youn Yu-jung, whose extensive repertoire includes “Minari” and “The Lady of Bacchus,” spins old Sunja with a weathered, weary disposition, her face often reflecting the weight of her past. On the other hand, Yu-na Jeon presents the child Sunja as observant and precocious, and her curiosity infects her with every scene.
The use of sound editing in “Pachinko” is perhaps most interesting because of its connection to time. In the opening of the first episode, Sunja’s mother Yangjin (Jeong In-ji) begs a shaman to help her carry out a pregnancy after losing her first three sons. As the shaman stokes a fire, dances and beats a drum at a progressively louder and faster beat, we watch past scenes stick with Solomon in the present arguing with his white bosses for a promotion: clearly this family has endured. The drumbeat, diegetic in the past and non-diegetic in the present, seems almost to dilate time. Time flows in the same way from the present to the past. When Solomon hears an announcement of Emperor Hirohito’s death on the radio, the scene smoothly transitions to the boarding house and a man coughing up blood while the radio is still playing. Sunja and Hirohito’s father, two great figures of the past and present, seem to die at the same time.
But it’s the title sequence that stands out the most. Grainy shots of the Japanese occupation and colonization of Korea tinged with red, blue and yellow are increasingly intercut with shots of the pachinko parlor owned by the titular family. The four generations of the family, each dressed in their period dress, dance, laugh and celebrate to Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live For Today.” Almost shockingly bright and colorful, especially in contrast to the dusty, earthy tones used in past and present shots, the pure happiness and joy of family is palpable and captures the viewer’s attention. Although visually contrasting with the actual scenes, the title sequence still resonates thematically, with characters from the past interacting with faces from the present. Maybe it’s a necessary part of the series. While the show tends towards the dark and the constant suffering of the characters definitely suggests embodying the show’s opening words that “the people have endured”, this loud and frantic sequence is undeniably full of hope, triumph and declaration of the spirit of the family which ultimately drives them cheeky.
With strong visuals and sound, the premiere of “Pachinko” is an alluring look at the sprawling history of Sunja’s family and the enduring desire within them to endure and achieve joy.
— Editor Noelle Chung can be reached at [email protected]