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Deeply felt and unpredictable, 'Pachinko' follows the epic rise of a Korean family

Oscar-winning actress Youn Yuh-jung plays the older Sunja is the Apple TV+ series <em>Pachinko</em>.
Apple TV+
Oscar-winning actress Youn Yuh-jung plays the older Sunja is the Apple TV+ series Pachinko.

Early in the Apple TV+ series Pachinko, an arrogant whiz kid named Solomon — who is of Korean ancestry, but was born in Japan — is trying to secure a huge real estate deal by getting an old Korean woman to sell her house in Tokyo. After regaling him with memories of her painful life, the woman suddenly says, "Tell me honestly. When old people talk of suffering, isn't it tiresome?" Solomon replies, "Isn't that the point? To burden us."

He's wrong, but not completely. You'll see why when you watch this adaptation of Min Jin Lee's bestselling novel, a deeply felt crowd-pleaser by a Korean American team — showrunner and writer Soo Hugh, and directors Kogonada and Justin Chon. Chronicling a Korean family's difficult rise over 70 years, Pachinko offers a cornucopian narrative that's at once a multi-generational epic, an immigrant saga, a history lesson, a portrait of cultural bigotry, a high-class soap opera and a celebration of women's capacity to survive even the darkest circumstances. Awash in big emotions, this is not a series shy about trying to make you cry.

Fiddling with the novel's time-frame, Pachinko interlaces two time periods. The first starts during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century with the birth of Sunja, a poor girl who is obviously special. When she reaches her teenage years — where she's played by the amazing newcomer Kim Min-ha — Sunja wins the love of two very different men: a handsome gangster (played by Korean heartthrob Lee Min-ho) and a saintly Protestant minister (Steve Sanghyun Noh), who marries her, then moves them to Japan, where they live in Osaka's wretched Korean ghetto.

The second strand takes place in 1989 Japan, where Sunja is now a grandmother brilliantly played by Youn Yuh-jung, who won the Oscar last year for Minari. The action centers on her smug, yet anxious grandson, Solomon (played terrifically by Jin Ha), who works at a New York bank and has returned to Japan to close the business deal I mentioned earlier.

Solomon thinks such a financial coup will let him escape the stigma that comes from being both Korean and the son of a low-class man who owns a parlor where people play pachinko, the pinball-like gambling game whose unpredictability becomes the story's central metaphor. Unlike his grandmother, who mourns her lost home in Korea, Solomon yearns to shed the skin of his heritage and become a modern cosmopolitan defined purely by his personal talents.

Time doesn't allow me to do justice to Pachinko's Dickensian profusion of vivid characters, who are beautifully acted to a one and who variously speak in Korean, Japanese or English (complete with color-coded subtitles). Nor can I begin to tell you just how much stuff happens over the eight episodes. You get death, murder, suicide, love affairs, arrests, diseases, broken homes, broken hearts, fires, earthquakes, a few preposterous coincidences and many intimate moments of great delicacy.

Through all these changes there are a few constants, including the hardship, loss and misery that was Korea's lot after the nation's 1910 annexation by Japan, which proceeded to exploit its resources and workers. Such material exploitation is made all the worse by the vicious anti-Korean bigotry of the Japanese, who called the Korean people "cockroaches." When Solomon steps into Japanese boardrooms in 1989, he's still treated as a man with inferior blood who can't really be trusted.

The other constant is the Korean indomitability embodied in Sunja who, thanks in no small part to Kim and Youn's memorable performances, is both the show's spine and its beating heart. Sunja takes all manner of buffeting, yet refuses to knuckle under — either to circumstances or the Japanese. Even as she thinks longingly of her homeland or the distinctive taste of Korean rice, she finds herself wondering, What good does it do to cling to the past?

In their different ways, Sunja and Solomon both dream of Koreans finally winning their proper respect. And this series reminds us that they've done just that — in pop culture terms, anyway. Just think. Parasitewas the first foreign language film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. Squid Gamesconquered the world's small screens. The K-Pop band BTS has international teens swooning. And now comes Pachinko, a show whose groundbreaking vision of Korean history in both its cruelty and triumph, will be remembered as a television landmark.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.