“History has failed us, but no matter.”
These are the words that greet us upon the first page of Min Jin Lee’s epic novel “Pachinko.” The sentiment of this opening line is embodied throughout the story of endurance about one Korean immigrant family’s perseverance across generations.
Recently adapted into a television series, “Pachinko” follows Sunja, the matriarch of her family who uproots her life in Yeongdo, Korea to start her family anew in Osaka, Japan. At nearly 500 pages, the original work is divided into three sections with respective time periods and geographic locations, signifying a large 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 Sunja’s (Yu-na Jeon, debut) childhood and follows teen Sunja’s (Minha Kim, “Main Street”) ascent to adulthood, while the second timeline, set in 1980s Japan, centers around Solomon (Jin Ha, “Devs”), Sunja’s (Yuh-Jung Youn, “Minari”) grandson.
With page to screen adaptations, there’s always a hint of apprehension about the transition of mediums, especially with a book as renowned and brilliant as Lee’s. But even from just the first few episodes, it is evident that “Pachinko” has taken great care to not only stay true to but honor its source material. Rather than detract from or overly condense the content, the overlapping timelines allow the show to capitalize on a resonance within the story as a whole that a direct chronological format simply wouldn’t do justice to.
In such a large ensemble cast, it’s easy to get lost in the ever-changing timelines, but all three Sunjas and Solomon truly hold their own and balance the weight of their intersecting storylines. Even the pilot alone does a tremendous job of setting up the characters’ complex relationships, hinting at future plotlines and establishing the contextual background of ongoing tensions between Japan and Korea that linger persistently, bleeding into each timeline.
Throughout it all, the real grounding factor is the inimitable Sunja herself. All three actresses are so incredibly in sync in their portrayals that when Sunja gives Solomon advice as his grandmother, you can feel the residuals of the younger Sunja’s performances reverberating within her words, the memories etched into her very features.
Nearly every immigrant family has a Sunja, the generation that sacrifices everything for the next. I see her in my own grandmother, in the way they both get reduced down to maternal figures of guidance on account of the younger generation’s grand immigrant “success stories.” Following all three Sunjas through her life feels like more than a gimmick to provide historical context: it’s the central focus of the story itself. Her descendants may amount to 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 its narrative elements together.
Another unique facet of the show’s authenticity is its trilingual dialogue, with Korean subtitles in yellow and Japanese in blue. Distinguishing between the languages, something often disregarded by English-speaking audiences, places a marked distinction on the use of each language contextually. In nearly every one of his scenes, Solomon fluidly slips in and out of Korean, Japanese and English, sometimes switching languages mid-sentence. It’s not just about the specific character he’s around or the language they’re most comfortable with, it’s imbuing meaning within the tone of his voice, of only being able to say something in its truest form in one language because the translation won’t get it across as precisely as he intended in another. In a scene where Solomon uncharacteristically breaks off into Japanese when speaking to his grandmother, there’s a tangible disconnect in his words that is magnified by the visuals of the subtitles; we can sense the cool layer of the distance he’s momentarily creating in their conversation to signify his hurt.
Perhaps an indulgence on my part, but I love the way this show breathes new life into the classic immigrant tale. For a drama driven by emotionally heavy plots, there’s an incredible lightness to certain moments: the elder Sunja watching TV with Kyunghee, her sister-in-law (Felice Choi, “The Wrestler”), or a young Sunja walking through the fish market with her father. In their simplicity, the audience is given the chance to exhale from the endured trauma, just as the characters themselves are.
As the cast dances around 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 is what this story is truly about: a family striving to not only survive, but to thrive in a way that harrowing, over-sensationalized immigrant stories are too often robbed of. The family may face insurmountable hardships, but they’re simply trying to make the most of what they’ve got, to live in the here and now and there’s nothing more universal than that.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.