Pachinko: A Limited Series -- Episodes 1 - 4: A Generational Saga

I'm finally out of my drama slump. Pachinko is here, and it doesn't disappoint one bit. The different synopsizes I read don't do it much justice, at least not in my opinion. The series, based on the novel of the same name by journalist Min Jin Lee, is a refreshing sweeping saga that chronicles the hopes and dreams of a Korean immigrant family across four generations as they leave their homeland in a quest to survive and thrive. In a way, not that I am comparing the two, Pachinko reminds me of Alex Haley's 1976 Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

Having read the novel, I appreciated the slower pace of the series. It takes time with everything it delivers, from the delivery to the dialogue, and even the cinematography, and landscape, just brilliant. I have to admit I wasn't familiar with many cast members, aside from Lee Min Ho, who plays Koh Hansu, a Zainichi Korean man who is a merchant and fish broker who lives in Osaka, Japan, but regularly visits Busan, South Korea, and Youn Yuh-Jung as Sunja, the main protagonist of Pachinko, a Korean woman from Yeongdo-Gu, Busan, South Korea, who fights for a better life in a Korea dominated by the Japanese.


I was surprised to see that Lee Min Ho's role isn't as prominent as I thought. However, as one continues to watch the drama, it becomes immediately clear that the focus of the story is entirely on both Sunja as a teenager, played by Kim Min-ha, who does a superb job articulating a teenager's raw feelings for and disappointment in a short but profound whirlwind romance that leaves her pregnant and unwed in an unforgiving society. And in Sanju's grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) educated at English-speaking schools and Columbia University in Manhattan, who has always socialized with Americans and Westerners, which makes him so distinct from Sanju, yet so much alike. The same goes for Pastor Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh), who suddenly appears as Sanju literal savior. Despite having only been in the drama for a few minutes in the third episode, he definitely leaves an unmistakable impression of being the complete opposite of Koh Hansu, which makes me look forward to his and Sanju's story together.


Pachinko is definitely a drama that has everything love and disappointment, politics, discrimination, psychological turmoil, generational differences and everything else in between. This doesn't necessarily distinguish it much from other dramas, but what does is how the story is delivered, and more what the story is about -- finding humanity in an inhuman time. A lot happens in the first three episodes of the series, where the show pivots between the past and the present, fleshing out the many issues the series addresses, from the social imbalance of the time to poverty, yearning, ambition, the inhumanity and displacement of war, racism and discriminatory laws, cultural identity crisis, and the mental and psychological turmoil it leaves behind even more prominent.


I read a review that noted -- “Pachinko leaves us with many dangling threads, yet still richly satisfies with testimony to history’s impact on people — and people’s determination to be themselves." I don't think I couldn't have said it better. The drama shows the strength and determination of a country and group of people who despite all odds preserved and made something out of themselves and their country. I love the choices the director makes with this drama, and the ease with which the present and the past are interlinked, especially the scenes that seem so unrelated yet brilliantly connected. I have to say I didn't expect this episode to be as emotional. It had me wallowing in tears the entire time.


Everything from Sunja and Pastor Ishka's tender moments to her and her mom's anguish to the grandmother and Solomon's liberating moment, and even Sunja and Hansu's cruel yet strangely sad moment. I could feel his pain, jealousy and fear for what lies ahead for her in an unforgiving land with unforgiving people. It made me wish he had told her he loved her when he had the chance, but I doubt even he knew how much she meant to him. It's so true when they say we don't appreciate what we have until it's gone.


Every moment/scene in this drama hits like a reality check, but the two moments that touched me the most in the fourth episode were the singer, as she beautifully and proudly represented what being free truly meant. And the other Sunja's mom, with Hansu behind her, as they helplessly watched the ship carrying the one person they both loved most sail away to a faraway land beyond their reach. Despite the many deviations from the book, I am thoroughly enjoying Pachinko and look forward to seeing who plays Hansu in his older age, and how the show interprets the rest of the story in action. Watch the series here.

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