An important achievement of minute human drama

pachinko freely moves in and out of different periods in Sunja’s life, played as a grandmother by Yuh-jung Youn, in a way that resists frantic flashback-style finger-pointing.
Photo: Apple TV+

Years ago, while watching The Forsyte Saga, the 2002 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s multigenerational family epic, I began to wonder what it would be like to watch a TV series that goes on forever. It could be something like: The Forsyte SagaI thought, or like the TV adaptation of Carrots: The story of a family that follows each new generation, charting births and deaths and important transitions. It could act as a barometer for the changing world with one family line intimately recording and responding to massive historical events. It’s a thought experiment, one that ignores all logistical reasons that such a show is essentially impossible. But I thought about it while watching pachinkothe adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s generational saga about a Korean family that premieres on Apple TV+ on March 25.

pachinko is not a realization of my imagined eternal story, but it achieves all the feats of scope and sharpness I longed for. The series glides through several decades at once: the main character, Sunja, was born in early 20th century Korea, and pachinko spends time with her in her early childhood (when played by Yu-na Jeon), her young adulthood (played by Minha Kim), and as a grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn). Sunja’s life includes several gigantic changes in world history and in her family lineage. As a child, Sunja lives in Japanese-occupied Korea and grows up with the constant awareness of colonial rule. As a young adult, she moves to Japan. As an elderly woman, her family has taken root in Japan and the US, maintaining a foundation of Korean culture and identity. (For the public who tends to view world history through the lens of Western history, pachinko is an essential reminder that, believe it or not, other countries and cultures exist, as do non-Western forms of prejudice and non-Eurocentric colonial pasts.)

although pachinko moves freely in and out of different periods in Sunja’s life (mainly her young adulthood in the 1920s and her grandson’s early adulthood in the 1980s), doing so in a way that resists the frenetic flashback-style finger-pointing . The pace is urgent, but measured. Allowing gaps in Sunja’s life pachinko to leave room for surprise and discovery, but the series avoids the clean, overly ordered logic of a jigsaw puzzle. When new pieces of Sunja’s history fall into place, they usually don’t arrive until after you’ve roughly determined what they should look like. pachinko‘s revelations the weight of harrowing inevitability. At the same time, it’s hard not to think of all the flashbacks on TV in recent years where inevitability leads to boredom, and the fact that pachinko completely dodging floundering obviousness almost feels like magic: it’s not really family history as a puzzle box, nor is it really family history as a personality test. Each era in Sunja’s life has its own pace and internal dynamics. When parallels arise, or when the events in a story answer a question raised elsewhere, they arrive quietly and without fanfare.

All that makes it possible pachinko to build a family saga that lives up to the minute, glorious, devastating human drama that genre invites. Marriages, deaths, pregnancies, affairs, gossip, betrayal and romance – this is the stuff of which family epic stories are made. The whole series is transformed by the performances of each Sunja. Youn is excellent as the older iteration, and Kim is absolutely amazing as Sunja in her youth. There is a clarity in her performance that becomes the foundation on which the entire series is built: each monumental twist in the family history seems to spring from a specific flash of emotion on her face. She is like a stone of Rosetta, the code that translates pachinko‘s immense historical scope in tangible human reality. She is also a boulder in a river, resisting the onslaught of overwhelming events and preventing her family from being wiped out. So many of the other performances are fantastic — including Lee Minho as Koh Hansu, a figure who becomes the specter of an alternate history to Sunja — but they exist as reflections of and reactions to Kim’s Sunja.

If the drama didn’t work on a small, individual level, a multigenerational drama like pachinko couldn’t get off the ground. But the real draw, what these kinds of stories do that other family dramas just can’t, is charting a family’s life in tandem with decades of national and global changes. The most straightforward version sees the family as a microcosm of a particular historical thread: Japan has colonized Korea, and Sunja’s family reflects all the pain and horror of that particular international conflict. But pachinko is too nimble to fall back on something as simple as “This family reflects the world”, and far too careful to let the onslaught of 20th-century history reflect a straight-forward progression story. It’s not a series about glorifying a simpler, more authentic past, nor is it a celebration of a more comfortable, more technologically complex modernity. In any case, it is an admirable portrait of Sunja’s resilience. Even then, pachinko avoids sliding into impassioned boosterism for its protagonist. She is remarkable and she is ordinary, and pachinko does not see them as contradictory truths.

I’ve longed for a family drama that lasts forever because that never-ending story could be such a striking refutation of so many myths. The title pachinko comes from a game of chance, a series of silver balls flowing past a group of pins and obstacles; sometimes the balls go into the goal and sometimes they don’t, and it’s mostly luck. Family sagas set against a volatile timeline put the lie to short-sighted tales of “history bends the arc to justice”. They are also reassuring reminders that our current experience of a nightmarish excess is not special or unprecedented. We can’t get away from ourselves now, but we can watch a family story play out for nearly a century and feel shocked at the excruciating intensity of being blinded by current events.

It may seem superficial to link all this to pachinkosequence of the opening titles, such as putting a review on the cover of a book or closing with comments about a movie trailer. But they’re the best opening titles TV has made in years, standalone and an almost eerily accurate distillation of the series. After a montage of evocative images intended to remind us of dark events of the past, the credits shift to a brightly lit pachinko parlor where cast members from every era dance with ecstatic abandon to Grass Roots’ 1967 hit “Let’s Live for Today.” They wear clothes that fit their time period, and they dance without organizing any choreography or style, but they all dance to the same song with the same lyrics in the same setting. It makes the pachinko timeline, erasing the implied story of growth or progression: here they are all at once, with the lyrics “Live for today / and don’t you worry ’bout tomorrow” playing over them. pachinko is an incredible expression of that idea, an illustration of the fact that sometimes that’s all we can ever do. It’s a rebuke to my desire for a TV show that lasts forever: I wish I could have something that lasts forever but does nothing, and there’s no point in wishing for anything else. Except…I’d like to watch pachinko can last forever.

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