Beautifully shot, excessively bleak
When Apple TV+ first announced it last year, Pachinko seemed like a possible champion for the streaming service’s international and artistic ambitions. Pachinko is based on the bestselling novel by Min Jin Lee, and stars Academy Award winner Youn Yuh-jung and worldwide K-drama megastar Lee Min-ho in major roles, with two Korean-American directors.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
All of the right elements were in place for Pachinko to be a tour de force for genuine diversity. Yet the actual response to Pachinko has been lukewarm at best. The reviews have been glowing, but it’s not at all clear anyone is actually watching the show. On the day of Pachinko’s premiere on HanCinema, Hope and Dope–a low-production-value web drama about a teenage drug dealer–considerably outperformed the prestige product. What in the world happened?
Well, if I had to single out any one culprit, it would definitely be the drama’s genuinely baffling editing. See, here’s the problem with having both Youn Yuh-jung and Lee Min-ho in your adaptation of Pachinko. They’re playing characters from entirely different eras of the story. Youn Yuh-jung plays the old version of our heroine Sunja, while Lee Min-ho plays the love interest she had as a teenager. A faithful adaptation of the book would only have Youn Yuh-jung in the last couple of episodes at most, while Lee Min-ho is in even fewer than that because he’s a mysterious figure who disappears for huge stretches at a time. The TV show actually has to add several more scenes compared with the book just to justify his presence on the payroll.
The very imperfect solution the production team came up with is to jump back and forth between young Sunja in the pre-WWII Japanese Empire and old Sunja in 1989. This disjointed mode of storytelling has the effect of making Pachinko incredibly disorienting to anyone who hasn’t read the book. They introduce characters like Hana and Kyung-hee in 1989 long before they actually show up meaningfully in the story, to very poor effect. They both read as pathetic women from the get-go, an especially weird choice considering that the book presented both as admirable and desirable and the TV version otherwise presents a hard feminist edge that wasn’t present in the original story.
I wouldn’t say that the Pachinko novel was particularly antifeminist. But rather, it did tend to show occasional moments where women could be happy. The book presents Sonja’s mom as quite content with her less-than-ideal marriage. In the TV version, she’s bitterly resentful and seems to regard all men with suspicion and hostility. Kyung-hee’s introduction in the book emphasizes how happy she is to have another girl to talk to in Sunja. In the TV version, her negativity is constant, rather undermining old Sunja’s very serious bedside vigil of a figure she clearly considered to be a person warranting great respect.
The all men are rapists angle that Pachinko presents isn’t even the most nakedly political one that the show espouses. It presents Japanese brutality against Koreansso ham-handedly as to be melodramatic. I’ve seen literal Korean propaganda films, from both sides of the DMZ, that treat the Japanese with more nuance than Pachinko does. This reaches a crescendo in the ferry scene, where the Japanese brutally murder a popular singer because she begins singing a Korean song in the midst of doing a popular performance of…opera. Because apparently the Japanese are really into opera.
Lest you think that was just empty sarcasm, let me assure you, it’s not. Korean music was actually extremely popular in the Japanese Empire during the occupation period. Gisaeng musicians were major celebrities. They invented trot music, and while gisaengs themselves have disappeared from the Korean peninsula due to their association with collaborators, trot music remains popular to this day. The biggest music shows in South Korea right now are competitions to become great trot performers.
This is quite the inaccuracy to include in a show that’s purportedly about expositing the true tragic story of the Korean peninsula to a worldwide audience. But Pachinko manages to be even worse with its depiction of Zainichi Koreans, which is even more of a niche topic. Zainichi Koreans are ethnic Koreans who immigrated to Japan during the Korean Occupation for work reasons. Many remained even after the end of World War II, partially due to political reasons, but also just because by the time the war ended they saw Japan as their home, ethnicity notwithstanding.
Pachinko only acknowledges the first half of that, engaging in racial essentialism that defies the entire confounding nature of Zainichi identity. Perhaps the most famous Zainichi, the wrestler Rikidozan, somewhat infamously never identified as Korean for his whole adult life, and was dismissive at the idea that the land of his birth was important to who he was. There’s a whole movie about it . Yet he is briefly and somewhat inexplicably referenced here as if he was some kind of role model to ethnically Korean children in Japan.
You can easily chalk this up to the American gaze. While racial essentialism is an extremely common way of looking at race today in the United States, this is a fairly recent development and still isn’t very common in the rest of the world. By complete accident, Pachinko provides a strong argument as to why that is. A production consisting of input from a huge number of Korean-Americans has managed to come up with a shockingly ignorant piece of work that quite unsubtly substitutes personal experience as an ethnic Korean growing up in the United States and extrapolates that to completely different cultural, economic, and historical contexts while assuming only changes of intensity and none of effect.
Such is the power of racial essentialism that even now, I can predict the fury in the comments that I, a white person, would dare to suggest that Pachinko, made by Korean people, is inaccurate and poorly researched. I honestly doubt there’s anything I could possibly write to convince you otherwise. So for a brief iteration of the aesthetic: Pachinko is confusingly edited. It’s excessively bleak. It presents no character as having a worthwhile goal, on the rare occasion it presents any character as having a goal at all. It is, however, beautifully shot.
Yes, that’s an unambiguous compliment coming at the end of an extremely negative review. If you like pretty pictures, Pachinko is the show for you. And we may well hear of it again next awards season. As was seen at the Academy Awards, Apple+ TV is taking its pretensions at being a prestige brand far more seriously than it is making shows that people actually want to watch.