Pachinko review: ‘dazzling Korean epic’

The entire cast is stunning and natural. Lee Min-ho, a major star in South Korea, is the charismatic Hansu, a Korean who works for a Japanese company and returns home as a broker at the fish market near Sunya’s village. Dashing in a white suit and fedora, he is drawn to the modest, trusting, teenaged Sunja, who is dazzled by him despite rumours of his ties to organised crime. His life and hers intersect through the years.

Jin Ha, a US actor (Devs and Love Life), brings complicated layers to Solomon, who goes to Tokyo to try to convince an old Korean woman there to sell her house to make way for his company’s building project. His character is greatly enhanced and at times altered from the novel’s, which allows the screen version to foreground the family’s generational differences and give Solomon more difficult ethical choices. A scene in which he brings his grandmother, Sunja, to visit the older Korean woman is among the most affecting.

Kogonada and Chon (Blue Bayou) direct four episodes each. Throughout, the cameras capture vistas that create an epic feel, looking out across the vast, glittering sea separating Korea and Japan, or down on to Tokyo high rises. Those views move in and out easily, leading to closeups that bring us intimately into the characters’ lives. Pachinko is the latest in Kogonada’s string of jaw-droppingly good works, including the films Columbus (2017) and the current After Yang, each made with intelligence and amazing visual style.

Among the many smart choices in Pachinko, one of the best is its buoyant, joyful opening credit sequence. Each of the major actors dances down the aisle of the pachinko parlour to the bouncy 1967 song Let’s Live for Today. They are in costume but not in character as Hansu/Lee swirls around and holds little Sunja/Yu-na in his arms, Solomon/Ha tosses his suit jacket in the air, and a smiling Mozasu/Soji raises his arms in disco moves. Seeing the actors highlights the fictional quality of the story, but the sheer happiness of the endlessly rewatchable scene signals the resilience of the family they play. 

In the first episode, when Sunja is very young, her father tells her of the promise he made when she was just a week old, that “I would do anything to keep the ugliness of the world from touching you”. Pachinko captures both the ugliness of a world bound to hurt her, and the profound beauty of her father’s love, that endures through the generations and outweighs everything else.


Pachinko premieres on AppleTV+ on 25 March.

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