Download: ‘Pachinko’ in Three Scenes
There are certain films and shows that, however great and exceptional they might be, don’t lend themselves to a writer’s quill—and then there is Pachinko. After finishing the first season of AppleTV’s Pachinko (a second season has been promised), I sat slack-jawed trying to think of how anyone would write about this show. The time-jumps and multigenerational plot lines make it a hard show to discuss, but really it’s the incredible depth of beauty and complexity that make it such a bear.
On a very basic level, the plot follows a woman named Sunja who, as a young woman (played by Minha Kim) and as an older woman (Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung of Minari), goes through various trials and travails in Japanese-occupied Korea and then later as an immigrant in Japan. She then moves to Japan and is struck by the type of great family-shattering sadness that impacts all those that follow—even if the branches of this family tree could never understand the implications of what came before.
In the age of the Netflix binge-watch, I found that, much like Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, Pachinko was a show that required deep contemplation after each episode. You couldn’t just move onto the next episode without sitting for days with the one you just viewed.
So, instead of trying to talk about Pachinko in a comprehensive fashion (I would fail), I will focus instead on three specific scenes that floored me in a way for which there was simply no preparing myself.
Scene One: The Noodle Shop
As background for this scene, a handsome but very sick young man, a pastor named Isak (played beautifully by Steve Sanghyun Noh), arrives at the hostel run by Sunja and her mother. With his hosts’ care and kindness, Isak recovers and, upon accidentally learning that Sunja is with child and looking at life as an outcast, extends himself to this illiterate woman as a replacement husband.
At a restaurant that Sunja could never have even considered walking into on her own, Isak talks quietly and creatively around her circumstances. At first, the pastor advises Sunja in a way that borders on condescending, but then he does something men often don’t do when they are in the presence of women—he listens. And when Sunja explains her willingness to live her life as an outcast, willing to scrimp and save and go hungry to give her child the best life possible, Isak recognizes a fortitude in her that turns his perspective. He now sees Sunja as a human in full. Not just somebody to take pity on, but someone he admires so much that he is willing to extend himself and join her life. It is clear that he doesn’t view Sunja as an easy mark or an opportunity. He sees her as a hidden gem, and in a tone so sweet and persuasive without being in the slightest way manipulative, Isak asks Sunja if she, given time, “could care for another.”
As you see the expressions on their faces so subtly change throughout the scene, we understand what is at stake for both of them. The filmmaking is so elegant as to make itself invisible—it’s not as if we are watching a scene that’s being directed. Instead, it feels like we’re eavesdropping on two people realizing that they are in the midst of a crucial moment that will change their lives forever. It is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen on television.
Scene Two: Dancing in the Rain
This scene isn’t about Sunja at all—at least not directly. Set in the latter part of the 20th century, Sunja’s grandson, Solomon (played by the brilliant Jin Ha) works for a financial institution in Japan and, through his personal relationship with an old woman connected to his grandmother, sets up a land purchase that will be incredibly lucrative to his firm.
The contract signing takes place in a large boardroom, in front of (mostly) men who await this great windfall. The old woman hesitates. She explains what this plot of land has meant to her, and she asks Solomon what he would advise her to do knowing that truth. Solomon—an ambitious corporate suit—bends to her will, her argument, her poignancy, and despite the cost to his own upward mobility and his financial future, advises her not to sign. And so, she doesn’t.
If that were the only outcome it might have been dramatic enough, but after a severe dressing down from his superior (a perfectly transactional Jimmi Simpson), Solomon rises from his seat, runs from the building, casts away his perfectly tailored jacket (along with his progress up the corporate ladder), makes his way down the street. As the rain falls all around him, he stops in front of a busking cover band playing a terrific version of the Cure’s “In-Between Days” and begins to dance in a way that only a free man can dance. His shirt is soaked, his full head of hair is as wet as the ocean, but Solomon is undeterred. He is alive. He has chosen the righteous path, and he, perhaps for the first time, uncovers the depth of his being.
The show then cuts away to the older Sunja, who has just returned to Korea for the first time since she left with Isak. She stops her cab and walks onto the beach and into the water, soaking herself nearly up to her knees. In that moment, she and Solomon are joined in their ecstasy. One in self-discovery and the other in rediscovery. And again, your heart simply escapes your chest.
Scene Three: The Death of Hana
The mysterious figure of Hana (played by Mari Yamamoto) is presented to us as a voice on the phone calling Solomon out of the blue. Initially, her connection to him is unclear, but it’s obvious that Hana has the type of hold on him that you recognize as a love that can never be forgotten. Soon, we find out she has a serious illness from which she will not recover. She tells Solomon she doesn’t want to die in a “shitty” room, but her pain has become so great that her options for final rest are limited.
Fired in disgrace after blowing up the land deal, Solomon comes to Hana’s sick bed. At the moment the hospital staff is about to give her an injection of morphine that will ease her suffering but also speed her demise, Solomon bursts into the room, takes control of her hospital bed, and rolls her down the hallway and onto the roof of the hospital. There, she can feel the dying light of the sun on her face and arms, hears the ocean from her rooftop, and gives a weak smile and a laugh—a final moment of joy.
The tragic beauty of this scene is cut against a young Sunja seeing Isak one last time as he is being transported to Japanese prison after he is arrested for taking part in the pro-labor, communist, anti-emperor resistance. Their young son chases after the vehicle that is taking away his father to a certain death in captivity. The boy outruns his mother, but cannot outrun the car that steals his father from him.
As Hana’s gazes up towards the sky and her last glimpses of life fade away, so Sunja’s eyes scan upwards in an edit that can only be described as unforgettable. Everything is connected, Pachinko seems to say. Past is a form of prologue, all rivers have tributaries, and sorrow and resilience are bittersweet partners.
Some things need to be seen to be appreciated. This extraordinary series written by Soon Hugh and directed by Justin Chon and Kogonada (who between this and After Yang is having one hell of a year) is just one of those things.
Pachinko is a gorgeous, transcendent work that embarrasses 99% of what is on television and does so with ease. These scenes were the ones that stood out in my mind as the greatest, but almost any moment you could pick from this show is worthy of consideration. A whole article could be written on the show’s counter-intuitively ecstatic title sequence, and even the simple activities of making rice or kimchi in Pachinko are sumptuous visual poetry. It’s the kind of show that should be discussed with bated breath and for years to come.
I suspect that, if you see it, then you will understand. Words fall short. Language cannot capture something so grand, but I had to try.
In the end, all I am doing is begging you to see it.
Please, see it.