Kim Min-ha in "Pachinko".

“Pachinko” is an Achingly Beautiful Act of Care

To watch “Pachinko” is to yearn, both in the way it spurs longing and in its expression of profound compassion. It’s like witnessing time pass in a poem, the way our understanding changes from its opening line to its last because it fits like a key into the places we shut and guard, or simply forgot to visit for too long.

“Pachinko” invites you to open up with it, to witness things that will be lost and in so doing appreciate the act of letting go that means they’ll always be found. It is gentle and heartbreaking, celebratory, devastating, peaceful. It is assuredly cinematic, transporting, and yet somehow feels like life, like memory – not yours or mine, but in the way that fiction can evoke – as close as we can get to sharing it.

The series follows four generations of a Korean family, but centers on two stories: Sunja’s life starting from 1915, and her grandson Solomon’s in 1989. Sunja’s story is that of struggle, of growing up in Japanese-occupied Korea during a time of oppression and colonial exploitation, of love, heartbreak, immigration, assimilation, resistance. In 1989, Solomon travels from the U.S. to Japan to close a land deal and visit the elderly Sunja. The time periods are cut together with a sense of reflection and suggestion.

Both stories inform each other. Cutting back and forth is a departure from Min Jin Lee’s novel, I believe, but it’s an exquisite way to highlight the generational trauma that survives and shapes a diaspora. It also serves as a lens for how colonialism and racism evolve and codify themselves into norms and systems.

The subtitles are color-coded – yellow for what’s spoken in Korean, light blue for what’s spoken in Japanese. You get used to it fast, and it’s a forthright way of communicating its characters’ code-switching, and who will understand which portion of a conversation. Moments when one language is chosen over another can shoulder incredible weight by changing the context in which a character speaks a phrase. Solomon is a man struggling with three sets of cultural values – Korean, Japanese, and American – and his choice of language in certain situations can change how we understand him. This code-switching can pierce, using the choice of language for a single word like a dagger; or it can create shelter, a fortress beyond which someone else’s understanding cannot pass.

I don’t have knowledge of Korean and Japanese code-switching and accents, but the writing and filmmaking convey this in subtle and poetic ways: “My children don’t even know the language in which their mother dreams”. It is the most astounding expression of how assimilation and resistance to it take shape not just across a culture or within an immigrant population, but within the individual people who live their lives trying to make sense of that internalized dissonance.

That may not sound like the makings of a sweeping romantic epic, but why shouldn’t it be? People who have endured these things are people just like anyone else, and can convey the feelings of entire lifetimes in ways that already translate across different cultures. In both its romanticism and romance, “Pachinko” is a testament to survival – not just of people, but of culture. In particular, it recognizes the burden women bear to keep it alive, to insist on its importance, to resist colonization even as its sharpest cruelties subside and diffuse into a thousand pinprick norms. It is an ode to remembrance as an act of both care and defiance. Those aren’t just two elements that can co-exist; sometimes they’re the same act entirely.

The visuals of “Pachinko” are filmic, not just in the sense of having beautiful cinematography, but in the sense of telling a story with a patience entrusted to audience, performer, and location alike. It’s difficult to define or quantify because you can’t do either to poetry. It expresses. It feels. It lives. Directors Kogonada, Justin Chon, and showrunner Soo Hugh make fiction breathe. To witness it is to witness something in yourself.

In reflecting on Sunja’s life at the same time as her life’s story is told, it shows how one generation instills the breadth of that life and their memory into all those who follow. This isn’t someone telling her story at its end; this is someone still living it just as she always has. The approach to mortality in “Pachinko” is one of carrying forward everything about a person save their presence.

“Pachinko” is a revelatory examination of different types of love, all valuable and needed, each composing the shape of our lives, and it’s a story about how that love acts as sustenance, survival, and resistance through the ugliest we have to offer. Even when we shear those types of love away from our lives, or they are shorn from us, we still carry them within us as a strength, we still pass them on in how our love for others is shaped.

The performances are some of the best you’ll see. Kim Min-ha and Youn Yuh-jung play Sunja at different points in her life. Not only are they both excellent, they show an evolution of the same mannerisms, share the same ways of holding themselves, of existing in a place. It’s one of the most stunning dual performances of a character you’ll see. Jin Ha, Lee Min-ho, Soji Arai, Kaho Minami, Anna Sawai, Jimmi Simpson, all the performances are as good as you can get.

I watch “Pachinko” with a lump in my throat. It’s not even worth bothering to dry the tears when they don’t really stop. It’s a slow drip of moving beauty, of details lost with generations past, of what survives in spite of being quashed under heel, of what time erodes but memory keeps vital. The storytelling is so clear its subtleties glint sunshine. It’s an invitation to be utterly human, whatever the day asks of us. It’s not just a testament to survival, it’s a space that reminds us that to survive emotionally is the testament itself. “Pachinko” is a dagger, a shelter, a museum of what’s lost and can never be lost. It keeps existing when the episode ends. It keeps feeling when I do other things.

There is art that stores a piece of itself in us, and in which we store a piece of ourselves. We know it’s there in safe times. When we lose ourselves or feel desperate, we know one place where we stored an extra bit of who we are for emergencies. That’s a way that we survive. That’s a way that we resist. That’s a way that we keep our care alive. It’s the way I know best to write about love. It’s a way that we know ourselves better when we sit and quietly think of that art, a way we help others know us better when we share it.

It’s rare when we sense so many artists across a single project have stored themselves in something for us, rare when that’s so visible, when we’re asked to witness that in a way that deepens the reality of what we’re watching. The writing in “Pachinko” is an act of resistance, the performance an expression of survival, the direction an act of care. It feels so safe storing part of who you are in its art because it feels like countless others already have, that what I witness in it is what I’d like to know better in myself, that what I’ve stored in it may be much more than I know how to recognize just yet.

You can watch “Pachinko” on Apple TV. Four of its eight episodes are out, with new ones arriving every Friday.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

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