There’s a beautifully drawn moment in the fourth episode of “Pachinko,” Apple TV Plus’ new cross-generational epic, in which a young woman (Minha Kim) is served white rice as a final meal in Korea before setting out to the unknown. It’s moving on its merits — this character, Sunja, has already been through a great deal, and a meal lovingly prepared by her mother (Inji Jeong) has a certain symbolic weight all its own. But it’s bolstered by our knowledge, conveyed in the episode before, that, later in life, Sunja (played in old age by Oscar-winner Yuh-Jung Youn) reminisced about the quality of Korean rice, noting that it had “nuttier” flavor and “a bit of a harder chew;” later in life, she’d tell her grandson it was “a luxury.”
That’s an example of “Pachinko” using its central device — an eagerness to hop around in time and geography — elegantly. We know that Sunja went her whole life remembering the subtle changes in how rice tasted between her birthplace and her adoptive home of Japan. “Pachinko’s” story, of one Korean family’s journey from the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of their home nation in 1910 up to 1989, can in numerous instances throughout gain resonance and emotive power from connections established in unusual or roundabout ways. More often, though, the fragmenting of the narrative makes the actors and craftspeople’s task of conveying meaning more challenging. Particularly for those who have not read Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel, this series’ source material, the show may frustrate as much as it dazzles.
The story the show tells is one of carefully wrought emotional beats against the backdrop of history. We see Sunja as a young woman, struggling to reconcile her connection with Hansu, a wealthy married man (Lee Minho), against the strictures of society and her responsibilities. She fulfills those responsibilities by moving to Japan with the minister she marries (Steve Sanghyun Noh), and, later, in old age, reflects on a life riven by the guiding hand of history. That story’s a compelling one; it also feels at times told through big moments jumping through time at the exclusion of clarity. We understand what Sunja wants, and what she’s up against, but the story of her life is pointillistic to a fault.
Youn does great work in her scenes with her character’s son (Soji Arai), a pachinko parlor owner, and her grandson Solomon (Jin Ha). Solomon’s storyline brings “Pachinko” into the era of globalization — he’s a New York-based businessman in Osaka attempting to bargain with another elderly Korean woman who refuses to cede her claim on the land she owns, holding up a real-estate deal. The stakes here are both literally interesting and cutting to the heart of what “Pachinko” is about — what it means to have a stake in a place, even a place that is not one’s own home. But the viewer’s operating with limited information in these scenes closer to the present day means that the pleasure of things clicking into place can, at times, be withheld past the point of patience.
Individual scenes can be compelling; they can also be compellingly pulpy in a manner that registers intriguingly against the show’s impeccable craft. Hansu, for instance, first woos Sunja then tells her off, describing to her the life she might have in Japan with him and, when she leaves for Japan with another man, tells her that she will eventually beg for help and “I won’t even remember your name.” He also has a backstory rooted in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, a cataclysmic event that informs his entire story; it comes in the second-to-last episode of the series, after much of his role has been fulfilled. “Pachinko” keeps you watching to find out more, but this can feel less the narrative pleasure of suspense and more as if the show doesn’t consistently trust its story.
The worlds of “Pachinko” are precisely rendered — auteurs Kogonada and Justin Chon both direct four episodes — and there’s a crystalline distinction between timelines and worlds; Nico Muhly’s music is evocative and striking, and the cast acquits themselves throughout beautifully. But while showrunner Soo Hugh cannot have had an easy task in finding the series within this sprawling, multigenerational novel, and while she conjures moments of immense power, and of connection, throughout, “Pachinko” does not, finally, cohere. One yearns for the show that let its key moments sing without the at-times forced collisions between eras, ones that can keep viewers feeling both on the hook and in the dark.
“Pachinko” premieres Friday, March 25 on Apple TV Plus.