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Pachinko: Episode 1 (First Impressions)

Apple TV+’s new production Pachinko weaves together multiple timelines to tell a story that spans generations. The one constant is our protagonist, a woman born during early Japanese colonization of Korea. Although the world she grew up in is vastly different than the one her grandson returns home to, echoes of her past are seen in his present as he navigates the societal and racial implications of being a Korean in Japan.

Editor’s note: If there is sufficient interest, drama coverage will continue with weekly Drama Hangouts.
 
EPISODE 1 FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I told myself I’d read the novel first. I even (accidentally) bought a second copy after forgetting that I’d already downloaded the Kindle version years before the adaptation was announced. And yet, I never found the time — or the right headspace — to sit down and read what I knew would be a very dense narrative deserving of my undivided attention. Although a part of me feels like I’m cheating on my unread copies of the novel, the silver lining to my procrastination is that I’m able to watch the story unfold with fresh, unbiased eyes.

And the first episode of Pachinko is a visual feast. A bit stylized with some subtle filtering and contrasting of colors, it often feels like stepping into an old sepia-toned photograph. Even the more modern scenes have a slight saturated finish, like the faded colors of Polaroids that have been stashed in a shoebox. Say what you will about its faithfulness to the source material — I wouldn’t know one way or the other — but there’s no denying that the cinematography is gorgeous. It does a beautiful job of mirroring the tone and historical setting of the story, which follows several generations of a single Korean family.

The first episode introduces the family’s matriarch SUNJA (played by Jeon Yuna as a child, Kim Min-ha as a young woman, and Yoon Yeo-jung as a grandmother). Sunja was born during the era of Japanese colonization in Korea, and her story actually begins before her birth, when her mother YANGJIN (Jung In-ji) visits a shaman in hopes of finding the cure to the curse that has caused her three sons to die in infancy.

As the shaman performs her ritual, we’re introduced to Sunja’s grandson SOLOMON BAEK (Jin Ha) in the year 1989. He works for a New York banking company and has been denied a much-deserved promotion due to racism, but he negotiates a deal: in exchange for a written guarantee that his company will promote him, he will convince a Korean landowner in Japan to sell property to their client and close a massive deal.

Back in 1915, the shaman foretells of a child who will thrive and allow Yangjin’s family to endure the passage of time, and so Sunja is born. Although poor, Sunja’s family is marginally better off than many of their countrymen during the Japanese colonization because they manage a boarding house. Both Sunja’s parents dote on her, but her relationship with her father HOONIE (Lee Dae-ho) is particularly endearing.

Hoonie is patient and kind-hearted, and there are moments where he seems more childlike than Sunja, as demonstrated by the playful way he holds his breath while Sunja dives for abalone. He also does his best to shelter Sunja from the ugliness of the world around them, but she’s too intelligent and inquisitive to remain ignorant of the Japanese soldiers in their small fishing village.

After one of their guests — a fisherman that treats Sunja kindly — drunkenly admits to wanting to murder the Japanese soldiers, Sunja overhears her mother worrying that they will be punished for not reporting the fisherman’s anti-Japanese sentiments. Hoonie is too nice and doesn’t want to ask the man to leave, so Sunja approaches him herself. The fisherman disappears from their boarding house, but Sunja and her father see him again later. He’s being paraded through the market by the Japanese soldiers, and Sunja cries and buries her face in her father’s side as the fisherman sings and is beaten for his defiance.

In 1989, Solomon arrives in Japan and returns to his family home in Osaka. We get the sense that it’s been a while since he’s visited, as he seems to be reacquainting himself with the house, pausing to look at framed photographs and casually play the keys of a piano. Even though his father MOZASU (Soji Arai), who runs a pachinko parlor, assumes Solomon is home for good, his grandmother, an older Sunja, senses his visit is temporary.

When Solomon reports to the Tokyo office, the briefness of his stay is confirmed when he assures a colleague that he’s not out to steal his job and will only be in Japan for a short time. Their conversation is cut short when news breaks that the Japanese emperor, who ruled during Japan’s occupation of Korea, has died. As the report plays out on the television, our story shifts back to 1915 and the moment Sunja’s beloved father passed away.

Nine years after her father’s death, Sunja is a young woman and a familiar and beloved face at the fish market. But unlike the other Koreans, she refuses to lower her head as the Japanese soldiers pass by. Her defiance catches the eye of the new fish broker (Lee Min-ho), but when he asks about her identity, he’s told that she is “no one.” And yet, he cannot keep his eyes off of her.

Those last five minutes or so felt like the weakest part of Episode 1, but I’m not sure if that’s because there was a shift in tone and color that made it noticeably different than the rest of the episode, or if it’s because Lee Min-ho is so recognizable that seeing his face ripped me from my immersion.

Now that he’s broken away from his usual type-cast roles, I’m curious to see how well he flexes his acting chops, but the verdict is still out since he didn’t get much screen time this episode. He just stared longingly at the object of his affection, and that’s Lee Min-ho’s bread and butter. The rest of the cast, however, were undeniably amazing.

Overall, the fist episode left me feeling… intrigued. It’s not the kind of story that has me hyped up and craving the next episode, but it’s also not a world or story I can let go of easily. But the question now is, do I keep watching, or do I stop and read the novel first?

 
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Ach, @daebakgrits you are so insightful. This drama is so fraught with having to explain and having to acknowledge.
I am second generation diaspora. We don't need to assign the origin place, we need to understand and support all we "others".
I read the book and cried and understood. This show is not our story - but our children's story.
For everyone - grandparents, parents, sisters and brothers - who moved to make a better place for all of us who came after - we respect and thank you.

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i agree, @daebakgrits you did a great job of recapping this episode. because you didn't read the book, it didn't bother you that they are not following the book's chapters (pet peeve of mine).

i hope it does not distract from the story on the whole, the interjection of modern times alongside the early times. they want to "better" (?) illustrate the differences and even similarities from both ends of the 4 generation story...

i hope everyone watches this story - it is a story of survival, endurance, tenacity against odds. sadly, it seems the human diaspora across borders still causes much pain, discrimination, hardships globally - but hopefully in the end compassion and acceptance will win for all cultures to blend in together peacefully.

you'll enjoy reading the book after the drama is completed! i've reread it recently to refresh my memory of all the names...

i read this blog article years ago that fabulously describes this blogger's take on the story:
http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2018/08/the-misplace-props-in-pachinko.html

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Wah I didnt know askakorean still exist. Nice to know the misplaced details because it didnt concern me since I am not Korean. I read the novel half way. I tend reading non fiction books these days, so I might not pick up it again of the drama dissapointed.
Not to disregard immigrants, reading and watching several stories about them, I find regardless the details or the origin of them, those story always have the same tone. I guess that is why the details becomes important. Patchinko feels like Minari (I love Minari btw).
The Patchinko production is great (does look like an american production).
I love the BGM!

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"He just stared longingly at the object of his affection, and that’s Lee Min-ho’s bread and butter" 😂

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and because of that, i think he's perfect for the part!
; )

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This is not only accurate but also true 🤣🤣🤣🤣

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You know that's the only "acting" our boy is capable of, bless him

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I think this is wrong as he shows more nuanced acting than looking fine and swoony in pachinko and I hope this series lays to rest all the Lee min ho can't act accusations

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I giggle at the shade because I only watched LMH in The King and that was pretty much what he did in that drama. But I think that much of the LMH teasing here on DB comes from a place of affection - well, I can speak only for myself, but if I expect more from him it's because I actually like him and think he's got the ability to perform better. In The King I saw him delivering flashes of good acting, and I believe that under the right direction he can be very solvent. Let's hope Pachinko is his break away from the blandness!

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I read the book first, and I've seen episodes 1 and 2 of the series. I love the show, although I do wish they had stuck to the straightforward timeline in the book. Seeing Halmoni Sunja alive and well in Japan undercuts the suspense in a way. The show is such a visual feast. The first episode was like looking at a beautiful painting, but by the second episode, I had started to feel more connected to the characters.

For anyone who hasn't read the book, I hope you will. Of course the subject matter is heavy, but it's a real page-turner.

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For someone who is not a Korean, this is an intriguing and a compelling watch. I watched all three episodes in one sitting and I love the present day scenes more than the past partly because the memories of the surviving ones from japanese occupied Korea is not exactly nostaligic, but one filled with mixed emotions of not being able to be vocal about their patriotism for home country because there is still fear of being expelled while being grateful for surviving in the very enemy country that destroyed your home country. One a broader perspective, this series is more in attune to the lives of refugees from any country and not just the koreans.

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I watched the first episode only for now. It didn't feel like a Kdrama but an American serie.

I found the scene in each area too short. I don't mind to be told the different stories in parallel but there was too much back and forth.

I really liked Sunja's father. The way he tried to protect her, to give her hopes.

Lee Min-Ho in his white costume reminded me Tony Leung in the Lover but in less classy? Feline?

It was fun to see Jimmy Simpson, I really liked him in Person of Interest.

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If only LMH could be close to Toby Leung…

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I TOTALLY see the L'Amant reference now that you mentioned it.

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I agree with you the production and the cinematography is awesome. You can clearly say where the money went.

Yet. It’s not the acting, or the parallel timelines (having not read the novel I don’t care about a story not following a lineal timeline), I was watching and felt nothing. Those parts that should be touching or be moving me (like sailor Song arrest, or dad worrying about little Seoja) left me totally indifferent. It can be my mood, or just that the story is hollow to me. I am feeling the form is much important than the story.

After watching three episodes I think I am not resuming.

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Thank you, @daebakgrits, for the weecap. I haven't seen the drama - I've been 'burned' by LMH for his last dramas so I was wary of whether or not I want to start this. But reading this made me a little interested. I think I'll add this to my growing list of "to watch" dramas.

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LMH is a minor character in the totality of the book. it is centered around Sunja and her family, so he appears now and then.

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Loved the first 3 episodes.

One of those rare dramas that is technically outstanding but also emotionally gripping. It is an epic sweeping tale, but its brilliance lies in its intimacy. It never loses sight of the characters and makes us care for them.

All actors are stellar. Yes even Lee Min Ho. You will forget his inglorious cheesy turn in TKEM and recall the potential he showed in dramas like City Hunter.

A bit risky as I’ve only seen 3 eps. But I’m calling it. One of this year’s best.

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While all opinions on art is subjective, I can’t help but feel your opinion on Lee Min Ho’s acting was unjust and unwarranted. I take it you feel qualified to give such an assessment on his acting but other people have eyes and can also recognize talent when we see it - and you’re not above critique either. LMH was phenomenal in a role, that if you had read the book, was small to begin with. He portrayed the character of Hansu as he was described in the book: brooding, seductive and intimidating . LMH is a handsome man so naturally all his stares will appear — even to you — as longingly. The shows screen writer Soo Hugh said that he even though LMH is a big star she wasn’t aware of him before he auditioned so she didn’t know much about him but quote “Min-Ho has that innate contact with the camera. It’s not about vanity and it’s not about looks. He just has a spiritual connection with the camera. And then Hansu, you realize, has to have that kind of magnetic charisma”. To me Lee Min Ho’s acting was reminiscent of a young Leonardo Di Caprio in Titanic. You my friend have a poor assessment of his acting abilities and I hope your review will not deter international viewers from watching his works because they will be missing out on many great cinematic experiences.

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I really want to tease you 😄 but I hold my self. I see how you love LMH

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U are too funny, u caught him !!! That's his taste.

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Was very excited to see this drama, having never read the book, so not sure what to expect. Definitely, not like your typical Kdrama. The cinematography is on a different level, more like a movie. The storyline was easy to follow and kept me interested in episode one to want to continue. I am a LMH fan so I can easily attest that if he wasn't in this drama, I would not be watching this. That being said, I also think that the series will gain more attention because of his popularity. I'm hoping to see a different side of him from previous Kdramas. I was very disappointed in TKEM. Even though he was only in the last five minutes of this first episode, he has such a strong onscreen presence, that you can't help but not stare at him. Reminds me of Elvis Presley or James Dean.

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So, I haven't read the book, bc at the time I just wasn't ready to read an epic family story across timelines & that general set-up just *never* seems compatible with me in books, ESPECIALLY when it follows a linear timeline.
Therefore, I'm somewhat pleased with the current set-up of the show, but also I WILL LITERALLY WATCH ANYTHING KOGONADA TOUCHES.

I've only seen ep.1 so far, but I was very moved by the care with which the story is being told. You can see how much everyone involved cherishes it and that seems like the perfect environment for a truly exquisite story to bloom.

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So far this drama is delightful.. I did have one question though.. everywhere Solomon goes, people seem to stare at him with hatred in Japan. Can they tell he is Korean? Its weird.. when he walked in the office they all stopped to stare at him. Especially that Japanese girl Naomi, I dont trust her...AT ALL.. She smiles but seems like she hates him underneath.. Am I wrong? Am I over-reading the room?

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I have never known Koreans in Japan who spoke as much Korean as these people are speaking, even among themselves. They usually did everything they could to hide the fact that they were of Korean descent. I remember being astonished to discover that quite a number of people I had known for years were actually Korean.

I was also rather bemused by Japanese soldiers speaking Korean (and speaking Japanese with a Korean accent). It's been my understanding that speaking Korean was forbidden during the Japanese occupation. Their goal was complete eradication of Korean language and culture, and I have never seen that adequately portrayed. It probably never will be, since it would be very hard to do with an all-Korean production, and it would be hard to get Japanese collaboration.

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Lol, is the the same site that went cray cray crazy over Lee Min Ho and his acting back in 2009? Because I only got around to watching all of LMH dramas in 2022, and was curious about the reaction he received from his BOF days. So looked into this sites recaps/comments. I see how short most people memories are…I guess this is what happens when a person stays on top of global popularity this long…it bring out all the bitter negativity lol. Yet the so called acting experts 🙄 still can’t help but look up his reviews or works. Obsessed like his fans. LMH has had the same awesome acting ability and face as when he first started, no matter what his pressed & jealous anti FANS say.

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Haha thank you! I actually went back to the LMH profile in this very site and see how ppl went gaga over LMH in 2009. Maybe this crowd is a completely different one.

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