By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“What if you could create a show where the third generation has at least some kind of thematic dialogue with the first generation? There’s a sacrifice of that first generation and the burden that it becomes on the third generation…I think every family has a Sunja…regardless if you’re Korean, regardless if you’re from an immigrant family. This experience of leaving a homeland to forge a new life somewhere else because you want a better experience for your children.”
The goals of the television adaptationversion of the best-selling novel, “Pachinko,” are grand—as the above spoken by scriptwriter and executive producer, Soo Hugh.
The book by Min-Ho Lee, and the show, tell the saga of three generations of a Korean family, whose matriarch, Sunja (played by two actresses, Minha Kim, as the younger, and Yuh-Jung Youn, as the older), immigrated to Japan during the time of Japanese colonization of Korea. The family is besought by difficulties, which as is suggested in the first “chapter” of the TV show, is due to a curse. As might be expected, there are the trials and tribulations of living in impoverishment under Japanese rule, but more there is the constant and everlasting—into the present day—burden of racism and of not belonging, no matter where you are. The parents in the story do their best to instill good values and a sense of self and destiny into their children, but it still makes for somber stuff.
A fisherman in “Chapter One” of the series says it well, that no matter how the Koreans try to fit in, they will never be accepted by the Japanese, even while at the same time the Koreans are expected to behave as Japanese.
“Let’s enjoy our small victories while we can,” he says. “They’ll never see us as one of them.”
In addition to the family curse that Sunja’s mother, Yangjin, (In-Ji Jeong), already believes exists, the fisherman suggests that Korean children from this moment will always be cursed due to the hate they harbor in their hearts at their unjust fortune.
Whether in Korea itself, Japan, or outside of Asia, such as where Sunja’s grandson, Solomon (played by Jin Ha), works for a time in a big corporation, the Korean people will never again have a home.
This message resounds true. Unfortunately, the book is full of tropes (poor girl gets pregnant by a rich married man—the entire basis of the rest of the story) and the retelling in visual form is wooden and overdone. The TV show boasts gorgeous scenery of the misty mountains and glassy ocean waters of Sunja’s hometown, yet every single scene is loaded with import as if the simplest transaction cannot take place without the weight of destiny. Even so, when something actually terrible happens, such as a murder at the hands of Japanese officials, it’s the least impactful part of the story so far, with most of the violence concealed and the officials moving like robots (maybe that’s on purpose—robot-like Japanese soldiers, slaves to imperialism?).
To be honest, that’s pretty in line with the book, which has a similar feeling of destiny constantly having a hand in everyday happenings. To be fair, the everyday life of this family is remarkable as to the extent of its harshness. Once immigrated to Japan, they live in the Korean ghetto, called Ikaino, and are subject to constant harassment on the basis of their race. To the Japanese, they are animals, dirty and irredeemable—even though their poverty and “dirtiness” is the fault of the very circumstance the Japanese have put them in. In the story, Sunja becomes connected to a yakuza of Korean blood, Hansu, her married former lover, who keeps an eye on her due to the fact that she is raising his son. Feeling as if she has to do anything to keep her family alive, and give her children better opportunities, Sunja eventually accepts Hansu’s help. However, this leads to conflict within the family (the show mainly follows Sunja and her pastor husband Isak’s [(Steve Sang-Hyun Noh]) son, Mosazu[ (Soji Ara]i), and his son, that third generation, Solomon).
This extra “curse” of being tied to the yakuza underworld persists through the tale.
To me, it was too much a matter of principle. An ethical question in the story is does it matter how you get your money? There are super bad ways to do it, I concur, such as the implied gangsterism, yet we don’t see a lot of that—Hansu and his kin are rather courteous on screen. What we see are people making whatever living they can under an oppressive regime.
“Clean money. Dirty money. Makes no difference. Money’s money,” says pachinko parlor worker Hirota (Ko Yaesawa), which echoes Hansu’s sentiment—in bad times, get by however you must. It’s part of the title. Mosazu ends up in the pachinko business, and thrives, but since it involves gambling, pachinko is considered a seedy business. It symbolizes not only this money dilemma but the nature of life that relies partly on talent, yet largely on luck—which this family has very little.
I guess I’m over stories where one bad thing happens after another. Where the good guy dies or can never catch a break. Where the beleaguered matriarch is the heroine simply because she made it through alive. Once upon a time, these types of stories would have charmed me, and for sure, for those that celebrate the book as a masterpiece, and who will likely enjoy the TV series, it’s a type of story that teaches empathy, that teaches history, that warns against the injustice and pains of racism and war. That’s a good message for anyone that is new to it and needs to digest it still.
For me, everything about the TV show was too “precious” and the acting, by several renowned actors, did not do enough to redeem it. The slow pace—such as agonizing long moments when Hansu first sees Sunja and parallels her movement down the marketplace, just as he will parallel her life forever—was just too exaggerated. We get it. This portends something.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.