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Deeply felt and unpredictable, 'Pachinko' follows the epic rise of a Korean family

Chronicling a Korean family's difficult rise over 70 years, Pachinko offers a cornucopian narrative that's at once a multi-generational epic, an immigrant saga, a history lesson, a portrait of cultural bigotry, a high-class soap opera and a celebration of women's capacity to survive even the darkest circumstances.

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Other segments from the episode on March 23, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 23, 2022: Interview with Thomas Fisher; Review of film 'Pachinko', Review of recording by Cecil Taylor.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Pachinko" is a new Apple TV+ series based on the acclaimed novel by Min Jin Lee. The show follows four generations of a Korean family in Korea, Japan and the United States. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says "Pachinko" is the strongest historical saga of this kind since the original "Roots." The first three episodes drop on Friday.

Here's John.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Early in the TV series "Pachinko," an arrogant whiz kid named Solomon, of Korean ancestry but born in Japan, is trying to secure a huge real estate deal by getting an old Korean woman to sell her house in Tokyo. After regaling him with memories of her painful life, she suddenly says, tell me honestly, when old people talk of suffering, isn't it tiresome? He replies, isn't that the point, to burden us? He's wrong, but not completely. You'll see why when you watch Apple TV+'s adaptation of Min Jin Lee's bestselling novel, a deeply felt crowd-pleaser by a Korean American team - writer Soo Hugh and directors Kogonada and Justin Chon.

Chronicling a Korean family's difficult rise over 70 years, "Pachinko" offers a cornucopian narrative that at once a multigenerational epic, an immigrant saga, a history lesson, a portrait of cultural bigotry, a high-class soap opera and a celebration of women's capacity to survive even the darkest circumstances. Awash in big emotions, this is not a series shy about trying to make you cry. Fiddling with the novel's time frame, "Pachinko" interlaced two time periods. The first starts during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, with the birth of a girl, Sunja, who, though poor, is obviously special. When she reaches her teenage years, where she's played by the amazing newcomer Kim Minha, she wins the love of two very different men, a handsome gangster played by Korean heartthrob Lee Min-Ho and a saintly Protestant minister - that's Steve Sang-Hyun Noh - who marries her, then moves them to Japan, where they live in Osaka's wretched Korean ghetto.

The second strand takes place in 1989 Japan, where Sunja is now a grandmother, brilliantly played by Youn Yuh-jung, who won the Oscar last year for "Minari." The action centers on her smug-yet-anxious grandson Solomon - that's the terrific Jin Ha - who works at a New York bank and has returned to Japan to close the business deal I mentioned earlier. He thinks such a financial coup will let him escape the stigma that comes from being both Korean and the son of a low-class man who owns a parlor where people play pachinko, the pinball-like gambling game whose unpredictability becomes the story's central metaphor. Unlike his grandmother, who mourns her lost home in Korea, Solomon yearns to shed the skin of his heritage and become a modern cosmopolitan defined purely by his personal talents. Here he explains this to his boss in Tokyo, played by Jimmi Simpson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PACHINKO")

JIMMI SIMPSON: (As Tom) So what do you think? Godzilla or Superman? Land of the rising sun finally going to topple the home of the brave and free or what?

JIN HA: (As Solomon) No, to be honest, the question doesn't really interest me.

SIMPSON: (As Tom) Are you [expletive] with me? It's your pay grade we're talking about, Solomon.

HA: (As Solomon) So you have the Japanese buying dollars and the U.S. taking Deutschmarks and Germans hoarding sterling and so on and so on. All it amounts to is money moving around the world so fast that individual currencies almost become irrelevant.

SIMPSON: (As Tom) Tell that to the currency floor.

HA: (As Solomon, laughter) Countries become irrelevant.

SIMPSON: (As Tom) What are you talking about?

HA: (As Solomon) All that matters really is that at the end of the day, your own tally defies gravity.

SIMPSON: (As Tom) Is that why you're here? To defy gravity?

POWERS: Time doesn't allow me to do justice to "Pachinko's" Dickensian profusion of vivid characters, who variously speak in Korean, Japanese or English - complete with color-coded subtitles - and who are beautifully acted to a one. Nor can I begin to tell you just how much stuff happens over the eight episodes. You get death, murder, suicide, love affairs, arrests, diseases, broken homes, broken hearts, fires, earthquakes, a few preposterous coincidences and many intimate moments of great delicacy.

Through all these changes, there are a few constants. The first is hardship and loss, the misery that was Korea's lot after the nation's 1910 annexation by Japan, which proceeded to exploit its resources and workers. Such material exploitation is made all the worse by the vicious anti-Korean bigotry of the Japanese, who call them cockroaches. When Solomon steps into Japanese boardrooms in 1989, he's still treated as a man with inferior blood who can't really be trusted.

The other constant is the Korean indomitability embodied in Sunja, who, thanks in no small part to Kim and Youn's memorable performances, is both the show's spine and its beating heart. Sunja takes all manner of buffeting yet refuses to knuckle under either the circumstances or the Japanese. Even as she thinks longingly of her homeland or the distinctive taste of Korean rice, she finds herself wondering, what good does it do to cling to the past?

In their different ways, Sunja and Solomon both dream of Koreans finally beating the Japanese and winning their proper respect. And this series reminds us that they've done just that in pop culture terms anyway. Just think. "Parasite" was the first foreign-language film ever to win the best picture Oscar. "Squid Games" conquered the world's small screens. The K-pop band BTS has international teens swooning as no J-pop band ever did. And now comes "Pachinko," a show whose groundbreaking vision of Korean history in both its cruelty and triumph will be remembered as a television landmark.

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the new Apple TV+ series "Pachinko." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "A GRAND NITE FOR SWINGING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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