‘Pachinko’ Review: K-Drama, American-Style

In all honesty, Pachinko is a very ambitious show. Among the film’s foreign cast are Korean superstars Lee Minho (The Heirs) and Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari), Korean American actor Jin Ha (Devs), and Korean Japanese actor Soji Arai (Angels in America).

‘Pachinko’ Review

Slightly over two-thirds of the discourse is in one of the two Asian languages (with yellow and blue subtitles, respectively). Pachinko has magnificent cinematography and excellent acting.

‘Pachinko’ Review: K-Drama, American-Style

Newspapers have called it “amazing” and “so good it makes the competitors appear terrible,” among other superlatives. Pachinko is “a magnificent family drama that rewards your tears,” according to a CNN reviewer. And 52 critics gave it a 9.2/10 rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This is the type of show that practically begs to be nominated for Emmys.

If everyone seems to love this extravaganza, why do I feel conflicted? Since this Apple TV+ show only has until April 29 to air, I almost feel bad saying I’m not completely in love with it. Until relatively recently, Asian Americans, and especially Korean Americans, were largely underrepresented in the creative industries.

Lee’s Novel

In addition, Soo Hugh, a Korean American, is at the helm of this series, which is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Min Jin Lee, also a Korean American. Isn’t this a moment to honour the creative contributions of Korean Americans?

The more you know about Lee’s novel, the less you will appreciate this series, because it isn’t a word-for-word reenactment of her storytelling (televised adaptations rarely are), and because you know how great it could’ve been if the creatives opted for a more linear storyline. This is a paraphrase of the late Roger Ebert’s review of Memoirs of a Geisha.

Lee’s Pachinko, which was named one of The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2017, was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and was a personal favourite of former President Barack Obama, is a 485-page historical epic that spans four generations and three countries (Korea, Japan, and the United States) throughout the majority of the 20th century.

It gives insight into Zainichi’s predicament (Koreans who immigrated to Japan during colonial rule and their descendants). Lee is an engrossing storyteller whose work is as detailed as it is interesting.

Last Words

Lee joined the project as an executive producer after Apple TV+ said it had acquired the rights to create a series based on the novel. There was a break between Lee and the production team, but neither the streaming site nor the author explained why.

After seeing the full series screened (twice! ), it’s not unreasonable to assume that Lee left the project due to artistic issues. This is because, despite addressing some of the novel’s issues, the adaptation leaves out crucial elements of the story. (More to come on it.)