Pachinko, the epic, time-hopping Apple TV+ series about a Korean family’s struggles, hits its stride in a truly unbelievable fourth episode.
The show started strong enough, but it reaches pantheon level in this incredible installment, which sees Solomon renouncing his capitalist training, Sunja saying goodbye in the past and hello in the future, and a climactic singalong uniting people, eras and cultures.
This is the kind of thing you’re lucky to get out of serialized TV.
Pachinko recap: ‘Chapter Four’
The year is 1931. Pastor Isak (played by Steve Sang-Hyun Noh), who married Sunja (Minha Kim) to spare her the shame of giving birth to Hansu’s (Lee Min-ho) baby out of wedlock, mourns his brother.
The pastor’s brother was killed off-screen in the movement for Korean independence. His brother’s involvement has made Isak a target for the Japanese authorities, who view every sideways glance as proof of dissidence. Add to that the stress of the marriage — Sunja and Rhee both know they’ll be shunned if anyone finds out about their arrangement — and they’re shaping up to have a bad ’30s.
One day at the fish market, Hansu corners Sunja and tries to talk her out of her wedding to the pastor. He threatens her, browbeats her, shames her, but she stands her ground.
Jump forward to 1989
The year is 1989. Sunja (Youn Yuh-jung) packs for her trip back to Korea with her son Mozasu (Soji Arai). It’s a land she hasn’t visited since she left in the ’30s with her husband for the greener pastures of Japan.
Her grandson Solomon (Jin-Ha) prepares to sign a deal that’ll put him on top of his firm. He’s bent out of shape because his grandmother has made him feel like a bit of a traitor for using her to secure the deal. So he takes out his frustration on Naomi (Anna Sawai), the colleague of his at the Tokyo location who can’t stand him.
He knows she’s sleeping with his direct superior, Tom (Jimmi Simpson), and tries to shade her about it. But she’s heard this one before. And after all, they’re neither of them top of the heap yet.
With so much riding on the deal, of course it falls through at the last minute. The elderly Korean woman he’s trying to get to sell her land asks him a question that stops Solomon cold in his tracks. If she were his grandmother, what would he tell her? To take this deal that everything in her tells her not to take?
I know it was wrong when I said it was true
Showrunner and head writer Soo Hugh deserves an award for this week’s episode of Pachinko, which casually skips past good to great in its final 20 minutes. The episode had been about the sort of breath-catching juxtapositions between past and present, rich and poor, privileged and desperately unlucky before the climax.
It shows, for instance, Sunja’s tearful farewell to her mother just as a famous singer (Jihye Lee) boards the boat to Japan ahead of her in the finest silks with an entourage carrying her belongings. Sunja, in pain from her pregnancy and traveling in the grimy steerage, has nothing. This woman eating a steak with the Japanese passengers has everything. But when she gets up to sing, she realizes it and starts singing in her native tongue.
While this is happening, while the Korean miners surrounding Sunja start pounding the walls and stamping their feet under her feet voice, the singer readies a steak knife pillaged from her table to commit suicide when the Japanese try to drag her offstage.
Surpassing a perfect ending
At that moment, the show cuts definitively back to the present, when the old woman leaves Solomon at the negotiating table by himself as his colleagues scream at him for blowing the deal.
All that would have been perfect to end the episode on. But then Solomon runs down the dozen or so flights of stairs to the street, casting off his tie and suit coat before he ends up in the rain, dancing without inhibition to a busking band’s rendition of “In Between Days” by The Cure.
The editors juxtapose this with footage of Sunja getting out of a cab, finally back in Korea and walking into the ocean, her first time on this side of the watery chasm between her home and her homeland in decades. I still have chills thinking about it.
This is memorable TV
I probably don’t need to tell you that I have a high threshold for what constitutes good or memorable television. So when I say I was in tears by the end of this episode of Pachinko, know that we’re dealing with a truly unique show.
The emotional payoff was so monumental that I was able to overlook director Justin Chon‘s rookie mistakes of following Solomon’s coat to the ground when he tosses it, only to quickly pan right back up to him, having learned nothing from the sight of the jacket on the floor.
Or when he has director of photography Florian Hoffmeister switch to entirely too shaky handheld to start filming the singer as she switches languages. The switch was demonstrative enough without it seeming like the camera operator was having a heart attack.
Pachinko is incredible television. I’m all in.
Watch Pachinko on Apple TV+
Pachinko premieres March 25 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.