[Hear Me Out] The Television Adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko Wasn’t Made For Me–And I’m Both Glad and Worried

(This is an edited version of a post from the Equal Opportunity Facebook page. To buy the book the series is based on, click here.)

Thanks to a kind and generous soul in The Black & Asian Alliance Network, I now have an Apple TV account and have been watching the series adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s epic generational saga, Pachinko. I read the book back in the days before I started this blog, so I haven’t talked about it much here even thought it’s a personal favorite. I loved reading it, loved the keyhole view into the lives of the Korean diaspora, and loved the idea of a generational saga shared from an Asian-American perspective, especially since in the US the hardships of Asian immigrants are often hidden under a blanket of model minority success.

As a long-term foreign resident of South Korea (nine years and I miss it often) who actually went to the trouble of learning the language and getting involved, if not integrated, into the local culture, there were some small points of confusion for me in the original book. It’s not my place to dissect them, but this post from Ask A Korean highlights them all, plus quite a few that I was too ignorant to notice. Despite that, I still liked the book and shared it with quite a few friends.

So, with all of this in mind, I was eager to see what the highly anticipated, high-budget adaptation of the book would do with the Baek family and all of their tribulations and triumphs.

I have a lot of thoughts.

Pachinko is beautiful…

The first is that this is a beautifully shot, well-cast, well-produced show that is well worth watching. (The book is worth a read, too. I can’t say that enough.) It’s about a Korean family displaced by Japanese occupation of the peninsula and their struggles to succeed in Japan and later, the US, and it does a very good job of establishing all of these places. I feel very present while watching this–it’s a very sensory show.

Read the book first…

The second thought is that I’m glad I read the book first. It’s plotted chronologically, but the show is not. I’m not sure how well the asynchronous timelines of the series hang together for those unfamiliar with the storyline.

The casting is great…

As far as casting, I’m thoroughly enjoying Youn Yuh-jung’s performance as elder Sunja.(I first saw her in the film Minari, another Korean diaspora story.) Although I wasn’t crazy about Jin Ha as Solomon at first, I warmed up to him very quickly. I’m not at all impressed with Jimmi Simpson’s unnecessary inclusion as the obligatory goofy-yet-mean-spirited white businessman who needs to have Asia explained to him. (I appreciate that actor generally but every time he opens his mouth in the show I want to yell at him to go back to his country.)

Edit: at the time of this writing, I hadn’t watched the final three episodes of the series and wow. Soji Arai as adult Mosazu(Sunja’s son) and Kim Min-ha as young Sunja also deserve kudos for their performances. But hands down, one of the best and most moving performances in the series is given by former teen heartthrob Lee Min Ho, especially in the “Chapter Seven” episode, which depicts the events of the 1923 earthquake in Yokohama, Japan, and the resulting persecution of Koreans in the aftermath.)

America is still too racist for this…

All of this brings me to a final thought. While this is a watershed moment for Asians(specifically Koreans) in acting, writing, directing, and media the public response to it has been pretty tepid. It’s a good show based on a good book but the ratings have been low. I suspect it’s partly fallen victim to the same prejudice that many Asian-American people deal with in the real world — it’s too Asian for “mainstream” America and too American for Asian markets.

That said, it’s not intended for those markets, entirely. There’s a commitment to language (the dialogue is almost entirely in Korean and Japanese with English subtitles) and a proud refusal to veer into areas of fetish or orientalization that makes this great storytelling and art, but probably also triggers some people’s latent prejudices towards Asian people. This series looks like Asia. It sounds like Asia. To me, it seems very much like it is (with the exception of Jimmi Thompson’s crowbarred appearances) for the Korean diaspora.

As a Black American with a Korea connection, I appreciate the show a lot despite the fact that generational epics of triumphing over oppression are nothing new, culturally speaking. Pachinko has been compared to Roots in scope and tone, and while it’s not a perfect comparison, it does make a certain sense. These are American stories from recent history that need to be told, remembered, and celebrated. As much as I’m enjoying the show, it’s a love letter that isn’t addressed to me and I’m glad. Some people, however, will have a huge problem with that.

But it gets a little deeper than that.

Several times I’ve overheard white Americans telling Koreans that the show is good, but they don’t know about Korean-Japanese history and don’t see why it’s important or interesting because in their opinion, there’s no reason to think about “things from the past”. To my surprise, some Koreans agree with that sentiment. Verbally, at least.

To say that this shocks me is an understatement.

One of my big blind spots, and a blind spot for some of you as well, is how deeply some people want to downplay and water down history either in the name of progress and assimilation or because they don’t think it applies to them. I forget that the average person’s empathy gap when it comes to other cultures and countries–and even our own diasporas–is pretty big.

I’m not sure that Pachinko can bridge that, quite yet.

But I really hope I’m wrong.

Highly recommend watching this.

(Beautiful people! Thanks for reading! If you’d like to read Pachinko or another novel about Americans of East Asian heritage, check out this booklist on the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. In fact, check out the whole shop, and please note that we have affiliate relationships with Bookshop and other sites. If you buy anything from a link you find here, we get a little kickback, which is used to buy more books, which means I write more reviews and the cycle continues…

Peace! Go read something good!)

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