THE SHORT VERDICT:
A tale that spans generations and borders, Pachinko curiously manages to feel epic, yet everyday, at the same time.
The execution and handling is deft, the storytelling is tender, and our capable cast brings the characters to life in manner that feels organic and believable, across the various timelines in our story world.
Importantly, this story feels representative of all those who’ve ever left their homeland, in search of a better future for themselves &/or for their families.
Overall, not an easy watch, but a worthwhile one.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Full disclosure: originally, I hadn’t felt especially interested to check out this show, because 1, I haven’t read the book and therefore have no pre-existing fondness for this story, and 2, Lee Min Ho’s in it, and I’m mostly neutral about him.
What I mean by that is, I don’t hate him, but neither does his appearance in a drama make me super excited to check it out, either.
However, the moment I watched Show’s trailer (which comes across as epic and quite sumptuous, and which I’ve embedded at the end of this review), I’d felt completely intrigued to know more about this world and its characters.
Now that I’ve come out the other side, I’ll say that while this story isn’t an easy one to watch, there’s something about it that draws me in. It doesn’t suck me in like a strong, possessive sort of force; it draws me in quietly, in what feels like a gently persistent manner.
Before I knew it, I was fully invested in Sun Ja’s story. Which means that I am almost definitely going to check out Season 2, when it becomes available.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
Unlike typical kdramas, this OST is made up purely of background tracks.
While I didn’t find myself becoming actively acquainted with the OST tracks, ie, they didn’t have an earwormy effect on me, I do feel that the tracks worked well to amplify the scenes in which they were applied.
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS / THE VIEWING LENS
Here are a few things that I think would be helpful to keep in mind, to maximize your enjoyment of your watch:
1. There’s a sense of measuredness, about our story
Some viewers might say that the story moves at a slow pace, but I didn’t feel a sense of drag, if that’s what other viewers mean. I actually enjoyed the measured pace of our story.
2. Show doesn’t tell its story chronologically
Instead, it regularly toggles between Sun Ja’s growing up years, and Sun Ja’s twilight years. That gives us an overall rather interesting effect, I do think, which I’ll talk more about later.
3. Show doesn’t sugarcoat anything
There are ugly bits to our story, and Show doesn’t attempt to prettify anything – people, situations, discriminations – for our viewing pleasure. This can be quite confronting, but I found it worthwhile and thought-provoking.
It’s just helpful to know going in, I think, that Show can be rather confronting, in some ways.
4. These are real memories of real people
I personally found this important to keep in mind, while watching, because I think it makes a huge difference, that this sequence of events isn’t something that some writer dreamed up, but actual events that people experienced.
This means that I could never say, “Aw that’s too much, writer-nim shouldn’t have made this character go through that,” because that was never up to writer-nim to decide.
I feel that keeping this in mind helped to make it all come alive more, for me.
5. This is only Season 1
I didn’t know this when I started watching, because Show’s makers only confirmed a second season, on the day they released the final episode of this season.
Long story short, Soo Hugh, the creator of the series, would like to make 4 seasons of this show, if possible, in order to tell the full story.
However, because stuff only gets green-lit based on profitability, I do think the approval for each following season will only be given, if the previous season does well.
I can’t say that this season can absolutely stand alone, because by the time we get to episode 8, there are still many things I’d like to know about our characters. However, there are also some lashings of closure, in terms of certain arcs. Essentially, it feels like the end of a first act.
I think knowing this, going in, is very helpful.
STUFF I LIKED
Show’s choice not to tell our story chronologically
Show makes the choice not to tell its story chronologically, which, to my understanding, is a choice that’s received mixed reactions from fans of the source material (for comparison, the book tells the story chronologically).
Instead of a chronological telling of events, Show chooses to give us dual timelines instead.
There are pros and cons to both storytelling approaches, and I am guessing that this choice of the dual timelines was more of a practical choice than an artistic one.
However, I’m happy to focus on the narrative pluses of this choice, because there is merit in it, despite some viewers – particularly those who love the book – heavily preferring the chronological treatment of our story.
I am somewhat partial to the idea of telling a story chronologically myself, but I understand that there must have been practical considerations, that led to this decision.
And, I would also like to say that over the course of my watch, I came around to the upsides of having our story told in this non-chronological manner.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Show employing this technique of the dual timelines, and giving us fragments of story at a time, in each timeline, makes the viewing experience feel like a Rubik’s Cube puzzle, in a way.
Things looks different from different angles, with each twist of our narrative, and it’s only when the final narrative piece is twisted into place, that I’ll get a proper look at the full picture that our story wants to show me.
That’s quite interesting, I have to admit.
Although not telling the story chronologically does rob us of some elements of surprise, ie, if our protagonist Sun Ja were ever in danger, we wouldn’t be kept on tenterhooks over whether she’d survive. We already know that she does.
The payoff to this, however, is the fact that we get layers of meaning, right away.
Our 1989 timeline provides context for our story in the early 1900s, and vice versa, and since I always say context is everything, this resonates with me a little extra.
Additionally, I think that one of the practical reasons, is because Show is only 8 episodes.
With only 8 hours to tell a multi-generational story, I am guessing that this dual timeline technique is Show’s chosen way of giving us a sense of spending more time, with our characters.
With this approach, I get to know Solomon (Jin Ha) right away, from episode 1, rather than much later in our story.
Same thing with older Sun Ja (Youn Yuh Jung). I get to know her, and see the emotion on her face, when she thinks upon her life, right away, from episode 1, instead of only in the twilight of our story.
This gives me time to grow more engaged and attached to our characters, across timelines.
In this spoiler section, I’d just like to highlight a couple of occasions, to give you a flavor for why I feel that the non-chronological telling of our story, actually made the viewing experience more interesting.
E1. Because we learn quite early on, that Sun Ja ends up living in Japan in her twilight years, with her son and grandson speaking Japanese fluently as a matter of routine, it creates a distinct layer of irony to the past timeline events, where we see how the Korean people had suffered during the Japanese Occupation.
In particular, that scene, where Sun Ja’s dad’s tenant drunkenly complains that they’re required to speak Japanese, but will never actually be accepted by the Japanese as one of them, feels poignantly ironic, when contrasted with the scenes of Sun Ja’s son and grandson speaking Japanese so cheerfully, with their friends and colleagues, in 1989.
I have to confess that this particular point hits me a little extra, because Singapore had experienced a Japanese Occupation too, in her history.
My grandparents lived through this, and it really feels quite confronting, to imagine my own family members having to contend with similar treatment during the Japanese Occupation.
By extension, that makes me really put myself in their shoes, to imagine what it might have been like, to have been required to speak Japanese, instead of my own mother tongue, and yet, have been treated as less-than, regardless of my efforts.
It’s painful and ugly, and Show doesn’t shy away from portraying this dynamic.
E2. The fact that I already know that this decision to get involved with Han Su is going to change Sun Ja’s life irrevocably, also adds a deep sense of pathos to the scene.
It makes me feel helpless, in a way, because even though I wish that something would happen to stop Sun Ja, in this moment, the truth is, I already know that her future’s already been decided.
E3. The adults around young Sun Ja lamenting that they have to speak Japanese, and yet will never be accepted as Japanese, is juxtaposed with the fact that older Sun Ja lives in Japan, and her son and grandson speak Japanese fluently and with ease.
The irony is apparent to us right away, and that creates an element of pathos that I feel would otherwise be missing, from the watch experience, if the story were being presented to us chronologically.
E3. This episode, I’m struck at how the parallel timelines deal with two sides of the same coin.
In the 1924 timeline, we basically see Sun Ja navigating her situation, which ultimately leads her to consider leaving her homeland, while in the 1989 timeline, we see Sun Ja coming to the realization that she really, really wants to go home to Korea.
It’s so poignant, stacked together like that.
We can see so clearly, the circumstances that would lead Sun Ja to eventually leave, yet at the same time, we can see how much that decision leaves a hole in her very soul, that she only really comes to realize, in her twilight years.
Doesn’t that hit with a lot of pathos? It feels like.. almost an entire lifetime of aching and yearning, that only really finds voice, after literal decades of being away from her homeland. Guh. That’s sad, isn’t it? 😭
E4. It’s becoming clearer in my head, each episode, how this particular telling of this story, is so.. conceptual and metaphorical, because it chooses not to be chronological.
This episode, in particular, gives us such a strong mirroring effect, as we see Sun Ja prepare to leave Korea, in 1931, versus Sun Ja preparing to return to Korea, in 1989.
I found Sun Ja’s preparation to depart her homeland extremely poignant, matched only by the poignance of her preparing to come back to it, all those years later, in 1989.
Our characters feel like real people
Perhaps this almost goes without saying, since this story is based on real events experienced by real people, but I thought I should just mention that our characters really do come across as real people (versus broad stereotypes), and I liked that a lot.
I will have a spotlight on our main characters and relationships, later in this review.
Show doesn’t typecast characters
While my previous section referred to our key characters, this section is more about incidental characters.
For example, I do appreciate that Show doesn’t use a blanket approach, and make all the Japanese soldiers into jerks.
For example, in that scene in episode 1, where the pair of Japanese soldiers go to Sun Ja’s house to question her father (Lee Dae Ho) about not reporting his tenant for making traitorous remarks, I’m grateful that one of the soldiers comes across as reasonable, even though the other one appears rather bloodthirsty.
I thought that this helped to make this story world feel all the more real.
STUFF THAT WAS OK
Some of Show’s storytelling choices
Even though I feel that Show’s storytelling technique is deft and confident, there were a couple of occasions where I couldn’t quite understand Show’s storytelling choices.
These didn’t break my watch experience, but I would have preferred that Show made different choices, or at least made its reasons for these choices clearer.
Here they are, for the record.
E2. I find it a very curious storytelling / directorial choice, to not only intersplice Sun Ja’s (Kim Min Ha) encounter with Han Su (Lee Min Ho) with scenes of Solomon’s desperate conversation with Hana (Mari Yamamoto), but to also overlay scenes of Sun Ja and Han Su, with voiceovers from that phone conversation.
I suppose this does create a a sense of foreboding around Sun Ja’s future with Han Su, since Solomon’s situation with Hana is characterized by heartache, darkness and separation.
However, I’m still not sure if that’s the reason for this directorial choice.
E7. I find it quite interesting, that Show chooses to give Han Su’s backstory an entire episode, right before the finale. That’s huge, considering that we only have 8 episodes of total screen time.
While I do think that Han Su’s backstory is important, I found it distracting that we would push all other characters and arcs aside, at this penultimate juncture of our story.
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
Sometimes Show isn’t clear on its timeline
This isn’t a huge deal, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.
I understand that it’s somewhat similar to the book in this respect, so perhaps Show is just being faithful to its source material, but there is at least one occasion when I felt more than a little confused by an unexpected jump in Show’s timeline.
E4. I have to admit to feeling slightly confused, as I’d thought we were in 1924.
Are we to assume that we lost a few years here and there, because more time had passed in our 1925 timeline, before the 9-year time skip, &/or because more time had passed since the time Ko Han Su first laid eyes on Sun Ja, and the time she’d discovered she was pregnant?
I don’t know. 7 years is a lot to suddenly lose in context, and I have to admit that this particular quirk of Show’s, leaves me feeling slightly disoriented, and wondering what I missed, to arrive in 1931, when I’d thought we were in 1924. 😅
Smaller time skips, like the fact that in this episode, Sun Ja’s just 2 months short of carrying her baby to full term, are easier to deal with.
SPOTLIGHT ON CHARACTERS
Yu Na as child Sun Ja
I found myself gravitating towards Sun Ja right away, upon starting my watch.
From the time when she’s a little girl, I found myself loving her. They really cast Little Sun Ja really well. There’s such a matter-of-fact curiosity in her eyes, and such a curious, blithe zest for life in general.
Plus, she’s so precocious and bright, without coming across as try-hard.
In episode 1, the way she effortlessly negotiates a better price for her father’s fisherman tenant, than he can negotiate for himself, is pretty darn amazing.
I basically loved her right away, and wanted her to live a happy and good life, just as the shaman had said she would.
Lee Dae Ho as Sun Ja’s dad
I do like Sun Ja’s mom too, but I have to confess that, right from the beginning, it’s Dad who got me in the heart.
I love that he’s so loving and protective towards Sun Ja, and I love that despite his modest means, he wants to give Sun Ja the happiest life possible.
Right away, he strikes me as a very kind man, and it really warmed my heart, to see him watch over Sun Ja with such pride and such joy.
Of course, watching Dad being so pure and wonderful like this, in a show like this, my drama instincts pinged early, that Dad was unlikely to live very long.
Sigh. True enough, Dad doesn’t make it through the first episode, which, sob. 😭
However, my silver lining is that Dad doesn’t die because of the fact that he hadn’t reported his allegedly traitorous tenant. Dad dies of an illness, some time after this incident. And somehow, that comforts me, a little.
I would have hated for Dad to have been tortured and killed, because he hadn’t reported his tenant – out of the kindness of his heart. At least this way, I feel like Dad lived to see at least a few more days, before reaching the end of his days.
And the fact that the reason Dad manages to survive it, is because little Sun Ja had taken it upon herself to talk to the tenant, to tell him that he’s put everyone in danger, and to please leave, makes everything so much more poignant.
Kim Min Ha as adult Sun Ja
I thought that Kim Min Ha was – in a word – outstanding, as adult Sun Ja.
Sun Ja is a character who is restrained, yet feels a lot of things on the inside. She’s reticent, yet has an inner strength and steeliness that shines through.
Without a whole lot of dialogue, Kim Min Ha manages to bring out all of that in Sun Ja, to excellent effect.
Considering that Kim Min Ha only has a handful of projects in her filmography, leading up to her casting as Sun Ja, that’s doubly impressive.
E1. I do love that Sun Ja still has that matter-of-fact brightness to her; it definitely causes her to stand out in the crowd. Plus, there’s the way she stands still with everyone else when the Japanese soldiers walk past, but she doesn’t bow like everyone else.
There’s something.. undaunted about her, like she cannot and will not be cowed, which I really like, but which I worry will make her a target for others, because she stands out so much.
E3. I have to admire Sun Ja, for being self-possessed enough to, 1, not simply accept Han Su’s words as fact, and 2, speak up for her father, when Han Su says derogatory things about him.
And, I admire too, Sun Ja’s determination to bring up her child herself, and love it and provide for it the very maximum, in exactly the way her father had done, for her.
This, even though she’s fully aware that being a single mother will make her an outcast.
It’s such a poetic view of how an outcast had loved her, and how she, now fated to become an outcast, would love her child the same way.
E5. Show does such a good job of demonstrating to us, that Sun Ja’s journey to make a new life with Isak (Noh Sang Hyun), is a huge, unsettling, scary thing for her.
Not only has she left her homeland and everyone and everything she knows, she’s left with a husband whom she barely knows, to live with new people, in a new place where she is an inconvenient, unwelcome foreigner.
The unfamiliar sights; the unfamiliar sounds; the unfamiliar smells; the fact that almost everyone around her speaks Japanese.
It’s overwhelming just to think about; I can only imagine what it must have been like for Sun Ja, to live it.
E6. I feel so bad for Sun Ja, because there’s all this blame that’s being pushed on her, when all she’d wanted to do, was solve the problem of the debt, which would have undoubtedly destroyed their entire family, if left unpaid.
And, because of this, she sends Isak out to look for Yoseb (Han Joon Woo) and smooth things over with him, even though she’s in labor.
Ack. Isak is literally the only person whom Sun Ja can truly count as her true inner circle, in this place, and yet, she feels that she must send him away, to do something “more important.”
I feel so sorry for Sun Ja, as she struggles to deal with her labor pains, with only Kyung Hee (Jung Eun Chae) by her side.
I know Isak probably wouldn’t be able to do much in a practical manner, but if he were there, he could at least comfort Sun Ja with his presence. It guts me, that Sun Ja doesn’t have that.
Also, I was so worried for Sun Ja, for not having an experienced midwife to guide her through her delivery. Thank goodness for thin walls and nosy neighbors; that older lady neighbor likely saved both Sun Ja and the baby, by bursting through the doors, and deciding to intervene.
Lee Min Ho as Han Su
For the record, I am Lee Min Ho neutral. What I mean is, I won’t check out a show because Lee Min Ho’s in it, but neither will I not check out a show, because he’s in it. I just.. feel rather indifferent towards him, in general.
I’m pleased to report that objectively speaking (and I do think I’m reasonably objective here), Lee Min Ho does a very solid job of delivering Han Su, as a character.
Without getting into spoilers, I actually find him nicely believable, in each stage of development of Han Su as a character, and overall, I do think that he was well cast, for the role.
E4. As expected, Han Su isn’t very pleased at Sun Ja choosing to leave with Isak, and makes that displeasure clear, not only in the way he speaks in snooty derogatory tones to Isak at the tailor shop, but also, in the way he confronts Sun Ja.
Honestly, the more I see of Han Su, the more I find myself disliking him.
The way he positions himself as superior to both Isak and Sun Ja, is distasteful to me, and the way he tells Sun Ja that she’ll be crying for his help when she gets to Osaka, but he won’t even remember her name then, is so heartless and cruel.
These things tell me that Han Su’s not actually acting out of a sense of care for Sun Ja; he’s just being territorial, because Isak’s taking away his woman, and his child.
E6. I hadn’t been expecting that Ko Han Su had been working with the pawnshop owner(?), but I realize on further thought, that with his connections, it wouldn’t be difficult for him to track down Sun Ja and Isak, and make appropriate arrangements with their neighborhood pawnshop.
Well, that does make me think slightly better of Han Su, in the sense that, while he’s still smug and condescending, he does go out of his way to make sure that Sun Ja will be able to find her way, and that’s.. helpful.
E6. It’s rather concerning, to see Ko Han Su inform his wife that because he has a son now, she will henceforth be released from her conjugal duties.
I mean, I don’t care so much about the state of his marriage; I’m just.. worried about what this means, for Sun Ja, Isak and Noa, because it sounds like Han Su plans to claim Noa as his own.
E7. I always say that context is everything, and this episode gives us so much context around Han Su, that I find my opinion of him completely tilted on its head.
At the same time, I can see that Han Su’s story is big enough, to be given some time in the spotlight.
I suppose my brain had recognized the possibility that Han Su was never always this materialistic or calculating, but it was still rather confronting to see that Han Su had actually been the very opposite of materialistic and calculating.
The fact that we get to see the bright-eyed, hopeful youth that he had been, turn to embrace the disreputable side of society – from which his father had strived so hard to keep him away – not for any other reason than pure survival, suddenly makes his entire life look very tragic, to my eyes.
The thing that makes everything even more tragic, is the fact that this story is based on people’s actual lives.
For example, I can believe that a writer would create a warm family atmosphere for Han Su, only to have everything ripped away from him one Fateful Day. That initial happy high, even in the midst of poverty, creates this dramatic contrast, between Then and Now.
After all, it’s when you’re on the highest high, that your fall to your lowest low is most amplified.
The thing is, though, this isn’t something that some writer dreamed up. This was someone’s life. And that makes it all land with a sobering weight that goes beyond dramatic tension.
It really makes you think about how so many people have suffered in real and terrible ways, all throughout history. And it’s stories like this, that make it all come to life, so that these aren’t just vague abstract concepts in our brains, but register as the true experiences of real people.
Before that Fateful Day, Han Su had been idealistic, hopeful and full of promise; it’s actually a little startling to hear him confront his father (it’s so mind-bendy, that Jung Woong In can plausibly play Lee Min Ho’s father! 😳) about embezzling money from the accounts he’s working for Ryochi (Takashi Yamaguchi).
After all, we’ve only really seen Han Su speak in cold, businesslike tones about things like this.
The entire episode is such a showcase for the cruelty of the times, honestly.
Like the scene where Dad realizes that he’s in big trouble, and resolves that Han Su will not have his life ruined by this trouble – and decides to cut Han Su off, and even beats Han Su violently, in order to break Han Su’s resolve to stick with him.
It’s heartbreaking and awful, and yet, I can believe that a parent would do something like that, if he thought that cutting himself off from his son, would save his son’s life.
And, as we see, Dad’s life had literally been on the line.
If not for that earthquake, which ended up killing Dad, Dad would have died by Ryochi’s order. That’s such a dark, sobering thought, isn’t it?
Dad had been swayed by his feelings for a woman, and had given in to the reckless thought, that he’d “borrow” the money from the accounts, and put it back the moment he got paid. And that would have literally cost him his life – if the earthquake hadn’t killed him.
One moment can literally change your life.
Dad’s decision in that moment, had changed his life. And later in the episode, we see that Han Su’s decisions, also made in quick moments, end up changing his life too.
It’s not that surprising that the Holmes mother and son duo end up dying in the chaos, while trying to get to the dock, because they are both so sheltered, that I can believe they wouldn’t have much in the way of survival skills.
It’s in that split second, when Han Su realizes that he’s been irrevocably separated from Mrs. Holmes and Andrew, that he decides to throw in his lot with Ryochi.
This is the moment that changes Han Su’s life, I tend to think.
For all of Ryochi’s shady dealings, he has shown that he does abide by his code of honor, and more importantly, Ryochi doesn’t push Han Su away, when Han Su approaches him.
Also importantly, is the fact that Ryochi doesn’t appear to discriminate against Koreans. When other Japanese people spread those rumors about Korean prisoners who are reportedly violent and looting, he’s quick to question the legitimacy of those reports.
In fact, Ryochi ends up saving Han Su’s life, in that scene where he puts Han Su in that cart, and covers him up, so that Han Su would be hidden from the Japanese mobs out for Korean blood.
On that note, while it is disturbing and tragic to see the Japanese mob set that barn on fire, intentionally burning those Korean men alive, I do think that this is a pretty accurate portrayal of the kind of discrimination in force at the time, and also, the kind of mob mentality that would be at work, when rumors and discrimination combine to indicate that the locals are in danger.
Judging from the various reports of violence on innocent bystanders during mobs in recent years, sometimes resulting in death, that dark side of human nature continues to hold true today, unfortunately.
In such an environment, and in such a situation, it becomes so clear, why Han Su chose to throw in his lot with Ryochi.
Because, at least when everyone was turning against Koreans in general, Ryochi helped him, saved him, and welcomed him into his family. And Ryochi even offered him work, on the pretext of Han Su needing to pay Dad’s debt.
I see this as Ryochi offering Han Su an excuse to stay with him, because I do believe that when Ryochi had formally released him before, from paying his father’s debt, because Dad had died, that Ryochi had meant it.
It’s just that Han Su’s conscience probably demands that he needs a reason to compel him to work for Ryochi – even though he really has no other options to choose from.
When the world’s turned against you, and you find yourself stuck in a hopeless situation, it feels quite natural, that you’d take the hand of the only person who’s willing to see you as a human being, and offer you a way forward, out of a hopeless situation.
Han Su and Sun Ja [SPOILERS]
Because of the way our story is told, we are under no illusions whatsoever, about Sun Ja’s connection with Han Su.
This is an involvement that ended up changing Sun Ja’s entire life, and with those changes, came a lot of suffering. At the same time, it can be argued that those changes also made it possible for Sun Ja to escape the fate that befell her peers back in Korea.
Because Show gives us this context, that this relationship is a source of pain for Sun Ja, I watched the unfolding of it, with a sense of helplessness, like I wanted to save Sun Ja from this pain, but there was nothing I could do. 💔
E1. At the end of the episode, when Lee Min Ho’s rich and well-heeled character, Han Su, being entranced by Sun Ja, the moment he sets eyes on her, it feels like the beginning of an important arc, in our story.
In any other kdrama, I might take this as Show signaling to us, the beginning of an epic romance.
However, in this drama world, I’m not so sure.
E2. The big thing in our 1924 timeline, this episode, is Sun Ja’s growing connection with Han Su.
Again, the fact that we get to see Sun Ja in the 1989 timeline, adds a layer of context to the developing feelings between Sun Ja and Han Su, in 1924.
From the what Sun Ja’s sister-in-law asks her, about whether Sun Ja wonders how her life would have turned out, if she’d chosen differently, and from Sun Ja’s sad, wistful, shifty gaze, as she ponders the question, we can already tell, that Sun Ja’s relationship with Han Su, doesn’t end very well.
I also get the sense that this relationship with Han Su has had a great impact on Sun Ja’s life; that if Sun Ja had made a different choice, her life would have been entirely different.
This creates a deeply poignant undercurrent to what we see in our 1924 timeline, as Sun Ja and Han Su grow closer.
What makes it even more bittersweet, is the fact that Sun Ja had started out wanting nothing to do with Han Su.
Even though she’d had some level of curiosity about him, from the way she listens in when other people talk about him, she’d been quick and decisive, in turning down the gift of fish that he’d left for her, with the fish seller lady.
It’s just, when she gets attacked by those Japanese guys, and Han Su comes along and saves her from being brutally raped, and then speaks to her kindly and goes so far as to escort her home by taking the boat with her, it’s pretty hard to remain stoic.
Plus, Han Su doesn’t stop there; he continues to visit her, and talk with her, on a regular basis. For Sun Ja, whose life has been so confined in her small world, Han Su represents a whole new world, with his stories of Japan, and America, and all the amazing things you can find there.
On top of that, Han Su prompts Sun Ja to expand her world, by asking her what her dream is, and if she’s never wanted to leave her world, for a bigger and better life.
For someone as curious as Sun Ja, I can totally see how she would be drawn to Han Su, in spite of herself.
And he’s handsome, rich and charming in his roguish way – and with a humble beginnings sort of story, to add to his appeal. AND, he appears to be sincere, in his desire to get to know Sun Ja. He’s basically Temptation on legs, for Sun Ja, isn’t he?
The thing is, the fact that Han Su tells Sun Ja that people are rotten everywhere, and that he feels no sense of loyalty to anyone, and she shouldn’t either, gives me pause. I mean, he’s literally warning Sun Ja not to expect loyalty from him, right?
Yet, he does it in such a disarming manner, putting them in the same basket, metaphorically (I don’t, and you shouldn’t too), that I don’t think it registers with Sun Ja, that she ought not to trust him.
All that roguish charm, and those apparently soul-baring conversations, add up to quite the heady mix, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, that it isn’t long before we see Sun Ja, um, succumbing to his charms.
E3. In 1924, I feel so bad for Sun Ja, when she finally sees Ko Han Su again, and tells him about her pregnancy.
To give credit where it’s due, at least Han Su offers to take care of her, her mother and the baby, and any other children they might have. So it’s not like he’s a heartless cad who would throw her away for becoming pregnant, who refuses to acknowledge his paternity of the child.
On the other hand, it sucks for Sun Ja to find out that he’s actually already married, back in Japan, and the father of 3 daughters.
It’s a horrible shock for Sun Ja, who’s never imagined that Han Su might already have a family elsewhere. After all, he’s all alone here in Korea, and has never mentioned a wife; how was she supposed to know that he was married?
And yet, the way he phrases it, it’s like he’d expected her to know. “I thought you knew what this was.”
What. That’s outright gaslighting, and poor Sun Ja’s too guileless and innocent to know any better. Sob. 😭
Noh Sang Hyun as Isak
I have to confess that I ended up growing a very, very large soft spot for Isak as a character, the more I got to know him.
Isak is just such a good, kind, compassionate man, and the way he puts his money where his mouth is, and lives out his principles, is moving to see.
In particular, I loved his growing connection with Sun Ja, which I’ll talk about, in the next section.
E3. Ahhh. I like Isak a great deal already, for what a kind and open-hearted person he is, particularly towards Sun Ja, in her difficult situation.
I want him to enjoy better health, and many more good days, but the fact that he suffers from tuberculosis, at a time in history where treatment isn’t very available, nor very advanced, I.. don’t have a good feeling about his prognosis.
E4. I appreciate that Isak quietly stands his ground, and refuses to be intimidated by Han Su and his condescending comments at the tailor shop. The fact that he can stay unruffled in the face of Han Su’s obvious baiting, wins him quite a few brownie points, in my book.
Plus, I do feel a small stab of glee, at the way Isak calmly – but rather pointedly – mentions that his new suit is for his wedding, and that he’ll keep his brother’s suit, in case his son grows into it.
Ooh. Feel the burnnnn, Han Su! 😏
E6. I’m glad that Isak’s time away from Sun Ja bears some fruit, because his trip out there feels so costly, to Sun Ja.
At least he gains some important perspective about the kind of world in which he wants his child to live, and what he, as a father, can do.
And, importantly, I like that he speaks up on Sun Ja’s behalf, to Yoseb, to impress on Yoseb just how amazing Sun Ja is, and how Isak literally owes his life to her.
It did also give me a flash of satisfaction, to hear Isak tell Yoseb to never speak ill of Sun Ja again.
Isak and Sun Ja [SPOILERS]
I ended up really, really liking the relationship that grows between Isak and Sun Ja.
Perhaps because it starts in such an unlikely place and manner, it moved me extra, to see them develop care, concern, love and respect for each other, that feels organic, steady and true.
Circumstantially, Show gives us enough indication, for me to realize pretty early, that this relationship will somehow be truncated, and so I found myself savoring extra, all the happy moments that we do get, between them. 🥲
E3. The way Sun Ja expresses her thoughts to Isak, about the baby, is so compelling, that I can see why Isak would be drawn enough to Sun Ja, to begin to make that offer, to take her away with him.
It’s interesting to me, that I find this completely organic to his character, even though we’ve barely met him, and he’s barely met Sun Ja too.
The thing is, he’s such an earnest man, who’s so determined to do good with his life, even though he’s suffering from tuberculosis. I would believe that he’d be so grateful to Mom (Jeong In Ji), for nursing him back to life, that he would consider this.
Plus, there’s the thing where Sun Ja has such a unique charm about her, that she shines where she is.
With his upright character and his gratitude to Mom as context, and with Sun Ja being so poetically profound in her determination to do right by her child, I am persuaded that Isak would be moved to ask Sun Ja the question that he does.
That, given the opportunity, and given enough time, would she consider leaving for a new place, and would she be able to eventually care for another.
E4. It’s tough to watch Sun Ja begin to suffer, pretty much from the moment she gets on the ship, but it consoles me, that Isak is there for her, and that they are clinging to each other, through the hardship.
E5. One of the most moving scenes, to my eyes, this episode, and arguably in this whole season, is how Isak responds, when he and Sun Ja overhear Yoseb’s conversation with Kyung Hee about Sun Ja.
The way he speaks in low, whispered, gentle, tender tones, as he rests on his side, looking at her; the way he assures her that they’ll come around; the way he opens up and tells her that he feels the same way she does, about this land not welcoming them.
The way he tells her that there is no debt between them, because he doesn’t want her to resent him; the way he describes her strength, with such appreciation and awe; the way he states that the child she’s carrying is the one who will save him, so that death cannot have him.
It’s all profoundly heartfelt, sincere and melty, and I feel like Isak’s hit me in the heart, with his heartfelt words.
I feel like it’s the way Isak comes across in this moment, that causes Sun Ja to turn to him, to embrace him, both literally and symbolically.
The consummation of their marriage, arising from this conversation, feels awkward and nervous, yet honest, sincere and beautiful, all at the same time.
It gives me an inexplicable sense of gladness and comfort, to know that Sun Ja and Isak have made a genuine emotional connection.
In the midst of all this unsettling alien stuff, I’m glad that Sun Ja has formed a connection with Isak that is real and true.
E6. It is truly so wise and gracious of Sun Ja, to request that Yoseb name the baby.
This tells me that Sun Ja understands exactly which raw nerve got triggered, when she’d gone to pay the debt, and she’s addressing that raw nerve directly, by honoring Yoseb’s role as head of the household, and entrusting him with the momentous job of naming her firstborn.
I have to admit it moved me, to see that Isak instinctively understands Sun Ja’s intent, and aligns his stance with hers, by telling Yoseb that this is his duty, as head of their household.
Guh. Seeing them yield such an important decision to Yoseb like this, with full trust, in him and in each other, and honoring his position as head of the household, really moved me, I have to admit.
And, I love the significance of the name that Yoseb chooses for the baby: Noa (Noah), because Noa had believed when no one else did, and had thus helped to open a new world. It’s so pitch perfect, for all the things that our characters have been talking about, and grappling with.
I love it.
Sun Ja and Mom
We don’t get a great deal of screen time dedicated to the relationship between Sun Ja and her mother, but I get the idea that Mom is stoic and steadfast in her love towards Sun Ja.
She may not express it much or often, but when push comes to shove, Mom loves Sun Ja with all of her being, and will do everything in her power to protect her daughter, even if it means pain for herself.
The spotlight on Mom’s love for Sun Ja in episode 4, moved me to tears, and left me with a deep sense of heartache, for this mother-daughter pair, whose time together ended up being cut so cruelly short.
E4. Mom’s gift of white rice for Sun Ja and Isak’s wedding meal, is so, so poignant, especially when we are privy to the context, of how difficult it was for Mom to acquire the grain in the first place, and how carefully and preciously she prepares and cooks the rice, for the meal.
It’s heartbreakingly simple and profound, and – augh – I feel so much for both mother and daughter, at the serving and eating, of that precious rice.
The goodbyes, as Sun Ja prepares to leave, feel so final; it literally feels like Sun Ja will never see these people, or stand on that soil again.
And, given what we know of Sun Ja in 1989, that this will be her first trip back to Korea after leaving, I am reaching for the tentative conclusion that Sun Ja doesn’t see Mom again, after this, unless Mom made the unlikely trip to see Sun Ja in Japan.
Ack, the idea that this is the last time mother and daughter see each other, is so heartbreaking.
It makes their last conversation land with even more heartache and pathos.
Mom’s gift of the rings, which are the only heirloom in their family, and Mom’s earnest advice to Sun Ja, to endure the hardship, and be good to her in-laws, feels so momentous and final, like these are the last things she wishes to tell Sun Ja, in her lifetime. 😭💔
Sun Ja and Kyung Hee
I really grew to love the sisterhood between Sun Ja and Kyung Hee, particularly since we see how close they continue to be, in 1989.
It moves me, that these two women, from such vastly different backgrounds, come to meet each other, as sisters-in-law, who then learn to trust and depend on each other.
I really enjoyed witnessing the early and small blossoms of joy and solidarity that they bring each other.
E5. In 1931, I find Kyung Hee a very kind sister-in-law to Sun Ja; even more so, when we are finally shown just how hard Hyung Hee’s found it to adapt to life in Japan.
And yet, you’d never know it at first, from the way she has a hot meal waiting for Isak and Sun Ja, and the way she welcomes Sun Ja warmly and kindly, and tells her that, for that day, her only job is to sit down and eat.
Aw. I like her already.
I like her even more, when she speaks sympathetically about Sun Ja, when Yoseb complains to her in private about Sun Ja, and hypothesizes that she’d set out to trap Isak into marriage.
E5. There are two more things that really strike me about Sun Ja’s story in 1931.
The first is, that moment when she realizes that Kyung Hee has washed her things, along with the smell of her homeland, and sobs, heartbreakingly, that that was all that she’d had left. Oof. That was hard to watch.
It’s really so true and so poignant, that smells bring our memories to life. I can imagine why Sun Ja would cling to the smell of home, and I can understand why she would be left so adrift, when she realizes that that smell has been irrevocably washed out of her things. 😭
Her question to Kyung Hee, about when the ache goes away, and Kyung Hee’s answer, that it never does, but you learn to endure it, are equally poignant, and pregnant with pain and longing.
The other thing that really strikes me about Sun Ja, this episode, is her natural strength, when it comes into play. It’s just as Isak said; she is stronger than she thinks.
The way she takes control of the situation around the loan, even though she’s the newbie, and Kyung Hee’s been there for years now; the way she negotiates the price for that watch, even though she’s new in town and should therefore be at a disadvantage; the way she gets that loan repaid, and gets the promissory note back, all stamped.
It’s just so impressive, made even more impressive by the fact that Sun Ja’s heavily pregnant, and still finding her bearings in her new life and new neighborhood.
I can see why Kyung Hee would feel so small, when she compares herself to Sun Ja and all that Sun Ja’s done, in that one afternoon.
I’m so very glad though, that Sun Ja assures Kyung Hee that she’s just as scared, and that they should just be scared together, so that they can draw strength from each other.
Aww. I feel like a sisterhood is born, in this moment, and I loved the sight of them going home so joyfully, hand in hand.
E5. In 1989, it’s sobering to watch Sun Ja scatter Kyung Hee’s ashes, in home waters.
Now that we’ve come to know Kyung Hee a little better, and understand that her heart had ached for her homeland every day that she’d been alive, it hits pretty hard, that it’s only in death, that she’s reunited with the land of her heart. 💔
Han Joon Woo as Yoseb [SPOILERS]
I wanted to also give Yoseb a shout-out, because I feel that his struggle to find and cling to his self-worth, is representative of many men in similar situations to his.
When they are looked down upon by society at large, their roles in the household become all that they have left, and it often becomes a touchy subject, which we see play out more than once, in Yoseb’s home life.
E6. It’s sad to realize that the main reason Yoseb is so angry with Kyung Hee and Sun Ja for going to the moneylender’s office to settle the debt, is really less about the bad reputation the place has, and more to do with how he feels displaced as the head of the household, by their actions.
In a place where he already struggles to feel valued and worthy, one of the things he clings to, is his identity and duty as head of his household. And when that’s perceived to be usurped from him, it cuts him to the core.
I think his shame, is less about Kyung Hee and Sun Ja going to the unsavory neighborhood, and more about them usurping his authority as the head of the household.
Youn Yuh Jung as older Sun Ja
Youn Yuh Jung is basically amazing in everything, so it’s no surprise, that she’s truly excellent, as older Sun Ja.
Like her younger self, older Sun Ja is mostly quite reticent, and therefore, we depend on Youn Yuh Jung’s delivery of Sun Ja’s micro-expressions, to understand better, what Sun Ja is thinking and feeling on the inside.
And Youn Yuh Jung does such a magnificent job of it, that more than a few times, I felt like it was her delivery that made the moment more complex, more nuanced, and more profound.
E3. Over in our 1989 timeline, it feels like such a significant journey, for Sun Ja to come to the realization that she desperately wants to return to her homeland.
From the death of her sister-in-law, who had always wanted to go home to Korea, to the conversation that she has with Han Geum Ja (Park Hye Jin), the landowner, whom she meets for Solomon’s sake, it all comes together for Sun Ja is what feels like a trickle of emotions that turns into a tsunami.
The taste of rice from her homeland; the thought of walking in a place where the sound of her native tongue surrounds her; the memories of her mother, and her own wedding day.
Augh. It’s so affecting, to see Sun Ja break down in tears, at these thoughts.
E4. It is heart-in-my-throat poignant to see Sun Ja return to her homeland, after decades of being away.
The way she stops the taxi, and sprints to the sea, to stand in it, and revel in it, as if it’s singing a siren song and she simply cannot resist it, is so affecting. And her guttural sobs, as she stands there, on the soil that she’s finally come back to, feel like they come from the depths of her soul.
Sun Ja’s finally home, and I find it hard to imagine that she’d be persuaded to leave, ever again.
E5. In our 1989 timeline, it’s so very poignant, to see the joy and comfort on Sun Ja’s face, as she walks on the ground of her homeland again, finally hearing the sounds, and seeing the sights, which she’d used to see, as a girl.
Yes, a lot has changed, and that is unsettling, but there is a strong sense of homecoming, in the way Sun Ja relaxes into the sound of her mother tongue, spoken so freely around her, and the taste of her motherland, so widely available wherever she walks.
It’s beautiful, and I feel so much, for Sun Ja, for having missed all this, for so long.
Her comfort, like a fish takes to water, is contrasted so poignantly, with 1931 Sun Ja’s discomfort arriving in Japan, like a fish out of water.
E5. I’m so glad that Sun Ja manages to find Bok Hee (Kim Young Ok), while trying to locate her father’s grave. It’s so touching to witness their tearful reunion, so full of gratitude and wonder, after so many decades of being apart. 🥲
At the same time, it’s heartbreaking to heart the stories Bok Hee tells Sun Ja, particularly of what had happened to Dong Hee, her younger sister.
I can understand why Sun Ja struggles with a measure of survivor’s guilt, after finding out what happened to her friends.
Among them, she’s had the best outcome in life, with financial security, and family, and a home to call her own.
And all this, because she’d taken that step to leave with Isak, back in the day.
I do appreciate, though, that as she muses over how her success had perhaps come at the cost of someone else’s happiness, her son Mozasu (Soji Arai) stops her and tells her that it is not a shameful thing to have survived.
Ahh. Wise words which I totally agree with.
It feels like quite a breakthrough, that Sun Ja tells Mozasu that she’d like to go home to Japan, even though she still has two days left to her trip – because she now knows that she can come back to Korea anytime.
There’s a sense of freedom in Sun Ja’s words, which I am so glad to hear.
Jin Ha as Solomon
In our 1989 timeline, I found myself quite fascinated by Solomon, Sun Ja’s grandson.
I mean, he’s clearly smart and accomplished. Right away, we see that he speaks at least 3 languages fluently: English, Japanese and Korean. And, he speaks well enough to plausibly pass for a native speaker, in all 3.
Very impressive, not just for the character, but for the actor playing him as well. I think it was Leslie who mentioned that this character must have been hard to cast, just on the language demands alone. I completely agree.
And yet, despite being so smart and accomplished, Solomon is up against so much, while trying to prove himself. And, he bears such a heavy burden as well, in terms of his family’s hopes and dreams, all resting on his shoulders.
I feel that Solomon’s diasporic experience is great food for thought, because there are so many in our midst, who still face similar struggles, even today.
E1. The thing that makes Solomon interesting to me, right now, is the fact that I catch a whiff of possible cad, from him. There’s something about his gaze sometimes, that makes me feel that perhaps I should wait a little, before deciding whether I should trust him. 😅
However, at the same time, I do wonder if the whole reason that he has that whiff of possible cad about him, is because he’s been required to survive in environments where he’s not actually native, and therefore has been subjected to discriminatory treatment.
Perhaps he’s had to be a cad, in order to survive.
And, we do see that he’s a survivor. In that scene where he’s told that his promotion isn’t going to come through as expected, he doesn’t just take it, like they want him to.
He negotiates, hard, even when it looks like there is no room for discussion, and he apparently gets what he asks for: a chance to secure an almost impossible deal, in exchange for the promotion that he’s been denied. And backdated to the day of the discussion, no less.
I can’t help but admire his chutzpah, even as I continue to eye him with some caution.
E2. One of the more abstract things that I find floating around in my head, while watching this show, is how.. rootless, almost, the diaspora experience is.
For example, Solomon is Korean, and therefore isn’t considered properly American nor properly Japanese, and we get glimpses of how that has haunted him, even from his childhood.
That snippet of story that he brings up with his friend, where said friend had told him, when they were kids, that his father had said that Koreans must have been raised by dogs, is so casually cruel, dismissive and insensitive.
At the same time, Solomon wouldn’t be considered properly Korean either, because he’s lived in America and Japan for what looks to be his whole life. If not for his grandmother Sun Ja, he wouldn’t even be able to speak Korean.
This feels like a recurring theme that Show is touching on, and of course it would be, since this story is all about Sun Ja and her family, and how they fight for a better life, by eventually leaving Korea.
It’s not a fun picture, and that makes me sympathize with Solomon, even as I watch him work to “defy gravity,” as he puts it.
I do feel that Solomon’s got some emotional (perhaps even spiritual?) awakening ahead of him, judging from how things go for him, this episode.
First of all, he fails miserably, at persuading Han Geum Ja, the landowner, to accept the deal that he’s offering. This, when he’d been so sure, that his Korean heritage, would be his trump card to success.
Clearly, he still doesn’t understand the heart of the matter for Han Geum Ja, and I have a feeling that in coming to understand her – which I suppose he will have to, if he’s to close that deal – he will come to learn something about himself and his heritage too.
E4. In the 1989 timeline, the meeting with landowner Han Geum Ja doesn’t go at all like Solomon had expected.
Show isn’t clear on this, but I’m still of the opinion that Han Geum Ja had meant to sign those papers, and had perhaps been persuaded to reconsider her position, not because of the money, but because of the idea that she could choose to die in her homeland instead.
Meaning to say, I don’t think Han Geum Ja went there intending to overturn the deal.
However, in the lead-up to the signing of the papers, there was enough going on in the room, with the smug gazes and the hypocritical niceties, and there was enough going on within her, that she couldn’t bring herself to sign.
It’s a very confronting thing for Solomon, when Han Geum Ja asks him, point blank, what he would say, if it were his grandmother sitting there in her place.
It feels like a serious moment of reckoning for Solomon, who’s been all about the numbers, the deals, and the profit, up to this point.
I feel like Han Geum Ja’s words are the push that he needs, to really see what he feels in his heart, and speak it out. It literally looks like he’s been on the receiving end of a bombshell, when he utters the words, “Don’t do it. That’s what I would tell her. Don’t sign.”
It feels like an earth-tilting moment of realization for Solomon, and I think that, afterwards, the scathing words from his colleagues, who had so recently lauded him with cheers and champagne, really cause Han Geum Ja’s message to hit home, for him.
She’s right; these people treat him like a cockroach, just like her landlords had used to treat her and her family like cockroaches.
I believe that in that moment, Solomon chooses to depart his old life and the chains that had bound him, which is why he runs out of the building, shedding his tie and jacket – his corporate handcuffs, so to speak – as he goes.
I also think that that’s why Naomi sees Solomon dancing with such wild abandon, out in the streets, in the rain, to the music of the buskers. He’s finally free now, and this is just his way of expressing that freedom.
It kind of blows my mind a little, because this is so different from the Solomon that we’ve come to know, so far. It makes me curious to know what the real him is like, at the heart of it all, after all the corporate ways of thinking have been stripped away.
E5. It feels momentous to see Solomon start to look for Hana, because, as he says to Naomi (Anna Sawai), he’s not sure that she’s going to like what he’s become. The fact that he still looks for her, nonetheless, feels like a brave step, for him.
His run in with is old friend Haruki feels like quite a curious thing.
We are eventually told, after Solomon’s visit, that Haruki had once lived a more normal life, and had had a wife and job – until he’d disappeared.
Gosh. That’s kind of wild to me, but now that I think about it, I’ve heard of such cases in Japan, where people disappear off the grid, in order to escape from their lives, and start new ones.
It must be pretty confronting for Solomon, to see that Haruki is now living a happier, more carefree life, even though he’s jobless and poor, and has left his old life behind, and is now living among found family.
It’s also very thought-provoking, that when Solomon tells Haruki that he’d been much loved, Haruki’s response is that the person they’d loved, was a different man. He’s essentially saying that he could only truly be himself, by leaving his old life behind.
I feel like this will be good food for thought for Solomon, along with Haruki’s confession that he’d always felt sorry for Solomon, for having to carry the burden of his family’s hopes and dreams on his shoulders.
And, it does look like Solomon will be faced with his moment of reckoning, sooner than he thinks.
With the news that he’s being let go from his job, and that desperate phone call from Hana, where she cries that she doesn’t want to die alone, I feel like Solomon’s going to be quite overwhelmed, in the next little while.
Solomon and Hana [SPOILERS]
In our story world, the relationship between Solomon and Hana is arguably the most dysfunctional of all.
As Show peels back the layers to reveal the dynamics between them, and what had happened to separate them, I couldn’t help but feel fascinated by their almost unreasonably deep bond.
I do think that they were drawn to each other in the first place, because they’d felt a sense of similarity and solidarity between them, due to the fact that they were both outcasts, in a manner of speaking.
E6. We finally get some insight into Hana and her relationship with Solomon, and.. all I can say is, wow, talk about one moment changing your entire life.
I mean, sure, there’s no guarantee that if Solomon hadn’t attempted to shoplift because Hana wouldn’t stop goading him into it, that Dad wouldn’t have eventually sent him packing to America anyway, but I’m sure that the “what if’s” had haunted both Hana and Solomon.
On a tangent, while Show isn’t specific about it, phl1rxd made a very persuasive case over in our Patreon discussions, that Hana likely slept with the shopkeeper, in order to get Solomon out of trouble.
I’m sure Solomon must have asked himself many times, what would have happened, if he’d refused to give in to Hana’s emotional blackmail, to prove his feelings for her by stealing that candy.
Perhaps he wouldn’t have been sent away, and then perhaps she wouldn’t have run away herself, and then perhaps her life would have been completely different. Perhaps their lives would have been completely different.
I’m not sure if Hana would have asked herself similar questions, since she positions herself as the fiercely unapologetic sort – and also, because she seems to tend to blame others for her misfortune, rather than herself – but I’d venture that it’s highly probable that deep down, she would wonder this, at least a little bit.
I would imagine, though, that they were likely a perplexing handful, as teenagers. Hana had been so defiant, even then, and she’d had Solomon eating out of her hand, pretty much, with her large personality and her ideas of love.
I feel like it must have been extremely perplexing for Solomon’s dad and Hana’s mom, since they were dating, and their kids then went and got involved in this fierce, overwhelming, consuming sort of love relationship.
Seriously, what’s a parent to do, in such a situation?
Just based on that one thing alone, I suspect that Solomon would have ended up being sent to America at some point, if only to put some distance between him and Hana, to let them cool off and figure themselves out.
It’s honestly really tragic to learn, this episode, that Hana had run away from home, because of something that Sun Ja had said, which she’d taken personally, completely out of context – and then proceeded to ruin her life as a result.
Again, there’s no guarantee that Hana wouldn’t have ruined her life anyway, but as a neutral observer, it’s hard not to see the tragedy in this situation, especially with the way Hana is dying of AIDS, in our 1989 timeline.
In the 1989 timeline, I feel for the burden that must be in Sun Ja’s heart, to realize that her statement, that it was better for Solomon to be sent away, because if he’d stayed, they would have ruined him, which she’d meant to say of herself, had inadvertently been the thing to drive Hana away.
The thing is, though, that Hana herself says that she “knew” that Sun Ja was right, even though she despised her for saying what she’d said. This means that in Hana’s own estimation, she believed that she would have ruined Solomon, given the chance.
Ultimately, it had been Hana’s own destructive beliefs, and not Sun Ja’s words, that had driven her to run away and ruin her life.
What’s striking about what we see in the 1975 timeline, is that both Hana and Solomon struggle, in their own ways, to find a sense of self-worth, and the right to belong.
I see Hana’s rebellious ways to be largely triggered by the fact that she comes from a single parent household, which I believe others look down on. I feel like she’s overcompensating, by acting like nothing and no one matters, and that she plays by her own rules.
By extension, I feel like each rule that she breaks, gives her a sense of control, in a situation where she likely feels like she doesn’t have control. Perhaps that’s why she seems to have a penchant for shoplifting.
As for Solomon, I think the most telling moment, is how he gets so angry, when the Japanese shopkeeper speaks disdainfully of him on the phone, as a Korean troublemaker, when calling the police.
Before that, Solomon had been willing to beg for mercy, but at the very first sign that the shopkeeper is discriminating against him for being Korean, he can’t help but want to fight back.
Again, it’s that thing, which Solomon’s dad alludes to, when he tells Solomon he’s being sent to America. Here in Japan, Solomon will always be marked as Korean, and judged likewise. Here in Japan, Solomon will never truly belong, no matter how hard he works, or how well he does.
I am glad, though, that Solomon and Hana are reunited in 1989, even though the circumstances are far from ideal.
At least this way, they get to talk, and gain a sense of perspective and closure, on all that’s happened, in their pasts.
Mari Yamamoto as Hana [SPOILERS]
Several episodes into my watch, I started getting the feeling that Hana was somehow dying, and calling Solomon from her hospital bed – and it turns out to be true, sadly.
However, I’m glad that in the time that Hana has left, she manages to find a measure of peace, closure and acceptance, so that she stops fighting the ones who love her most.
E6. My heart really goes out to Sun Ja, as she tells her story to Hana, about how she’d had a son, and had ruined his life, which is why he’s gone.
Gah. The fact that this is told to us, as that very child is being born in the 1931 timeline, creates such a sense of pathos. We already know, before this baby is delivered, that he’s going to die young. Sob. That’s really sad.
I am so glad, that Sun Ja’s story, along with Etsuko’s (Kaho Minami) assurance of unconditional love and acceptance, seems to trigger a healing path for Hana.
Before this, Hana hadn’t had any appetite, which I take to symbolize a lack of desire to live.
It’s only when she realizes that Sun Ja had never condemned her, and that she is not hideous, but loved and accepted in her mother’s eyes, that her appetite comes back.
I believe that this symbolizes that she now has a desire to live, where before she didn’t, and that’s really touching.
Certainly, the doctors have said that Hana’s prognosis is poor, but I do believe that her desire to live, will do much, in improving her quality of her remaining life, as well as extend the length of her life.
Sun Ja and Solomon
I wanted to give a shout-out too, to the relationship between Sun Ja and Solomon, because the way I see it, this relationship acts like a bridge between generations, in a meta manner of speaking.
Sun Ja represents the first generation of folks who are faced with the hard decision to leave their homeland for a foreign land, and who suffer the pain of being unwelcome strangers in an unfamiliar place that they must now embrace as their home.
And Solomon represents the generation that is born in that new place, but is still treated as less than native, in the land which they were born.
I feel like there’s a tension there, between these two generations, and the conversations between Sun Ja and Solomon, explore that tension, as well as attempt to resolve at least part of it.
This feels important, not only for Sun Ja and Solomon, but for the larger generations whom they represent.
THEMES / IDEAS
This story world feels rich with symbolism and ideas, but I just wanted to highlight the main ones that stood out to me, during me watch:
How.. rootless, almost, the diaspora experience is.
How hard people have to fight, to try to find a way, and a place, to belong.
How leaving your homeland inevitably changes you, and the generations that come after you.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
When I’d signed up for this show, Show’s makers hadn’t yet announced that this would be just be part 1 of several, so I’d thought that I was watching a whole story, told in 8 episodes.
It’s only upon releasing this final episode, that Show’s makers confirmed that there is going to be at least a Season 2 – which means that between that announcement and my watching this finale episode, I’ve had to calibrate my expectations, by quite a lot.
Where before, I’d expected to receive some kind of closure in this episode, now, I’ve had to accept that this is the end of but a chapter, in our story, and there is more (up to 3 seasons more, if Soo Hugh, the creator of the series, gets to tell this story the way she would like to) that we won’t get to know, for quite a while yet.
With this context in place, I think we get a reasonable sense of semi-closure, as we wrap up this season.
I still have questions about what happens to our characters, but at least I have the assurance that given some patience, I’ll get to catch up with at least several of these characters again, come Season 2.
This episode, I feel like the most mind-bendy thing, for me, was the realization that Isak really was involved in fanning an independence movement.
Guh. The moment we got that shot of Isak kneeling with Noa, and smiling so happily, I’d felt such a sense of pure joy for him – only for that joy to be quickly replaced by foreboding, when we’re told that he’s been arrested.
It’s a world-tilting piece of news to Sun Ja, who would have never guesses that her gentle pastor husband would be involved in anti-Japanese activities.
However, on hindsight, I can see how it would make sense. After all, it had been around the time of Noa’s birth, that Isak had decided that he wanted to do something, to make the world a better place for his son to live in.
I don’t see Isak as a rebel, but I can absolutely believe that he would do all he could, to fight for a better life, for his child.
Augh. It guts me to think that this might actually be the last time that Sun Ja and Noa see Isak, as he’s being taken away by the Japanese police. I think that’s my biggest question, as I leave this season behind; does Isak ever come back..? 😭
In the aftermath of Isak’s detention, my heart really goes out to Sun Ja even more than before.
Her mind must be reeling from finding out about this whole other side to Isak’s life which she hadn’t been privy to, and yet, she doesn’t have time to ponder; she needs to find a way to provide for her children, with Isak gone, and Yoseb having lost his job.
I feel so much for her, that she even has to persuade Yoseb, to not be angry at her efforts to make and sell kimchi for the family.
I get that this hurts Yoseb’s pride as the head of the household and the de factor provider for the family, but this really isn’t the time nor place for his ego to be getting in the way.
Sun Ja truly is so wise, to be able to get through to Yoseb, despite his struggle with his pride. That desperate need to feel like she’s doing something, in such a hopeless situation, is exactly the kind of thing that Yoseb can identify with, in this moment.
Over in our 1989 timeline, Hana’s final days are our focus, and I just wanted to say that I think Show does a really nice job of helping us feel like we’re seeing things through Hana’s eyes.
The slight fish-eye lens effect, as we see the people around Hana; the blurry corners of our screen; the intermittent blanking out of our screens; I feel like this is exactly how Hana is perceiving the world around her, in her last days.
I appreciate how Hana holds on for as long as possible, without the morphine, so that she can be mentally present with her mother, and I also appreciate how she asks Solomon to take care of her mother for her, after she’s gone.
Coming from Hana, this is huge; I feel that it indicates a full reconciliation on her part, towards her mother. She’s no longer just willing to receive her mother’s care; she’s now doing what she can, for her mother’s sake.
There’s something very beautiful about that, even in the midst of the sadness of Hana’s situation.
Another positive that comes out of this sobering circumstance, is how Solomon finds himself confronting his weakness, and apologizing to Hana, not only for not looking for her sooner, but for what he’s allowed himself to become.
I feel like Hana’s last piece of advice to him – to stop feeling sorry for himself, and to grab it all, whatever it takes, and to show no mercy to those who’ve shown them no mercy – is quite defining, for Solomon.
It’s partly why he comes up with the plan to grab the land from landowner Han Geum Ja (which makes me uncomfortable, but which we’ll just have to wait for Season 2, to get more information on), and I think it’s also why he gives Hana that last gift, of “Hawaii.”
It’s perfect, because it gives Hana a last glimpse at the sky, a last breath of fresh air, and a last touch of fantasy, of being in Hawaii, before the morphine takes effect, and it’s almost exactly what Hana had wished for, back in the room.
Augh. It’s all so heart-in-throat momentous, moving and bittersweet.
The theme that runs through this episode, is the same as the overarching theme that been running through this whole season, and will likely run through this entire show: that of people striving for a way, for themselves and their families, to survive, and beyond that, to belong.
Every parent wants better for their child, whether they’re Mozasu with hopes for Solomon, or Han Su with hopes for Noa.
In fact, when Han Su has that little conversation with Noa, his words actually have a deep ring of truth to them, not only for the times that they’re in, but also, for the times in which we are now.
“Be better than everyone around you.” … “Be so good that they can’t deny you what you’re owed. Make no mistake. They’ll hate to see you rise. But even with their hate, they’ll have no choice but to respect you.”
I feel that that’s true, for anyone who’s from a minority group, trying to make their way in the world. It’s true of minority ethnic groups, trying to make it in a foreign land, and it’s also true of women, trying to make it in a man’s world.
That’s very sobering, actually, that Han Su’s words still hold so true, today. Especially so, given that Han Su isn’t exactly a character from whom I’d like to take advice or life lessons. And yet, there it is; his words make so much sense.
As we leave Sun Ja selling her kimchi in the marketplace, I still have questions, about Isak, and about Noa, and Han Su, and the watch, which Han Su appears to give Noa, and which Sun Ja gives to Solomon in 1989 – but all of those will have to wait.
However, I do appreciate the little reel of interviews that Show gives us instead, where we get to hear the stories of other women who lived through the same period, as Sun Ja.
As I listen to their stories, and see their bittersweet smiles, I realize all over again, that Sun Ja’s story is but one of many; there are others who have walked similar paths and experienced similar loss; their stories are all real, and the pain they experienced is real too.
And they likewise deserve the attention and respect that we are now giving Sun Ja’s story.
The fact that Show is able to bring this sentiment front-and-center, before us, to provoke thought, empathy and compassion like this, is a job well done, I feel.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Confronting, but also, absorbing, stirring and thought-provoking.
FINAL GRADE: A-
The next drama I’ll be covering on Patreon, in place of Pachinko, is Bloody Heart. I’ve taken an initial look, and I’m suitably intrigued as well as cautiously optimistic that this one will work out to be a solid watch. You can find my episode 1 notes for Bloody Heart here.
Here’s an overview of what I’m covering on Patreon right now (Tier benefits are cumulative)!
Foundation Tier (US$1): k-ent tidbits + E1 notes of all shows covered on Patreon
Early Access (US$5): Our Blues
Early Access Plus (US$10): +A Business Proposal
VIP (US$15): +Bloody Heart
Fangurl – Great review and I relished all of your Patreon posts on this drama. I must say it can be a difficult watch. There are times when the pain leaps off the screen and into your heart. I cried several times throughout. There is also joy, and at the most simple things in life. This drama is beautiful. I still have not gotten around to the book but I most definitely will before S2.
Thanks for the insightul review, KFG!
I read the book before viewing the show. I LIKE the artistic license and interpretations of the show. Because they are different mediums, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. It was interesting to compare how KFG interpreted the characters presented on the screen to those I read in the book. It seems the director did an excellent job in bringing the essence of the book to the screen.
The cinematography, the costumes, settings and other visuals add so much to the story. The incorporation of historical aspects, like the earthquake story, as well as deeper backstories is engaging and entertaining. All of it makes the presentation of a family saga more appealing, especially to international viewers like me.
I recommend reading the book before season 2!
I have not yet watched Pachinko so I only read bits and pieces of this review in order to avoid spoilers such as an answer to my question ever since I saw the cast for this show: where is Noah? I guess he didn’t make it into the show, which is too bad, him being one of the more interesting characters, but on the other hand tv adaptations need to make choices and Pachinko seems to have made pretty good choices imo. For instance, I think they made a pretty good call in not choosing a linear story telling. I think that those that have read the book will agree that the first part (Sunja young in SK, newly wed in Korea, young widow in Osaka) is much more interesting than the second part (which is also quite shorter). Also, if they had gone for linear storytelling, Solomon would have made it to max 2 episodes and Hansu (in his Lee Minho version, I don’t know if there’s an older actor playing older Hansu) wouldn’t get more than 2 eps either.
I also understand that the show has introduced new stuff, such as Hansu’s backstory that is only hinted at in the book, and I think that this also sounds like a good call.
Now all I need to do is watch the show and come back to read this review properly!
(By the way, I actually subscribed to appletv in order to watch Pachinko but got sidetracked by Severance – watch it if you haven’t!).
This turned out to be an unexpectedly impactful watch. I mean, I have not read the book (I really need to rectify that), but I knew it had been widely feted and had received a lot of praise.
I know it’s kind of a technical point, but the production values on this were really really high. It always seemed to be beautifully shot, but in a way that furthered the story, rather than feeling like the showrunner or cinematographers was just pursuing the artistic for its own sake.
And then the acting was uniformly excellent, both from the old pros (Youn You-jung) and the new revelations (Kim Min-ha). I have no particularly adverse feelings about Lee Min-ho (unlike many, I actually liked him in TK:EM!), but I felt he really did very well here as Han-su. My only regret is that Jin Ha didn’t get to show off his musical theater chops (he’s been on Broadway and is very talented as a singer, as well)(I’m kidding, of course, this was obviously not a musical)…
As the episodes kept counting down, I kept thinking more and more “wait, how are they going to be able to meaningfully wind up the story?” So particularly after that perplexing detour in the penultimate episode (which would have been fine, even welcome, if we had just had more running time to accommodate it), it was actually a relief to see a second season announced. Because there’s definitely more story to be told here.
One thing I am curious about; how was this received in Korea? I don’t actually know how interested the Korean audience might be for this sort of diaspora story, particularly as it brushes up against such sensitive or painful topics?
Based on YouTube views of Ep1 (> 15M) & OTT rankings, it did and does very well in SK. BTW, TKEM was my first intro to K drama & loved Lee Min Ho in it. Since then, I found out lots of people I know here in the US East Coast (Asian & non-Asian of different hues) liked him in TKEM including one Caucasian guy from Wisconsin 😁
Ah, that is good to know. It deserves to do well in SK, I would think.
TK:EM was also my gateway drama, as it happens; I didn’t even know who Lee Min-ho was at the time. I just liked him as the male lead.
@KFG – Did the Show make you want to read the book? I have not watched, yet for that reason as I am torn still do I read the book or watch the Show first?!!!
@jj – my personal view is if you haven’t read the book, but a film or series is out already, view it first. My reason being that reading the book will always make you hate the film for not covering certain things or having to change or compromise something that you really love in the book for the sake of time.
This! I fully agree! Everytime I read a book before the adaptation (movie etc), the adaptation never satisfies me.
BUT when I start with the (understandably) shorter adaptation, and was intrigued enough to read the original, there’s a higher chance I’ll enjoy the book as well (if not, more) because of all the little details that are included.
For Pachinko, I haven’t read the book but the drama is easy to follow (though heavy on my heart).
JJ, I have read the book a while ago and I think it is an interesting read although it has the flaws of all books covering a long span of years (most tend to get a little superficial, especially towards the end where it often feels like the writer was just anxious to get it over with). I’d say go for the show, to me this going back and forth in time sounds more interesting (I haven’t watched the show yet either). Also I agree with Beez that if you love a book you always end up disappointed. I liked the book but didn’t love it, so I personally think that I will be ok (and I am actually looking forward to hear the main characters’ names irl, because I read the book in translation and I have serious questions about the way some of their names were transliterated, like for instance it is only know I realize the lovely sister in law was called KyungHee – in my book it was something like kyaounki…).
JUST READ THE BOOK! There’s time before season 2……
When I saw the promos about the show I was interested, then after reading a few reviews, it seemed that this type of saga would be more engaging by reading the book first–so I did. I’m so glad that I did, and it has not spoiled my viewing experience at all. Anytime a show is made based on a book there are some readers who get upset when the script doesn’t exactly follow the book, however, if the viewer must keep in mind that a book is not a script. It has enhanced my viewing experience, especially with the non-linear presentation.
So far, I like the show’s artistic interpretation and changes–the show and the book each has their own merits. The cinamatography and settings far exceeded my imagination, and the changes in some of the plotlines are very palatable. For example, Hansu’s backstory is not in the book. It was an artistic interpretation in order to incorporate the earthquake–and it worked for me. Another change, Sunja as a Jeju sea diver (a nod to Lisa See’s book The Island of Sea Women), felt a little forced but it helped viewers understand the importance of Jeju Island. Surely, both of these additions were added for international audience appeal. I’m really looking forward to subsequent seasons as there is SO MUCH MORE material in the book that can be gleaned to tell an impactful and engaging story–whatever that interpretation may be.
KFG, I just love your comments about diaspora and “rootlessness.” This saga drives home the concept that making the choice to immigrate for a better future comes with sacrifice–a sense of belonging/place/home (language, culture, food, etc.). But it also explores the idea that family is above nationality.