It’s quite a few minutes into Pachinko when the opening credits are finally seen. They are extraordinary: an exhilarating sequence of vignettes, roaring with colour and filled with dancing. Given what we’ve already seen, sequences that link the past of a century ago to the 1980s, it is ironic that the characters dance to the Grass Roots’ song, Let’s Live For Today. But a little breathtaking too – how can people live for today when the past weighs upon them?
Pachinko (streams AppleTV+) is breathtaking in almost every department. Epic in scope but intimate in focus, it is easily not just one of this year’s great dramas; it stands out as among the best of the past few years. Based on Min Jin Lee’s novel, but not adhering tightly to the novel’s storytelling structure, it weaves and bobs from a Korea in 1915, occupied by Japan, over decades to the near-present of 1989 when Solomon Baek (Jin Ha) arrives in Japan from the U.S. to secure a financial deal that will get him a big promotion. We see Solomon’s fierce determination early on, and soon we know where he gets it from.
That’s from his grandmother Sunja, who we first meet as an intense, tough-as-nails eight-year-old (played with astonishing gravity by Jeon Yu-na), when she’s living with her family on a small fishing island. It’s a rough rural life, but Sunja’s birth has meant an intense change for her parents, who adore her. Her father tells her, “I would do anything to keep the ugliness of the world away from you,” and he means it, with the occupying Japanese forces representing that ugliness. (It is uncanny that Pachinko arrives just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as themes of occupation and resistance are woven into it.)
Sunja’s story, from childhood to adulthood (played by Minha Kim), an incautious love affair, a move to Osaka, Japan, at a time of turmoil, and her painful attempts to integrate, are the core of the drama. The elderly Sunja is played with great delicacy by Youn Yuh-jung, who won an Academy Award for the movie Minari.
It would be easy but inexact to call the series (three episodes of eight available now) a sweeping, multigenerational saga. It avoids the tropes of sweeping historical drama with a keen focus on individuals. A running theme is luck, (the title comes from the Japanese arcade game), and the point it makes is that life is a gamble. At the same time, it is indelibly about lineage and the idea of “home” as a strength and a curse. The early episodes are stunningly beautiful, presenting rural Korea and the seashore as a pastoral dreamland, but for the characters, there is a the visceral connection to the land, the water and the sky. Food plays a continuing role and attitudes formed in childhood are important.
There are scenes that will startle you and others that will bring you close to tears. And in part that’s because the series (in English, Korean and Japanese, with English subtitles) is distinctly from another culture, a remote slice of history, but it feels entirely universal in its treatment of family allegiances. Co-directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, Pachinko has a moral acuity and psychological depth that linger long after an episode ends.
Also airing/streaming this weekend – never mind the Academy Awards, there’s Homeschooled (streams CBC Gem) a daffy, low-budget folderol with charm and wit, from writer/directors Karen Knox and Gwenlyn Cumyn. A mockumentary, it follows two highbrow, homeschooled 16-year-olds, Farzanah (Eman Ayaz) and Greta (Veronika Slowikowska), as they make a documentary to explain – or more accurately, boast about – what home education is really like. In 10 15-minute episodes we meet the pair who, although intellectuals, are not immune from raging hormones. Daft scenes showcase Greta’s slightly unhinged brother and definitely unhinged mother. There is also a boy who lives on a farm and is a hottie, especially when milking cows, and a gaggle of teens who mock the core duo for being homeschooled. Farzanah secretly longs for regular high-school life. Will this come between them? Laugh and giggle your way to finding out.
Finally, note that there’s the new sex-education docu-series The Principles of Pleasure (streams Netflix), which takes this view: “We live in a world where women feel like they need to say ‘yes’ to everything or ‘no’ to everything and that’s not where great sex happens.”
And on the sports front, Canada vs. Jamaica (Sunday, Sportsnet, 4 p.m.) comes from BMO Field in Toronto, and could well be one the greatest sports events in decades. Allez les Rouges.
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