I was going to write a different story about Apple TV+’s Pachinko, but then my waehalmuni, my maternal grandmother, passed away in her Seoul apartment. For me in LA, her death came on the auspicious “twos-day” promising good fortune. In Korea time, it was 23rd February, 2022. The day after getting the call across the Pacific, I was at the consulate in K-town navigating paperwork for my family so we could travel quickly to Korea amid COVID restrictions. Twenty-four hours after that, we were on a plane. And after a 13-hour flight and a 5-hour stint in a ghostly quarantine hotel, I was in the homeland of my parents, who immigrated to the States in the 1980s. I paid respects to my grandmother’s ashes, casked next to my grandfather’s, and saw relatives who I faintly recalled from childhood memories of summer trips wading in the shallow pools of Busan and climbing volcanic rocks in Jejudo.
But also on my mind was Pachinko, a screener of which I’d watched before my grandmother’s death. Adapted from Min Jin Lee’s New York Times bestseller, the epic saga, which premiered on Friday, spans more than 70 years across four generations of a Korean family. We see Sunja, the matriarch of the Baek family, in three stages — as a child and teenager in Korea living under Japanese rule, and as a Zainichi Korean grandmother living in Osaka, Japan. And through sweeping story-hopping and deft weaving of three different languages, we unearth the formative moments and painful secrets that she long buried, but also would give her strength as a Korean immigrant in Japan.
It’s a privilege that we get to experience Sunja’s life story in its entirety, and the revelations in her family’s painful history are what make Pachinko so novel to watch for the Korean community. “It’s kind of a culture and a habit for us to not talk about our own stories and about our pasts,” Minha Kim, who portrays the teenage Sunja, tells me on press day. “Because we suffered so many difficulties through all those times, we had no time to talk about it.”
Much of the series highlights a period in Korean history that most US and Australian audiences will be unfamiliar with: Japan’s colonisation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. During this time, many Koreans were forced to give up their lands, their food, and even their language. It was also when the Japanese military forced women and girls to become “comfort women,” a euphemism for sexual slaves, a dispute that was only officially resolved in 2015 with an apology and reparations from Japan (although many Koreans are still calling for true reparations on behalf of the remaining survivors). The end of World War II brought an end to Japan’s rule on the Korean peninsula but also split the country into North and South. Held by an always tenuous armistice, North and South Korea are technically still at war today.
For as long as living memory, Korea’s story has been one of power through pain, endurance in silence, and love in separation. It’s a thread that weaves throughout the peninsula and across the 38th parallel, and binds Koreans scattered across the global diaspora. From those roots lies a haunting past in every Korean family, including mine, but as each generation grows older and passes on, so too do the untold stories lying in between. My maternal great-grandparents, whose ashes rest beside my late grandmother’s in Chungju, were born and raised in Korea under Japanese rule. I’ve never heard about what they saw and what hardships they may have experienced. Their son, my grandfather, mysteriously died in the 1960s. My sister and I have been told various vague stories, but to this day, we are still unclear on what happened.
Your life is just as valuable, and your experiences are just as valuable. And they're part of history.
Soo Hugh, Creator/EP
We just don't talk about it, a sentiment that is echoed in many Korean families. “I wonder if it's a lot of just not wanting to revisit pain and trauma … and I wonder if it's that sort of feeling of like let sleeping dogs lie,” says Jin Ha, who plays Sunja’s grandson Solomon Baek in 1989 during the height of the global capitalist boom. Soo Hugh, creator and executive producer, has another theory. “I think so much of it is also our ancestors thinking because they weren't on the frontlines of the battle, that it's not worth repeating. And that's such a heartache,” Hugh says. “Your life is just as valuable, and your experiences are just as valuable. And they're part of history.”
While historic proclamations and tragedies are recorded in the annals of time, it’s easy to forget the countless people who lived it and the human stories that never make it into the history books. It’s incumbent upon us, as the next generation, to be our family’s own historians and pass on memories. And while Pachinko may squarely be about one Korean family, its message of opening the channels of communication within your blood brood is something we all can take away. “I hope this show prompts people to maybe ask another question, and be like, ‘Could we go back there and talk about it just a little bit? Could it be useful? Could it be healing for us to revisit it?’” Ha says.
I actually watched Pachinko with my parents, an emotional experience that I’ll forever remember, and as my mom said, “This is just one family’s story. We have our own stories. There are lots and lots of stories, and a lot of them are not said.” My dad added, “I think my dad had feared to talk about his past life because of the war. Our birth place [before the war] was in North Korea. Then we were in South Korea. You didn’t talk for survival. You didn’t talk about your past. That’s the tragedy.”
When it comes to our parents and grandparents, we may get a window into their lives from a faded photograph or anecdotal tidbits in passing. But the tough truth is we won’t ever truly know every detail of our ancestors’ stories.
Still, it’s not too late to find out as much as you can. The Korean and Japanese languages share similar vocabulary — remnants of Japan’s colonisation — one of which is the word for promise: yaksok. Every family, Korean and otherwise, has untold secrets hidden away, and it’s not my place to share the details of what I know (and don’t know) about mine. But if there’s one thing I take away from Pachinko, my yaksok to myself is that I will have that conversation and learn our story so that I can pass it along to the next generation of my family.