Photo: Juhan Noh/Apple TV+
The extremely hot man in the impeccably tailored cream suit from the end of the last episode? That’s Koh Hansu, the new fish broker at the market Sunja frequents. He’s handsome, enigmatic, and rumored to be so rich he throws away his shirts after a single-wear. Chapter Two of Pachinko opens with a voice-over, letting us over-hear snippets of gossip about Koh alongside Sunja. She notices especially the chatter of a woman in flashy Western dress who makes it clear that she thinks she’s possibly a romantic candidate for Koh. Sunja’s gaze tells us that while she’s trying to appear uninterested, she can’t help but be intrigued by the handsome stranger, so much so that she (and we) deflate a little when we see the bossy Western-dressed girl from the gossip voice-over chatting with Koh in the market.
Still, Sunja catches Koh’s attention (again) when she trades some tangerines for fish too small to sell. Koh sees her with the small fish and scolds her — doesn’t Sunja know that there’s a deficit in the fish market if they don’t allow fish to grow to their full size before selling them? But Sunja is unfazed and responds that the deficit in fish means the Koreans would have to fight for scraps, but they’re already fighting for scraps under Japanese rule. It doesn’t matter, then, that she traded for the smaller fish.
What’s worth fighting for? This becomes a question that appears over and over again in this episode. It presents itself in the next meeting between Sunja and Koh Hansu when a group of Japanese men attacks Sunja. They ridicule her and drag her into an empty storeroom, presumably about to rape her when Koh Hansu bursts through the door and makes quick work of them, telling them to apologize to Sunja until she is satisfied. For Koh, Sunja is worth fighting for.
When the men scamper off, Sunja is still dazed, a touch I appreciate as it sidesteps the cliched, damsel-becomes-smitten-with-hero approach for the much more realistic shock and dissociation that happens after an assault, regardless of Koh’s heart-throbbing rescue. Koh sees Sunja home on the ferry, and when they say goodbye, Sunja notices that the sleeves of his shirt are stained with blood from his fight. She asks him if he will throw away this shirt, referencing the gossip she’d heard about him earlier, and when he seems confused by this, she masks her embarrassment by telling him to come to the cove the next day so she can wash his dirtied shirt-sleeves. I love the expression on Sunja’s face as she invites Koh Hansu to the cove — a little defiant, a little stubborn, but mostly shocked by her own daring to tell this formidable man what to do. Maybe for Sunja, Koh Hansu is worth fighting for too.
Koh finds Sunja at the cove the next day and asks if he can come back again sometime while she is doing the laundry. She agrees, and when he comes back, he asks if Sunja has ever been to school. Sunja is defensive. Her father fought for her to be educated, but her mother didn’t think it was worth it. (Fighting for the people you love, again!) Instead of belittling her, Koh Hansu takes the opportunity to sketch an ad hoc map onto a large rock near the cove, showing her where they are in Yangdon in relation to Japan, China, Europe, and eventually America. She’s surprised to see how small Japan is and when Koh Hansu asks Sunja why she says that the size of Japan in relation to Korea shows her that the oppression of Koreans isn’t a given. “We can beat them,” she says, coming back to the theme of fighting and what we fight for; in this case, one’s homeland and freedom.
Koh Hansu visits Sunja again on a different day, and this time, all pretenses are dropped. The two make love in a grove of trees, dappled by light. Around them, birds trill. At first, I wondered if this was just a stylistic flourish, a way to fade to black during a sex scene without actually fading to black. But upon reflection, I realized that this episode frequently juxtaposes Koh Hansu and Sunja’s romance with scenes of nature. Whether it’s the burbling of a tiny stream as Sunja washes Koh’s shirt or even seemingly random cuts of wooded mountains, Pachinko projects the natural beauty of Korea onto Sunja and Koh Hansu’s relationship. I think this is meant to be a commentary on the beauty of the home and homeland. We’re drawn in by a story of love, but this isn’t just a love story. It’s an immigration story, a survival story, an endurance story. It’s important for us to notice that these two fall in love in Korea, and Korea is beautiful.
Meanwhile, in 1989, Solomon survives the urban concrete sprawl of Tokyo. A guest at a flashy wedding held in a banquet hall, he swims through the crowd of gaily clad guests, alternating between seeming effortless and extremely put-upon. Among the excess of Bubble-era Japan, he stands next to an old childhood acquaintance. When the friend makes a quip about the son of a Pachinko parlor doing as well as Solomon has, Solomon reminds the friend of a comment he made in grade school, that Koreans must have been raised by dogs. The friend laughs it off, but there’s a razor edge to the scene that lets us know, although financially well-off, Solomon’s situation isn’t so far from Sunja being ridiculed by Japanese men seventy years in the past.
Later, in an elevator leaving a business meeting, Solomon’s white counterpart Tom asks Solomon who he thinks will win “Godzilla or Superman.” He’s asking whether Solomon thinks Japan or the United States will triumph in the economic contest that was the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but Solomon replies that the question doesn’t interest him. In Solomon’s point of view, in the era of globalism, money changes hands so quickly, “countries become irrelevant.” In the end, “all that matters is that your own tally defies gravity.”
Defying gravity is also a kind of fight — a seemingly impossible one against a force that presses down on everything on earth. But Solomon is undeterred. He brings a gift to the Korean land owner blocking a big deal for his bank, and tries to sweet talk the old lady who refuses to sell her house. He’s cocky, overconfident, and though there are moments of genuine connection between the two, he ends up offending her, sending her stomping into her house and shutting her door in his face. Having lost this fight, Solomon returns to his office when his phone rings. It’s Hana, Etsuko’s estranged daughter, who has been missing for at least eight months.
We learn that Hana and Solomon had an intimate relationship and may even have been lovers. Hana refuses to say where she is and threatens that she won’t call Solomon again if he tells Etsuko that she called. Solomon’s voice is full of longing, panicked and hurting. Even though he’s in his suit and tie, standing in the glass-paneled office of his corporate job, this phone call from Hana strips the veneer from his earlier ambition. Maybe in the elevator with Tom, Solomon believed that self-interest was king, but here, on the phone with his childhood love, Solomon seems like he would drop everything and do anything to find Hana again.
• During the 1989 scenes, we see more of Mozasu, Sunja’s son and Solomon’s father, as he navigates the Pachinko parlor. Mozasu teaches a young worker to tap the pinball pins to rig the game in favor of the parlor. It’s not a total cheat so much as it tips the odds in the favor of the business, but when the young worker expresses his misgivings, Mozasu reassures him, saying that everyone does this. It’s a surprisingly gentle scene, if a little overt of a metaphor: a reminder that in this world, no matter how in control someone may seem, they are never really the master of their own fate.
• Mozasu also signs the loan documents for his second pachinko parlor, and I have a terrible feeling the bank will deny his loan. Min Jin Lee’s novel was very careful in pointing out the systematic failures of the Japanese state in oppressing Koreans. I’m glad that the show is no less attentive in showing us both the large-scale military occupation and the smaller reverberations of discrimination in things like banking.
• We also see Sunja taking care of her elderly sister-in-law Kyunghee, who seems to have some sort of terminal illness. Beyond enforcing Sunja’s caring nature and wile (she powders medicine Kyunghee refuses and rolls it into rice cakes), this storyline feels more like an embellishment than a meaty narrative, but I suspect this is laying the groundwork for future episodes.
• Kim Min-ha, who plays young Sunja, makes me proud to be an Asian with freckles.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism