Photo: Juhan Noh/Apple TV+
You know a character on TV is pregnant because they start threatening to throw up. That’s the case for Sunja, who struggles not to vomit as she makes rice and cuts kimchee for her mother’s boarders. Was it a bad clam she ate, she wonders aloud, until one of the girls hired to help mentions that maybe Sunja’s about to get her period — she missed last month’s, after all. When Koh Hansu returns from a trip to Japan, they meet in their secret rendezvous spot among the tall, whorled rocks and murmuring stream. Sunja tells him that she’s pregnant, and initially, Koh Hansu seems elated. But the delight dissipates as Sunja says they’ll have to get married quicker than expected because of the baby. His expression grows stormy. He thought Sunja knew what kind of arrangement this was. He’s happy to take care of Sunja, her mom, and their future children, they’ll never want for anything, but he can’t marry her. Why? Because he’s already married, with a wife and three daughters waiting for him back in Osaka.
Koh Hansu insists that Sunja knew the extramarital nature of their relationship, but it’s clear from Sunja’s devastated expression that she didn’t. When she refuses his offer of being essentially a well-paid-for mistress, he again insists that Sunja knows what the world is like. I couldn’t help but remember the last episode that it was Koh Hansu drawing Sunja a map and telling her about electric lights and heaters in houses in Osaka. He, of all people, should know that Sunja isn’t stupid, but she also has never left Busan. She doesn’t know what the outside world is like, much in the same way she had no idea Koh was married. Just like we were reminded that Sunja is our heroine but was just a little girl in the first episode, I feel like the show wants us to remember that Sunja is street-smart with a firm conscience, but she also is basically a teenager. It would be cruel to expect that she move through the world with as much cynical skepticism as an older woman might. Koh begins to shout at Sunja, and for the first time, we get the sense that this mysterious man isn’t just attractive, but he has the potential to be dangerous. The sky darkens and rain begins to fall. The cove, a place that used to be sunny and imbued with the giddiness of their new love, is turned desolate in an instant.
Sunja returns home to tell her mother her predicament but is intercepted by the arrival of a very ill stranger who collapses in front of the boarding house. His name is Isak, and he’s a Christian from Pyongyang on his way to meet his brother and sister-in-law in Osaka. Isak has tuberculosis, and though the pharmacist warns Sunja’s mother that she should report the man’s condition, she instead nurses him back to health, no doubt reminded of her husband’s death by the same condition. While Isak is recuperating, Sunja finally tells her mother she’s pregnant but refuses to disclose the father’s identity. Her mother asks her if she knows what this means, and Sunja says that she does: She and her child will live as outcasts, without a husband and father.
The next day, Isak is well enough to walk into town to send a telegram, but he’s still frail, so Sunja is sent along to accompany him. Isak asks Sunja if he can buy her lunch to thank her for coming with him, and so the two sit down together to eat udon in a restaurant. It’s a touching scene that reinforces Sunja’s naïveté. She’s never been in a restaurant before, and when Isak asks if they can pray before the meal, she is bewildered but eager to close her eyes and fold her hands, going along with what he asks of her. Isak reveals to Sunja that he knows that she’s pregnant; he overheard her conversation with her mother the previous night. He asks if she’s considered giving the child away to a childless couple. Sunja bristles at the idea and tells Isak she’s prepared to live as an outcast because she was loved by an outcast. For a second, I wondered if she meant Koh Hansu and his potentially suspicious business activities in Japan, but Sunja clarifies that she means her now-dead father, with his cleft lip. Her father loved her and provided for her, so she will do the same for this child.
Isak is moved by her conviction and asks if she could ever forget the man who fathered this child and if she might, with time, love someone new. When Sunja responds with confusion, he explains that when he asks if she could learn to love someone new, he’s talking about himself. But it’s not just a new love he’s asking for. He wants Sunja to consider leaving Korea, her home, and come with him to Osaka. Eventually, Sunja nods, but this isn’t a moment of relief and joy. Instead, she bites back tears, and we get the sense that this is one of many hard decisions she will have to make on behalf of the love she bears for her someday children.
In chapter three, the 1989 story line also focuses more on Sunja, splitting time between elderly Sunja and Solomon. I appreciated this. It feels like the window in which we see this story line has widened, letting us see what later generations were up to and look more closely at how Sunja had changed and remained the same.
While Sunja in Japanese-occupied Korea struggles to make decisions around the sudden imposition of new life, Sunja in 1989 Osaka is presented with the sudden imposition of death. When she goes to her sick sister-in-law, Kyunghee, to wake her up for breakfast, she finds that Kyunghee has passed in her sleep. After Kyunghee’s cremation, Sunja stands in the family living room, moving her ashes’ urn from shelf to shelf, trying to find the best place for the urn. Solomon suggests that Kyunghee’s ashes are placed on the piano where all the family photos are kept, but Sunja says that’s too obvious. Still, when a young pastor visits the family and suggests the piano, Sunja is more than happy to oblige. Solomon side-eyes her as the family prays, looking incredulous and a little resentful.
Later, Sunja wastes no time clearing out the room Kyunghee occupied while ill. As she folds blankets and bustles around, she talks with Solomon about the Korean woman in Tokyo who refuses to sell her plot of land. Sunja thinks the woman is being foolish and clinging to the past. Solomon sees an opportunity to get Sunja to come and convince the woman to sell her land to him. Soon enough, Sunja and Solomon are at the Korean woman’s door.
The woman is disgruntled at first, but she invites them in, feeding them as a matter of hospitality. As they eat, Sunja asks if a child lives in the house with the woman because there are middle-grade textbooks on the desk. Smiling proudly, the woman reveals that actually, those textbooks are hers. She’s been attending the local middle school with the children to make up for lost time, finally able to attend school. This strikes a chord with Sunja, who we have learned in previous episodes never could go to school, despite her father’s wish that she do so. The two women get to talking and bond over their shared experiences as Koreans in Japan. The woman asks Sunja if she’s been back to Korea since she immigrated, and Sunja responds that she hasn’t. There was never enough money, and then when there was money, she’d heard everything had changed. The woman encourages Sunja to consider going back to Korea, saying that walking down the street and hearing the Korean language does something to one’s soul. This prompts Sunja to open up about Kyunghee’s death to this stranger, causing her to cry unexpectedly.
Until this point, I was so wrapped up in watching these two old ladies bond (a truly spectacular performance of subtlety and quick, casual friendship) that I forgot Solomon was even there. But Solomon, seeing his grandmother crying, pipes up that he shouldn’t have brought Sunja, who is clearly too emotional. This turns the landowning woman’s attention to Solomon, and she scolds him, telling him not to look down on her tears that she has earned the right to. She says that Solomon doesn’t even seem slightly curious about his homeland, that he has no shame. It’s an interesting accusation, especially when shame seems to be one of Solomon’s primary burdens. Solomon doesn’t take her comments lying down but responds that he’s not trying to steal anything from her, he’s giving her a generous financial offer of 1 billion yen, and that he believes the time has come for the Japanese to settle up their debts to the Koreans. The woman is incredulous and asks if he really thinks that’s true. He responds yes, but in Japanese, the only Japanese word uttered between the trio in the entire scene. In the same way we’ve been shown Sunja’s youth, this scene showcases Solomon’s naïveté. Except, with his fancy degrees from America and jet-setting job, it seems somehow much less acceptable.
Sunja returns to Osaka, telling Solomon to give up on the woman and her plot of land and find a different way to be promoted at his job. She heads to her son’s pachinko parlor and tells him that she knows where Kyunghee’s ashes need to be placed. Obviously influenced by her conversation with the landowner, Sunja says that Kyunghee should not be laid to rest in Japan but rather in their homeland, in Korea. Kyunghee always wanted to return but was never able to. In fact, it’s not just Kyunghee. Sunja wants to go home too.
Meanwhile, Solomon gets to his office, looking dejected as he tries to figure out how to be promoted without the Korean landowner’s cooperation when Tom, his white boss, tells him that the landowner’s lawyers have called. She’s decided to take him up on his offer. The team celebrates, and Solomon is complimented by Naomi, his chronically underestimated female colleague who has been making eyes at him since chapter one. Tom tells everyone in the office to celebrate the big deal, but a phone call diverts Solomon. It’s Hana again. Solomon tells her that he’s landed a big deal, but she doesn’t parrot his officemates’ ebullient mood. Instead, she warns him that there are people who will hate him because of his success and asks if he hasn’t lost something crucial on the road to career advancement. But then Hana starts coughing violently, and before Solomon can find out if she’s seriously sick, Tom hangs up the phone and marches him onto the floor. It’s almost disturbing how quickly an ill-at-ease smile replaces Solomon’s concerned frown as he waves a flute of Champagne with his co-workers.
• I was extraordinarily touched by the scene between Sunja and her mother at the dinner table after Sunja revealed her pregnancy. The two bicker, causing their maid to ask if someone had died because their mood is so sour. Sunja’s mother lifts a piece of food out of her bowl and puts it into Sunja’s bowl. Their eyes meet over their chopsticks, and though it’s just a few seconds of connection, it’s a moment that shows Sunja’s mother’s love, disappointment, fear, and the pragmatic care of making sure your kid is eating.
• Even though Tom’s Japanese is grammatically correct, I wince every time Tom says anything in Japanese. He just sounds like a villain!
• Do you think Isak having a bloody shirt from his tuberculosis and Koh Hansu having a bloody shirt in the last episode is supposed to be a visual motif that connects these two men to Sunja?