Peppermint Candy (2000)

Directed by Lee Chang-dong

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Peppermint Candy feels like you’re holding a clear plastic bag with a piranha in it.  The whole thing is neatly presented in a series of flashbacks, leading to a man’s suicide, yet within such a clean, simplistic structure is a character raging against the camera frame. Yongho’s story is divided into five time periods, told in reverse chronological order, each with a clue as to why he eventually throws himself in front of a moving train.

It feels quite improbable, even melodramatic that each sequence just so happens to build to a life changing moment.  These moments aren’t always equally explosive, but they are so simple in their construction that it might be easy to write the whole thing off, were it not for the growing fires brewing within Yongho.  Over the course of the film there will be plenty of crying, torture and more than a handful painful yearnings for what once was.

He is depressed and distressed when we first meet him, not in a quiet way but loud enough so the whole world hears.  He screams in anguish, communicating not so much through words as through something more primal, like anguish incarnate.  You keep waiting for him to literally explode since he already seems to have emotionally.

His despair is contrasted quite amusingly with a group of what turns out to be old friends, singing karaoke on the shores of a river.  He joins them, they embrace him, then he runs off to the nearby train tracks, waiting for a passing train to run him over.  They yell for him to come down but can only pay him so much attention, and the juxtaposition of their joy with his despair suggests a certain dry sense of humor that none of the rest of the film possesses.

That’s because we then enter Yongho’s mind and relive his memories, starting with one only three days earlier and working back towards a traumatizing incident twenty years before.  His anguish gives way to melancholy which erodes into pride before returning to complete and utter innocence.  In that final memory we see him fresh-faced and optimistic, meeting the first love of his life, Sunim, whose memory he revisits in subsequent years (and earlier scenes).  They happen to meet on the banks of the river where he’ll commit suicide, with the same friends singing the same songs.  He tells Sunim that he recognizes this place but doesn’t know why, though of course we know exactly where it is.

This moment might not be as profound as I think it is, but there’s something there that I find so compelling, about the character’s perspective mixing with our own.  Through the entire movie there is some sort of dramatic irony going on, that we know where he’s headed while he does not, and he knows what has happened to him while we do not.  Yongho and the audience are constantly intersecting, bringing together two understandings of time, at least as it relates to his existence.

The film also happens to repeatedly bring up moments in South Korea’s social history, mixing together certain politics and student revolutions (of which I wasn’t all that familiar).  It feels like a story about some of the country’s turbulence, much as a film like Gone with the Wind ties together a love story with a civil war.  In that way there’s a suggestion that the specific and the universal are tied together, and maybe there’s something to be learned on a broader scale from the story of an individual.

Yongho’s story leads him to become a menace, at first to those around him and at first reluctantly.  Then he commits such violence without thinking before turning in on himself, as if that violent energy had no where else to go but inward.  Over the course of the film we see the seeds for all this behavior, stemming from the torture he was coerced to commit as a cop to the sudden, unexpected violence from his days in the military.

The feeling here is that this is a soul corrupted.  It’s not just the violence but so too the inability to express what he’s feeling, at least until it’s too late and all he can do is let out that anguished roar.  At that point all he has is his emotion, whereas before it was as if he had none at all.

It’s a doomed portrait of a doomed man, told through a framing device that I find more poignant than it probably actually is.  We drop in on Yongho like a spirit over the course of the years.  We know he’s spiraling out of control far before he does.

Up Next: Shallow Grave (1994), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Gone with the Wind (1939)

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