PEPPERMINT CANDY (1999)
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Run time: 2h 10m
A masterful reverse chronology plunge into the defining life events of a desperately broken man
What pushes a person to the tragic conclusion of suicide is an epicentre of angst for those left behind. This emotionally-charged forensic investigation seeks to understand the forks in the road, or the final defining straw, which drove that person to the abyss.
Peppermint Candy opens with a suicide and from there we jump backwards, trying to understand what or who, drove someone to this final act.
The film opens when Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) staggers into a reunion of his old student group. Already in a deranged state, he stumbles off to place himself before an oncoming train and shouts “I want to go back again!”. We then do exactly that as his major life events are unpacked in reverse chronological order.
At first we go back just a few days as we see a frantic Yong-ho buying a gun and contemplating who should feel the wrath of his anger. The second flashback is five years prior, demonstrating his troubled marriage. The third flashback takes us back to his days as a police officer in the 80s, then we have further flashback through his police career, to his army service and then all the way back to his student days.
Each of these flashbacks is punctuated by a train-view drive along the tracks. While each set-up includes a direct reference to the film title’s sweets.
While the opening of the film builds our empathy to Yong-ho, as he takes the most tragic and final of options in his life, the film attempts to challenge this emotion towards him.
Put bluntly, Yong-ho is a deeply unpleasant character.
He demonstrates the full spectrum of loathsome characteristics from violence towards woman and sexual harassment to torture and animal cruelty.
This leaves us in a moral bind between our empathy towards his hard luck and the meanness of his character. And indeed how much of the latter is caused by the former.
Yet we see this harden shell soften as we travel back. But is the sadness that drives the film’s opening climax always there? Were the thoughts that led to the film’s conclusion something Yong-ho has fought his entire life?
As we travel back, we expect to find that incident. That life-changing moment that would eventually draw him to the tracks. However, Peppermint Candy challenges the simplistic notion that one, or just a handful, of such turns of fate could drive us to such limits.
The film is about more than Yong-ho's storied history of strife, the flashbacks also match the major developments of South Korea itself.
We journey through the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s, to the military government and student protests of the 1980s. To these events, Yong-ho finds himself a victim as his life is punctuated by his own country’s issues.
Peppermint Candy makes us face the triggers of suicide and the concept that the tragedy of suicide is not a trigger event, but for many a lifelong battle. It does all this in the context of the defining events of South Korea.
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