In the spring of 1999, a distraught and incoherent middle-aged man, Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu), dressed in a tailored business suit, lies along the side of a railroad bridge that overlooks an open field by a lake. Nearby, a loose knit group of friends called the Bong-woo Club, formed 20 years earlier at the same site during a social gathering of factory employees, are holding their reunion. Yong-ho stumbles into the picnic, seemingly by accident, and is immediately recognized by members of the group as a fellow factory worker and aspiring photographer who had joined them at the original outdoor event in 1979. Unable to disconnect himself from his desperate, unarticulated anguish and join in the amusement of his former colleagues, the inconsolable Yong-ho climbs to the railroad tracks and throws himself in front of a passing train, shouting “I am going back.” The film then proceeds in reverse chronology through the past 20 years to mundane, but emotionally revelatory episodes in Yong-ho’s life, from his family’s estrangement, financial bankruptcy, traumatic law enforcement career during the 1987 student demonstrations for democratic reform of the Constitution, military service during the crackdown of martial law protestors that led to the tragedy of the 1980 Kwangju massacre, and the loss of his first (and true) love, Sun-Nim (Moon So-ri).
Coincidentally released in the same year as Christopher Nolan’s similarly structured film, Memento (which, in turn, recalls the reverse sequence narrative of the dissolution of a marriage in David Hugh Jones’ elegant screen adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal), Peppermint Candy is an intimate and compelling account of the contemporary history of South Korea as the nation moved towards democratization. From the opening image of a train immutably traversing a long, dark tunnel (in an opening sequence reminiscent of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Dust in the Wind), Lee Chang-dong establishes a parallel between the motion of trains and the progression of time as signifiers of human (and national) transition: the interstitial shots from a train traveling backwards that episodically connect the stages in Yong-ho’s life; Sun-Nim’s bittersweet departure after visiting an emotionally callous Yong-ho, who had recently become a police officer (and abandoned his earlier ambition of becoming a photographer) at a time when brutality and torture of prisoners were tolerated as a means of gaining information and rooting out opposition to the military coup government of General Chun Du-Wan; the unforeseen consequences of the Kwangju military suppression as a frightened, wounded Yong-ho awaits medical assistance in a train yard. By creating a regressive chronicle of Yong-ho’s ultimately tragic life through seminal events in late 20th century South Korean history, the film serves as an incisive and affecting portrait of the uncalculated human toll of the painful, and often traumatic reconstruction of a war torn nation.
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