PEPPERMINT CANDY

 (Bakha Satang)

Directed by Lee Chang-dong. 2000.


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South Korean director Lee Chang-dongís achingly poignant Peppermint Candy chronicles the loss of innocence of a young man, Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) that mirrors the decline of his country during the period of military rule in the 80s and 90s. Like Hou Hsiao-hsienís eloquent City of Sadness which dramatized the February 28th (1947) massacre in Taiwan, Peppermint Candy brings to light the Kwangju massacre of 1980 in which massive student-led demonstrations in Kwangju, South Korea protesting the imposition of martial law resulted in the death of hundreds and possibly thousands of people. Though the demonstrations were brutally crushed with the acquiescence of the U.S. government, the incident is now recognized as a milestone in the struggle for democracy in Asia.  

Named after a treat provided by Yong-hoís first love Sun-im (Mun So-ri), the film opens in 1999 in a park-like setting adjacent to a railroad bridge. A group of friends have gathered to celebrate a 20-year reunion and express surprise when they see an old friend who has come uninvited. Dressed in a gray business suit and now in his forties, Yong-ho looks disheveled and seems to be drunk or on drugs. At first congenial then suddenly belligerent, he grabs the microphone and engages in a karaoke song, then, after walking into the water fully clothed, climbs onto a railroad track on the bridge and awaits his fate screaming, ďIím going backĒ.  

As if Yong-ho is now looking back at his life from beyond the grave, the film unfolds in reverse chronology over a twenty year period as we witness the crucial events in the manís life that have led him to his present state. Each of the seven periods is separated by the poetic image of a train running backwards. We learn that three days ago Yong-ho was living in a run down shack, a victim of the economic crisis that spurred high bankruptcy and suicide rates throughout Asia in 1999. He has lost all of his money because of the betrayal of his business partner and the collapse of the stock market. With his last bit of cash, he buys a gun and expresses the wish to die and to take those people along with him who have made his life a torment.  

When the husband of his former girlfriend, Sun-im, visits to tell him that she is dying, however, and asks him to see her in the hospital, his plans are put on hold. The scene then shifts to 1994 when Yong-ho was a small businessman taking advantage of the thriving Korean economy, and married to Hong-ja (Kim Yeo-Jin) in a marriage that seems devoid of love. Though Hong-ja is pregnant and the birth of his daughter is imminent, the increasingly unpleasant Yong-ho refuses to accompany her to the hospital and continues an affair with an office employee that foretells the breakup of his marriage. During this segment, Yong-ho runs into a man at a restaurant who recognizes him from the past but it is only when we go back further to 1987 do we learn that the man in the restaurant was a student who Yong-ho, then a policeman, brutally beat and tortured to extract a confession.  

In 1984, Yong-ho is a police officer just learning his trade as he watches fellow officers sadistically beat prisoners. One of the officers tells the recruit that he will never forget the smell, a metaphor that could apply to the odor of military dictatorship running the country. The moment of truth, however, comes in 1980 during the demonstrations at Kwangju when Yong-ho, in a moment of weakness, takes an action against a student that will cause him guilt and regret for the rest of his life. Sol Kyung-guís performance through shifts in time and appearance is little short of a revelation. He totally inhabits the character of a once idealistic young man who, stripped of his humanity by a brutal society, is driven to degradation. Yong-ho has convinced himself that he is an unworthy person and acts accordingly, extending his suffering and bitterness to the lives of the people around him without taking responsibility for his actions.  

In 1979, however, in the filmís last segment, he is still a sensitive dreamer who wants to become a photographer. The poignancy of the scene is magnified because we know how his life unfolds from this point and because it can be an unsettling reminder of how our own dreams may have fallen short. As Yong-ho sits in the very spot where the film began, looking up towards the light with a beatific smile on his face and a tear in his eye, he tells Sun-im that he has a strange feeling that the scene is familiar. In that moment of grace, Peppermint Candy allows us to see beyond the surface of life to its center. 

GRADE: A

Howard Schumann
 
 
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