Peppermint Candy (1999)

First published by Little White Lies

It seems appropriate that, after being honoured in 1999 as the first domestically produced film to open the Pusan International Film Festival, Peppermint Candy was released into Korean cinemas on January 1, 2000. After all, Korean novelist Lee Chang-dong‘s second feature (after 1997’s award-winning Green Fish), uses the personal story of one man’s lost innocence to cast its unflinching eye over the last two decades of local twentieth-century history. This is Korea’s millennial elegy, filtering its search for times past through a confection no less bittersweet than Proust’s madeleine.

The film begins in the spring of 1999, as Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu), a clearly distraught 40-year-old dressed in a new suit, noisily gatecrashes his former fellow students’ reunion picnic before climbing onto the rail bridge above, where he awaits the full impact of an oncoming train with the words, “I am going back!”. Sure enough, a sequence of six episodes, each further back in time than the last, and demarcated by interstitial footage of a train’s reversed passage through the Korean landscape, trace the trials and torments that have driven this man to suicide via an inverted chronology that both evokes, and anticipates by several years, Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) and François Ozon’s 5×2 (2004).

Yong-ho conforms to the Aristotelian model of the tragic hero – an average man, neither good nor bad, and a victim as much of his own flaws in character (chiefly spinelessness) as of history’s sweep. Ruined by the Asian economic crisis, after finding himself on the wrong side of Korea’s violent struggle for a democratic identity (including the Gwangju massacre of 1980), Yong-ho is driven further and further away from the dreamy idealism and aspirations of his youth, even as memories from his past keep resurfacing to take him back, painfully, to where he started. It is a journey through the traumas of time as resonantly fatalistic as Citizen Kane (1941), with the titular candy replacing Welles’ rosebud as multivalent signifier of love and loss. Featuring a cast of unknowns and a narrative that unfolds in its own order, this is a deeply affecting retrospective of a man’s – and a nation’s – agonising rites of passage.

Anton Bitel