“I am going back!”: Lee Chang-dong in retrospect

Introduction to a screening of Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, Thursday 24th September, 2015

peppermint candy

The ‘peppermint candy’ in the film you are about to see is quite literally that – a factory-produced bonbon that protagonist Yong-ho (played by Sol Kyung-gu) is shown at various moments eating, storing, buying, sharing. Yet it is also a bit like the madeleine in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, or the ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane – an ‘objective correlative’ for a flood of memories and their associated emotions, all contributing to the construction of Yong-ho’s identity. And the sweetness of that hard confection is tempered by a whole lot of bitter.

It is no spoiler to say that Peppermint Candy begins at its end. In the opening scene it is 1999, and a drunk and distraught Yong-ho arrives at a riverside student reunion picnic, sings a song about betrayal, and climbs onto a railbridge. As a train hurtles towards him, he opens his arms to it and screams, “I am going back!”. The rest of the film is a chronicle of this death foretold, as six key episodes that led up to this moment in Yong-ho’s life – and death – are tracked in reverse chronological order. It is an innovative narrative structure, later borrowed by Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) and François Ozon’s 5×2 (2004), here used to ring the Korean nation’s political and economic changes across two decades.

All these episodes in Yong-ho’s life – seven in total if you include the opening – are punctuated by literal tracking shots taken from a train and run in reverse. Those parallel railtracks that we regularly see might be regarded as symbols of the alternative through-lines in Yong-ho’s career: the crucial choices that he has made running alongside the paths that he didn’t follow. For Peppermint Candy is a film about choices and their eventual ramifications: Yong-ho chooses the army over factory work and photography, the police force over a civilian career; he chooses brutality over resistance, a woman he doesn’t love over one he does love, adultery over marriage, singledom over family; and he opts for an unscrupulous business partner, ill-judged investments and ultimately suicide. And as he abandons his child, his wife, his one true love, and all his leftist principles, his ultimate betrayal is of himself, leaving him repeatedly on the wrong side of history. In contrast with the ugliness of Yong-ho’s fate, we occasionally glimpse the parallel life of Myung-suk, a one-time victim of Yong-ho’s advancement who ends up living the ‘beautiful life’ that Yong-ho loses. Myung-suk is a mirror to what Yong-ho might have been had his life veered one way rather than the other.

Peppermint Candy is a portrait not just of one doomed man over twenty years, but also of a troubled nation. Yong-ho’s experiences represent an elliptical synopsis of two decades of turbulent South Korean history, from Chun Doo-hwan’s military coup and the Gwangju student massacre, through the Fifth and Sixth Republics, and the economic crisis of 1997 which brings about our anti-hero’s financial ruin. This is history told backwards, its effects traced back to their causes, and so it offers a fragmented state of the nation, then and now, as well as a life trajectory both personal and political. In 1999, Peppermint Candy become the first domestically produced film ever to open the Busan International Film Festival – but it was released in Korean cinemas on 1 Jan, 2000, marking the new millennium with a suitably retrospective mood of melancholy and reflection.

“I am going back!” Yong-ho says at the film’s beginning and his own end. So this seems the perfect time to ‘go back’, briefly, over the career of the film’s writer and director, Lee Chang-dong. Born in 1954 in Daegu, Lee studied Korean literature there, and went on to become a celebrated novelist. A beeline into filmmaking, from someone with no formal cinematic training, might at first seem odd, but he had devoted much of his time in university to writing and directing stage dramas, and before his directorial debut Green Fish (1997) he had already written two screenplays for director Park Kwang-su: To The Starry Island (1993) and A Single Spark (1995).

green-fish-2In its own way, Green Fish is as backward-looking as Peppermint Candy. Its title alludes to an episode recalled from the the childhood of protagonist Mak-dong (Han Suk-kyu), when he went fishing under a bridge with his young siblings – an episode that we hear about but never see. That flowing stream which Mak-dong describes, and the red steel railbridge overhead, are precursors to the setting with which Peppermint Candy opens and closes. It is both an idyll, and, with all those passing trains and running water, a place of transience – and the innocence that Mak-dong enjoyed there so many years ago is now just water under the bridge, never to be recovered.

Mak-dong has just returned – by train – from military service, and barely recognises his home town of Ilsan. Once an agrarian community, it is now full of high-rise apartments, and with this modernised expansion has come organised crime and political corruption. Mak-dong must adapt to changing times and a changing nation, and so he drifts into small-time gangsterism, while his dream of running a traditional home restaurant with his family recedes further and further into the distance. Ostensibly an underworld drama, Green Fish is also an elegy for the rapid passing of a Korean way of life.

oasisLee’s next feature after Peppermint Candy, 2002’s Oasis, reunited actors Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri as a couple in a strange, furtive and fragile romance. Sol plays Jong-du, a misfit just released from a prison-stint for a hit-and-run accident, who starts a secretive relationship with the victim’s daughter Gong-ju – whose name means ‘princess’. There are flashes of fantasy and magical realism here, quite unlike anything in Lee’s other, typically naturalistic works – but Oasis is far from the fairytale romance regularly seen in movies. Jong-du is child-like, impulsive and mentally ill, while Gong-ju is crippled with cerebral palsy – and their tryst begins, improbably, with a break-in and an attempted rape. Yet the two are kindred spirits, united by the careful attention that they pay to each other when all others ignore them. When, much later, the lovers are caught in flagrante and Jong-du finds himself accused – this time falsely – of rape, we have seen how both these characters are exploited, abused and effectively abandoned by their respective families, and marginalised and eschewed by society.

The results make for a touching, if rather difficult, viewing experience, as Lee holds up a mirror to the ugliness of ‘normality’ and the beauty of otherness. Jong-du’s ingenuous rape and solicitous courtship of Gong-ju are compared and contrasted with the hypocrisy and mistreatment that these two must endure from their supposedly respectable families. And so the values of conservative Korean society are shown to be something from which the vulnerable need refuge, rather than something that protects them. Lee problematises these issues further by casting the able-bodied Moon in the role of a severely disabled character, inverting even more the conventional relationship between ability and disability. This allows Gong-ju – in occasional fantasy sequences – to appear free of her disability and of other people’s judgment, so that we see her as she sees herself before Jong-du’s unprejudiced eyes, in a parody of the normality all around them. Of course, Jong-du sees Gong-ju only – and exactly – as she is, and loves her for precisely that. Oasis would win Lee the Special Director’s Award at the Venice Film Festival.

If Green Fish, Peppermint Candy and Oasis all established Lee as a slyly political filmmaker and social commentator, then in 2003 Lee would find himself serving as an actual politician. President Roh Moo-hyun wanted an artist rather than a professional politician for his Minister of Culture – and so appointed Lee to fill the Ministry, making Lee the first film director ever to hold a cabinet position. There he became an outspoken defender of the Screen Quota System, which was key to the success of Korea’s national cinema. By June of 2004, when it was clear that the Government had had a change of heart and was bowing to US demands to revisit and reduce the Quota, Lee, now rather uncomfortable in his position, was replaced in a ministerial reshuffle. Free to return to actual filmmaking, Lee now set up his own production company, Pinehouse Films.

secretsunshine1large-2Lee’s fourth feature, Secret Sunshine (2007), concerns the recently widowed Shin-ae (played with great intensity by Jeon Do-yeon), who moves to her husband’s hometown Miryang. There, still mourning her husband’s death, Shin-ae falls completely apart after her young son Jun is abducted and killed – and she turns, for a time, to the local evangelical church to rebuild herself. The ensuing melodrama of loss, faith and madness is also a complicated moral study. Shin-ae is rendered sympathetic by her horrific suffering, but is otherwise barely likeable, especially in her contemptuous treatment of Jong-chan (Sang Kong-ho), a local mechanic who is always helping her. In the Church, Shin-ae seeks the assurance that there is someone out there, eternally watching over her, but she fails to appreciate that Jong-chan, a good-natured if buffoonish Samaritan, has been looking out for her all along, and never stopped showing her his unconditional, unrequited love.

poetryLee’s last film to date, 2010’s Poetry, looks back in more ways than one. It begins with a suicide from an elevated bride over the River Han, and ends in the same place, in an obvious evocation of Lee’s earlier Peppermint Candy. And it brings back Korean megastar Yun Jung-hee from a 16-year retirement to play a sexagenarian looking back over her life’s experiences while she can still remember them. Mija joins a poetry class at her local cultural centre hoping to rekindle a passion for the art that she abandoned while still a schoolgirl – but her attempts to write a poem are impeded not only by the onset of Alzheimer’s that is literally leaving her lost for words, but also by her grandson’s unrepentant involvement in the suicide of a young Catholic schoolgirl. As Mija struggles to locate beauty in a world of gang-rape, cover-up, suicide and oblivion, Lee’s elliptical tale finds its own resonant poetry in its protagonist’s presence and eventual absence, and concludes with a cinematic blank page on which we must write our own ending.

Poetry ponders the fragile place of the artistic sensibility (including Lee’s own as a filmmaker) in a prosaic world of ugliness, venality and struggle. Which brings us right back, full circle, to Peppermint Candy, whose protagonist also abandoned artistic ambitions in his youth for more materialistic preoccupations – and would subsequently be haunted by the consequences of that choice. Poetry is, I think, the pinnacle of Lee’s career – but seeing Peppermint Candy takes us back to Lee’s own early days as a filmmaker, and reveals just how coherent are the themes spanning this extraordinary writer/director’s body of work.

© Anton Bitel