Lee Chang-dong’s striking follow up to his debut Green Fish, running the life of Kim Yong-ho in reverse…
Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu, Oasis, Public Enemy, The Spy: Undercover Operation aka Mister K, The Tower) wanders into a reunion of his old student friends, reviving their days spent singing on the banks of a river by a railroad track. Obviously distraught, he climbs onto a nearby bridge in front of an oncoming train, screaming ‘I want to go back again!’
Director Lee Chang-dong deconstructs the usual narrative, as the rest of the film uncovers the pivotal moments that brought him to this point in a series of episodes, each in reverse chronological order. Having written screenplays for Park Kwang-su, on To the Starry Island and A Single Spark, Lee seems to have by similar politics. The film recounts particular moments in Korea’s history; student demonstrations of the early 1980s leading to the Gwangju massacre and losing his job during the late 1990s Asian financial crisis, for instance.
Throughout Lee’s social comment seems clear, he questions masculinity in modern Korean society and the effects of conscription on the male populace. With the uncompromising style to which have become accustomed, he presents us with a lead character who is almost entirely unsympathetic, before revealing slowly over the film the events that have shaped him this way.
The films central device of running the story backwards, pretty daring for a sophomore feature, will immediately recall Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which was released a year later. Yet here it seems less a gimmick than a product of his earlier career as a successful novelist; the boundaries of narrative being far more open to exploration, with literary audiences far more accepting of playfulness.
Unlike Nolan’s film, Lee allows each passage to inform the next as much as they are a reaction in terms of the linear timeline. Here the casting of Sol Kyung-gu, looking perhaps a little too old to play Kim as a young man, make the film feel more like the adult Kim looking back on these moments. Ultimately in the final scene Kim seems informed by hindsight, realising this will be one of the last moments in his life of innocence and true happiness.
It seems ironic that this film played as part of the KCCUK’s Year Of the 4 Actors, with a strand devoted to Moon So-ri. Moon herself hardly features for much of the first half of the film, except almost unrecognisable in makeup when her character of Yun Sun-im is shown in a coma. It seems an odd choice to showcase her abilities, like The President’s Barber, which also mirrored some of the same political moments in Korea’s recent history, but with less of a hard hitting social comment.
And yet her role is crucial to the film and the character of Kim Yong-ho. Peppermint Candy may be her breakthrough role, by Moon So-ri has a presence far beyond her years and, at that point, her on-screen experience. According to the recent Q&A she beat some 2,000 other actresses for the role of Yun Sun-im, and you can see why: you truly believe that she could have played a pivotal role in Kim’s life.
Ultimately Kim’s character actually does become sympathetic, as you piece together the moments that made him who he was, but Lee Chang-dong makes you work to get there. Striking, poignant, sad, and uncompromising as ever, Peppermint Candy is a film that stays with you…
Peppermint Candy played as the first strand of the KCCUK Year of the 4 Actors, the season continues this week with another film in the season devoted to Jeon Do-yeon…
The Screening of My Mother, The Mermaid is free, but must be booked in advance.