Director Lee Chang-dong’s 1999 film Peppermint Candy begins innocently enough—opening with a shot of a seemingly distraught man lying on the ground under a train overpass. Next we see the same man stumbling upon a reunion of his former classmates from twenty years ago and find out that the man’s name is Yong-ho (played Sol Kyung-gu). Laughs are exchanged, memories are shared and the group excessively consumes drinks, but what we slowly discover is that Yong-ho is clearly not emotionally stable. He exceedingly gets more rambunctious with the group as time passes but they appear to pay no attention to his outbursts. Suddenly deciding to haphazardly run atop the nearby train tracks to face an oncoming train, Yong-ho willfully accepts his desired suicidal fate and this is where Peppermint Candy begins its journey back through one man’s destructive past—and the negative influences that have forced him to his current point of distress.
Peppermint Candy is certainly a film whose narrative is unique in its presentation. Chronicling the past twenty years of Yong-ho’s life through reverse order, we slowly uncover the reasons behind Yong-ho’s decision to commit suicide in the beginning of the film. But as much as Peppermint Candy can be viewed as a character study of a man gone awry, director Lee Chang-dong elicits much of the film to explore the dynamics of the political, economical and social systems that existed within South Korea from 1979 until 1999. In this sense, Yong-ho is viewed primarily as a narrative device in which Lee Chang-dong explores the negative influences that such changes has had on the South Korean society at large—from the economic crisis in the 1990’s to the military dictatorship within the government during the 1980’s, the film elaborates on the tumultuous events that had shaped the South Korean societal landscape as well as the life of Yong-ho.
Perhaps the greatest contribution to the power of the film is Sol Kyung-gu’s portrayal of Yong-ho. His transformation of Yong-ho from a young idealistic student to a hopeless and downtrodden man is superbly done and garners significant attentiveness to the emotional stances of Yong-ho throughout the last twenty years of his life. Sol Kyung-gu’s portrayal of Yong-ho is simply an astute reflection of the tremendous impact that such social changes can have on an individual, unwilling to subscribe to them at first but fatefully yielding to such changes as time progresses. We as the audience slowly begin to sympathize with Yong-ho through Sol Kyung-gu’s riveting performance, viewing his disastrous actions throughout the film as simply an outward extension of the damaging environment—and historiography—in which he continuously find himself trapped within. As aspiring dreams are dashed and relationships deteriorate before the eyes of the audience as well Yong-ho, the film is relentless in showcasing the woeful nature of his existence and how easily one can succumb to the forceful nature of time.
It’s this paralleling between the past socio-political climate of South Korea and thefate of Yong-ho that makes Peppermint Candy a film as bittersweet as the candy in which the titles derives from. The reversing of the narrative provides the film with a glimpse of the South Korea’s past—poetically articulated through the notion of a train traveling backwards. It’s certainly not a film that is easily digestible in any sense of the word—we essentially witness the unraveling of a fragile man against the backdrop of some of South Korea’s most disastrous events. But through the ever changing flow of history, director Lee Chang-dong explicitly explores the ramifications that such historical events has had on one man, and in many respects, the entire nation of South Korea. This is powerful filmmaking by director Lee Chang-dong and coupled with extremely convincing acting ultimately promotes Peppermint Candy as an exploration of one man’s—and country’s—most harrowing moments in history and the emotional residue that stems from experiencing such tragic affairs.