Peppermint Candy is told in reverse-chronological order.
Viewers may recall a similar device in Memento, released the following year. However, whereas Memento‘s employment of the device was an initially interesting but ultimately forgettable gimmick, Peppermint Candy‘s usage enables a deeper historical and psychological resonance.
And it is, crucially, the double-level of psychology and history, micro and macro, that Peppermint Candy balances. The film is both a biography of a man, and of a nation, South Korea at the turn of the century (if you find that sentence too pretentious, you should probably stop reading now).
This biographical narrative is a tragedy. Through successive chapters, protagonist Kim Yong-ho begins as a drunken, suicidal wreck; becomes a cynical husband and salary-man; an angry, brutal cop; a fresh-faced young soldier; and, finally, a wistfully romantic teenager (actor Sol Kyung-gu impressively captures each stage).
For Western audiences, the story requires some context, which I will attempt to provide here. Two moments in Korean history loom large in Yong-ho’s life; the wave of redundancies in the late 1990s, just before the film was made; and the 1980 Gwangju Massacre, a massacre of students which Yong-ho helps perpetrate.
The question of political agency is a key here. In my view, some analyses of the film understate Yong-ho’s role in the narrative, treating him as a passive dupe. However, as in any tragedy, the protagonist makes choices that contribute to his own destruction.
Kang-ho is uninterested in the politics that come to define him. The democracy movement lurks in the background for much of the film, ignored in news reports, before finally intersecting with his life as a soldier. The Gwangju Massacre forms the climax of the film, the traumatic atrocity lurking in the national imaginary, a moment that triggered an uprising. While our protagonist Kang-ho accepted the nation as it is, even enacted its violence, many Koreans fought and died to change it, overthrowing the military dictatorship.
Yong-ho’s vulnerability, sadness, and ultimate teenage innocence, do not make him a better person; they simply make him human. As a national figure, he comes to represent the banality of evil, a kind of hollow man, enacting violence without thought. At about the halfway point of the film, he cynically echoes the diary of a young man he tortured, stating ‘life is beautiful’; with a family and a career, he is buoyed by a rising national tide that will soon ebb.
Although Kang-ho’s economic humiliation late in life is outside his control, he fails to take responsibility for his destructive, and ultimately self-destructive behaviour. At a personal level, Kang-ho is increasingly cruel to Yun Sun-im (Moon so-ri), the love of his life. The interaction between the personal and political, and the deep shame it produces, is mutually reinforcing.
Writer-director Lee Chang-dong largely affects a matter-of-fact, plain verisimilitude, held together by symbolic flourishes at key narrative junctures. While the portrayal of the Gwangju Massacre can justly be faulted for focusing on Yong-ho’s pain at the exclusion of the facts, this impressionistic portrayal works to depict the massacre as a loss of innocence. The film is best understood as one subjective narrative in the context of history, rather than as an objective account.
The two central motifs are the peppermint candy of the title, and the train tracks that Kang-ho ultimately throws himself on. If you’ll allow a briefly summarised university lecture, the train is key to both cinema and the nation-state. Famously, one of the first publicly screened films was the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at a Station, with an urban myth stating that audience members screamed and ran out of the cinema. Meanwhile, as an industrial technology, the train was also central to the distribution networks that formed the modern nation-state. If the train represents the nation (and the filmic national imaginary), then the nation finally claims Yong-ho’s life – yet he also chooses this fate.