International Film – ‘Peppermint Candy’ (1999) and the significance of reflective filmmaking.

An important commentary on South Korea, Peppermint Candy is an international film worth broadening your tastes for.

Matthew Barratt
29th October 2022
Image Credit: IMDb
Lee Chang-Dong’s Peppermint Candy takes the viewer back on a retrospective journey through South Korea’s oppressive and tumultuous political history, making it a relevant example on the importance of looking back at history to re-assess and learn from the past.

Peppermint Candy opens in the present in which a group of former students reunite for the first time in 20 years. Amongst this party is the film’s protagonist, Kim Young-ho who abruptly enters the festivities and continually disrupts the celebration. Young-ho abandons the group and climbs atop a train track, where he faces an oncoming train. From this, the film freezes, opting to take the viewer back in time to showcase six key moments in the character's life.

Utilising reverse chronology as the backbone of its narrative structure, director Lee rewinds through time until we see the protagonist at the end of the film at one of the happiest points of his life; a heart-breaking use of dramatic irony and a stark departure from the same protagonist the audience see’s standing atop the train tracks in the film’s first sequence. The audience is shown Young-ho’s life including his mandatory military service which ends in disaster, his sadistic career as a brutally corrupt and morally bankrupt policeman and his broken unfaithful marriage, all over the course of twenty years. Lee concludes the film two decades into the past as Young-ho comes to the end of his youth and faces adulthood with dreams, aspirations and a social circle of support. It’s poignant that, as a narrative choice, Lee must show the audience Young-ho at his worst; at his most violent, depressed, hollow and depraved until he delivers us with the same character at the peak of his life, unaware of his dire future.

It’s cynicism in its purest form, yet within the core elements of Peppermint Candy is the political facet of Lee’s anger and the commentary the film dispenses on South Korean history between the 1980s and 90s, interwoven within the film’s episodic format.

Despite the clear themes of depression, masculine violence, and trauma, it becomes evident that director Lee isn’t necessarily attempting to dispense a commentary on mental health awareness, although a valid reading of this can be inferred within a present context of the 21st Century. More importantly, it becomes apparent that Lee is situating his intent behind Peppermint Candy within the context of South Korean political oppression. From this, Lee considers that partaking in an oppressive and shallow governmental structure can reduce a man to a hollow vessel; a shell of their former self, rendering them devoid of any love or hope for the future.

It’s cynicism in its purest form, yet within the core elements of Peppermint Candy is the political facet of Lee’s anger and the commentary the film dispenses on South Korean history between the 1980s and 90s, interwoven within the film’s episodic format. Particularly, Lee critiques the government’s suppression of student protests – with references to the Gwanju Uprising of May 1980 – and of the relationship between masculinity and violence, with Young-ho embracing the brutality within the masculine climate of militarised policing, thus becoming a physical embodiment of South Korea’s military dictatorship in the 1980s. While governmental oppression affects those who are marginalised primarily - student demonstrators in the case of the film - Lee opts to focus on how these oppressive structures destroy the spirit of those who enforce them, with Young-ho regressing into a vessel for the South Korean military state.

Lee doesn’t offer any solutions to systematic oppression in South Korea, instead using the character of Kim Young-ho to reassess the country’s political situation in retrospect with the hope of reform in the new millennium.

In the first sequence of the film, Lee’s protagonist heartbreakingly shouts “I want to go back!” as the oncoming train hurtles towards him. Not only is this invoking the reverse chronology of the film’s structure, but it becomes evident that this is a self-insertion of Lee himself, who effectively asks the audience to ‘go back’ with him to reflect on the past. Because of this, Peppermint Candy cements itself as an important piece of South Korean filmmaking, showing its viewers the consequences of oppression first and then looking back to observe the actions that led to them.

This is even more significant due to the film’s setting at the end of a century, a time for reflection. Lee doesn’t offer any solutions to systematic oppression in South Korea, instead using the character of Kim Young-ho to reassess the country’s political situation in retrospect with the hope of reform in the new millennium.

Looking at the film within the contexts of the 21st Century, when we are constantly reflecting on the actions of our past, dealing with the consequences in the present and unearthing the causes, Peppermint Candy remains an ever-relevant piece of expert reflective filmmaking as well as a proficiently written character study.

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