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'Peppermint Candy' Explores the Inherent Connection Between the Personal and the Political

A Korean man in a suit stands on a railway track, shouting at the sky.
East Film Company

It is far more common to find reverse chronology used in films that are of the thriller or surreal variety. But Peppermint Candy is neither of those things. In his second directorial, Lee Chang-dong utilizes this narrative technique to present a character study of a deeply broken man for whom the personal is inextricably tied to the political. 

Peppermint Candy is structured as a series of vignettes, each of which presents a snapshot of the protagonist, Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu), at different phases in his life, going back 20 years into the past. Moving backward through time, the movie begins its retrospective with a shocking statement: starting off with the protagonist’s apparent suicide. It’s a heady opening that sets a sullen expectation for all that is to follow. Each subsequent vignette, named and dated, explores changes in Yong-ho through significant phases of his life: first as a retired policeman-turned-business owner, then his career as a police officer, and so on. All the while, it seamlessly weaves in clues about a secret trauma, inching ever so closer to the heart of this unexplained malaise. 

Peppermint Candy takes on a profound perspective through its use of reverse narrative: the movie isn’t about following a broken man to his tragic end, but about understanding what led him to that point. In Lee’s skilled hands, the movie unfolds like a memory, or like a confession in which the narration of events goes on to reveal an individual’s deepest traumas. 

Lee’s naturalistic style allows this quality to develop with great pathos, imbuing intense sentimentality onto each scene and forcing the viewer to marinate in its emotions as a helpless observer. As a general rule, interactions within the movie are of a vacuous, cursory nature, where the deeper meanings are gleaned through little details. 

Within this realistic narrative style, the movie ensures that every single betrayal of true emotion stands out with brilliance, lingering upon intense emotional moments with gruesome detail. There is a preference for static shots that greatly enhances the feeling of being an observer. Rejecting background music for the most part, the movie allows the natural sounds of the setting to loudly intrude upon the scene, from the blaring radio to the sound of rain, further grounding the viewer in a sense of realism. 

But then there are also the slow, meticulously choreographed camera movements that frequently precede heart-breaking displays of emotion. Devoid of any wasted movements, even a single extra second spent holding onto a frame accumulates significant gravitas. Peppermint Candy, in essence, deals with externalities as a means of highlighting the inner agonies with painful realism.  

Many times, the quiet moments are the heaviest, and the smallest details the most meaningful. The scene where Yong-ho fails to shoot himself due to a malfunction in the gun imparts a powerful shock; yet it is the scene that follows, where he is seen having a take-away meal against a gorgeous sunset, that really breaks you. The scenes that focus on his broken marriage never lay out the specifics of what really led to such a miserable dynamic between the two. But it’s one piercing hint after another that weaves in a deeply felt image of the unspoken secrets.  

A Korean man in a black coat leans against his rain-slicked car.
East Film Company

In his leading role, Sol forms an essential part of the effect that Lee seeks to impart in this movie. His over-the-top performance in the opening segment becomes a tone-setter in the bizarre sequence. Then, with each next segment, Sol takes on an entirely different persona — from a callous, apathetic business-owner, to a dedicated police officer, to a romantic suffering from a secret heartbreak.

The most subtle and profound meaning is created through the transformation in Yong-ho’s harsh exterior. Where scenes mostly progress as per the external, social setting, Yong-ho’s innermost thoughts and feelings become the constant element that imparts the true meaning of the scene. Following the opening segments where he appears in his most tumultuous, visibly tortured form, Sol’s performance in the later segments grows progressively subtler, more muted. The apathetic, unlikable persona transmutes into a different kind of introversion altogether. It’s not his reserved demeanor that disappears by the end, but rather the malicious substance imbued within it. 

Eventually, it is seen that most of what we know Yong-ho to be are vacuous expressions that are not part of his real nature. Disconnected with his real emotions due to whatever trauma he experienced years ago, he lost himself in the harsh persona he was forced to put on as part of his job as a police officer. The viewer never gets an opportunity to see what the real Kim Yong-ho would have been. 

The most significant aspect of Peppermint Candy is in how the narration of an individual’s personal life succeeds in making a statement about the political shifts of South Korea in that time period. Just as how the external succeeded in reflecting the internal traumas of Yong-ho in all its intensity, the overall narrative of the protagonist’s personal life surreptitiously acts as a reflection of a significant moment in South Korean political history — of which he becomes an unwitting victim during the course of his mandatory military service. A life is lost, but Yong-ho is an unwritten casualty of the event, taking his own life 20 years later. 

The movie highlights a connecting thread of politics weaving itself into Yong-ho’s entire life, from the recurring motif of radio news to his police cases where he is exclusively seen investigating students, assumed to be political criminals. The peppermint candies that is established in a heart-rending scene early on in the movie reappear time and again to take on meaning as the antithesis of this larger force: it’s his Rosebud, the symbol of his individuality and his childhood innocence that was crushed, literally and figuratively, on that fateful day in the army.  

It’s often the case that tragic dramas elevate suffering as a noble thing that represents the best aspects of humanity. But in real life, so much of it takes place in the not-so-neat realms of human experience — adult shame; loss of dignity; helplessness; and a life woefully out of control. Peppermint Candy reveals the inextricable connection between an individual and the greater political movements he lives within, in its most unadulterated and pitiful way.

Peppermint Candy screens at Metrograph in New York City on April 12 as part of the theatre's retrospective series, Novel Encounters: The Films of Lee Chang-dong. Check out the official website for more details.


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