Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Lee Chang-dong: 1999)

The final few minutes of the life of middle aged businessman Yong-ho are deeply unhappy ones –  shouting and screaming he becomes increasingly more upset before finally throwing himself in front of a train yelling ‘I’m going back’. Peppermint Candy unfolds in a reverse chronological order as we step back to look at how Yong-ho’s personal experiences disturb him to the point of suicide…

Quite aptly released in Korea at the strike of midnight on 1st January 2000, Peppermint Candy struck a chord with audiences, managing to both win plenty of awards and to become a fairly unexpected box-office hit. It’s surprising because on first impressions Peppermint Candy – with it’s portrayal of a man haunted by some of his experiences of some of the major changes and movements in Koreas recent history – is not an easy ride. Opening with the suicide of its central protagonist – the 40 year old Yong-ho – Peppermint Candy unravels backwards over 20 years to key moments in his life. To reveal too much about this would be to do a disservice to the film, part of the interest is in where the film will lead next, but the two turbulent decades span Korea’s financial meltdown, a failed marriage, police brutality and a period of student riots (the Gwangju massacre is referenced).

The sophmore picture from director Lee Chang-dong, Peppermint Candy uses its segmented narrative to cleverly weave ideas and themes which are given increasingly significant meaning throughout – such as a phrase or an image representing a period of time, an idea or a person – and it is in this way that Peppermint Candy creates its most profound – and often cynical given the structure of the piece – moments. In creating this unwinding portryal of Yong-ho, Peppermint Candy does have its melodramatic touches, however they’re used sparingly and help to bridge the large time-scales that are covered as well as keeping the film accessible to a wider audience than who may otherwise be turned off by the subject matter.

There’s little time or energy spent on attempting to flesh out the supporting cast in Peppermint Candy – with the exception of a very few characters there’s a reliance on shorthand to represent the people in Yong-ho’s life, characters are broad strokes and barely introduced as there’s little time for too much development or depth. Peppermint Candy could be criticised for its failure to engage in more than the key moments in Yong-ho’s life, that we’re given little information to explain just who the people are that he shares his life with for anything but these key moments. This would seem to miss the point – Lee Chang-dong suggests that the defining moments of a mans life are often the small ones – largely unrecognisable at the time – but also those which he has little control over himself. This is the point made crystal clear in Peppermint Candy – Yong-ho has little choice in the life that he has led, a lack of options which see him thrown from one point in his life to the next. While this doesn’t prove to be the most fun experience, it is one that is made all the more exhilarating largely because of one thing – an amazing performance from Sol Kyung-gu.

In an absolutely fearless performance Sol Kyung-gu takes Peppermint Candy‘s Yong-ho and manages to transform a well written, strongly directed drama into an intensly emotional journey. It’s a note-perfect performance that carries incredible range and for an actor to take a character across twenty years of his life and to never ring false, this is an incredible feat alone. Further than this though, Yong-ho is the anchor to the themes of the film – he’s certainly put through the wringer – but he still represents the everyman who is struggling with the world around him, one which moves with changing ideologies and turns of events that he barely seems to understand. Sol Kyung-gu never seems to disappoint as an actor, but Peppermint Candy along with Oasis (also directed by Lee Chang-dong) is up with his best.

Peppermint Candy is a devastating film – it’s pretty unrelentless in its portrayal of a man whose life and the world around him has led him to self destruction, yet it is a powerful examination of Korean history which both makes some pretty damning points but also serves as a warning to acknowledge some of the more unpleasant events which define us, otherwise we are allowing them to destroy us.

박하사탕 (Peppermint Candy)
Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Produced by Myeong Gye-nam, Makato Ueda
Written by Lee Chang-dong
Starring Sol Kyung-gu, Moon So-ri, Kim Yeo-jin, Park Se-bum, Such Jung

Peppermint Candy Image © East Film