All aboard the second film from writer-turned-director Lee Chang-dong (Green Fish), the time-bending South Korean drama Peppermint Candy. A tragic tale of innocence lost, which unfolds in reverse chronological order and follows the ups and downs of Yong-ho’s (Sul Kyung-Gu) eventful life. We first meet him as a middle aged man, attending a friendly reunion at the side of a railway track. The other partygoers welcome him with open arms, but it’s clear from the start that Yong-ho is a little unbalanced. Soon enough he finds himself on the bridge overhead, standing in front of an oncoming train. With an agonising scream he informs the world that he wants to go back, and that’s precisely where we go.
Over the next two hours we witness the events that shaped his life, from his time in the military to his career as a merciless police officer. There’s a softer side to be explored as well, from his failings at home, to his regular liaisons with high school sweetheart Sun-Im (Moon So-Ri). In telling the story backwards, Lee Chang-dong has taken a well-worn formula and turned it on its head, presenting us with a refreshing take on a decreasingly troubled mind. Over the course of 20 years Lee Chang-dong focuses on the turning points of Yong-ho’s life, and it’s a fascinating journey from beginning to end, end to beginning (you see where I’m going with this).
Yong-ho becomes more sympathetic as the film progresses, and Sul Kyung-Gu is the glue that binds Peppermint Candy together, taking us effortlessly from desperation to disillusionment in the blink of an eye. Most filmmakers take their protagonist on a journey into the heart of darkness, not out of it. Peppermint Candy feels fresh because it drags its main character from the brink of obscurity and thrusts him back into the light. The more time we spend with Yong-ho, the more we awaken to his humanity. His days in the police force are overcome by bitterness and brutality, a direct result of the harrowing nature of the following episode; the military segment that plants the seeds of destruction in Yong-ho’s fragile mind. Sul Kyung-Gu is asked to portray the many shades of man - a truly exceptional performance on which the films success depends.
Each of the seven episodes begin with the image of a train moving backwards in time. The first trip takes us back to just three days before his death, where he learns that his high school sweetheart has asked to see him one last time. Their relationship is given room to grow as we head back in time, as is his failed marriage to Hongja (Kim Yejin). Lee Chang-dong is able to weave all the appropriate twists and turns into the story, providing us with a drip feed of troubles and traumas. There are affairs, failed business ventures and loan sharks to contend with. Not to mention sprinklings of joy, most of which take place in good old 1979.
This is where we meet Yong-go for the last time, or should that be the first, as he shares a picnic with friends. His future seems bright as he lies beneath the bridge, gazing towards the sky. The expression on his face suggests that maybe, just maybe, we weren’t the only ones that went back in time to that fateful day, as he basks in the calm that shades the inevitable storm. Lee Chang-dong is wise to leave the ending open to interpretation. It’s nothing less than a fitting finale.
Depressing for the most part, the film paints an accurate picture of a broken man and the road he walks to ruin. A massive hit in its homeland, due in part to the emotional connection it made with the Korean public, there are political themes raised throughout, and Yong-ho’s voyage is often compared to South Korea’s troublesome journey towards democracy. Without a knowledge of Korean history, however, western audiences might well fail to recognise these themes and reflections. Having said that, there is still much to enjoy from this impressive Korean drama. The lead performance, for one, is outstanding.
Peppermint Candy is a bittersweet account of life’s unpredictability. Youthful optimism gives way to heartbreak, tragedy and missed opportunities. That’s right folks, life’s a bitch, but a fascinating one at that. AW