Peppermint CandyReviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 12/06/04 20:20:12
Unfolding in reverse chronological order over a series of seven vignettes, Peppermint Candy opens upon the scene of a picnic by a river and closes with the scene of another social gathering that had taken place on the same spot 20 years earlier, with the same friends in attendance. The film begins at the story's end, in 1999, at the happy reunion of a group of former co-workers. Into their midst stumbles a well-dressed but emotionally distraught, and perhaps chemically impaired, Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu), who has come not to celebrate with his old friends but to mourn the loss of his first love, to reflect on the utter degradation of his life – and to commit suicide, which he does by climbing a railroad trestle and standing, arms outstretched, in front of an oncoming train. Just before the train hits him, Yong-ho yells, "I am going back!" Thus, writer-director Lee Chang-dong begins a retrospective of Yong-ho's life, taking the viewer through a series of events that color his perception of the world and himself and turn him – as we see in reverse – from a young man whose life was once joyful and full of promise to a dissolute middle-aged man for whom all hope is lost.An interlude depicting a train slowly moving backward punctuates each segment of the film. In the first of those segments after the prologue, we encounter a despondent Yong-ho three days before his suicide. His wife has left him, he is deeply in debt to loan sharks, and a series of poor investments in the stock market and his dealings with an unscrupulous broker have left him bankrupt. He has already purchased a handgun with the intention of killing himself, when he is approached by the husband of his first love, Yun Sun-nim (Moon So-ri), with the news that Sun-nim is dying and has asked to see Yong-ho once more. Seeing the comatose Sun-nim for the first time in many years, Yong-ho tearfully recalls the peppermint candies that were all-important in their courtship. Sun-nim's husband gives Yong-ho an ancient camera, with the explanation that she had been keeping it safe for him.
In subsequent vignettes, Yong-ho is shown as a young wheeler-dealer juggling his relationships with his wife and child with that of the girlfriend/employee he callously brings home to dine with his family. We also see both Yong-ho and his wife Hong-ja (Kim Ye-jin) in the adulterous affairs that eventually corrode their marriage, a misalliance that was doomed from the start. An even younger Yong-ho is a vicious government policeman who is far from averse to using torture as a means of gaining information or eliciting a confession. Before that, he is a frightened soldier whose innocence is completely and irrevocably destroyed by the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, during which a tragic accident occurs in which he is complicit, an incident that destroys, in his mind, his worthiness for Sun-nim, and any value in his hands.
I first encountered the brilliant collaborative work of actors Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri, and their director Lee Chang-dong, at Seattle International Film Festival 2003, where I first screened Oasis. Both Mr. Sol and Ms. Moon turned in astonishing performances, he as a disenfranchised man with marginal mental capabilities, she as a young woman with cerebral palsy. Ms. Moon's portrayal was all the more stunning, in that she was called upon to perform her character as both disabled and able-bodied, a feat she performed to perfection. The rest of the festivalgoers were obviously equally impressed, as both actors were awarded that year's prizes for Best Actor and Actress at the fest.
I have seen Sol Kyung-gu in only one other film, Public Enemy, but continue to be awestruck by his ability to transform himself, from one film to the next, wholly and believably, into whatever character he is portraying. In Peppermint Candy, he is thoroughly mesmerizing as a jaded, broken middle-aged man who seems to slip effortlessly into the skin of his increasingly younger self, until he finally becomes the aspiring young photographer whose innocence will be irrevocably shattered and whose dreams will never come true.Mr. Lee, Mr. Sol, and Ms. Moon collaborated only twice, on Peppermint Candy (2000) and Oasis (2002), and Lee directed only one other film, Green Fish (1997). Lee Chang-dong is presently serving as the Minister of Culture and Tourism for the South Korean government.
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