"Peppermint Candy"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Apr 1 09:24:36 MDT 2001

Even if it was not a great film, "Peppermint Candy" would be worth seeing
just as a guide to the dramatic changes in post-dictatorship South Korea.
While ostensibly a Citizen Kane type morality tale about an evil man, it is
really a mirror held up to a country whose two main pillars were
military/police brutality and worship of mammon.

A group of people in their forties are at a reunion picnic ot the bank of a
river beneath a railway bridge. Into their midst wanders a man in a
business suit who is either drunk or demented, or both. Soon they remember
that he is Yongho, a fellow worker from 20 years ago. After encouraging him
to take part in their gaiety, he begins to shriek and howl during a Karaoke
performance. He climaxes this act by jumping into the river with his
business suit on, slapping at the water like a madman. Then he mounts the
railroad bridge, where he stands in the middle of the tracks awaiting a
train that might come barreling out of a tunnel at any moment. Ignoring
their calls to come down to safety, he finally meets an oncoming train with
the cry, "I'm going back."

In a series of flashbacks, we do go back with Yongho and discover what has
driven him to suicide. His "Rosebud" is nothing less than the social role
imposed by South Korean society in its rise to "success" in the post 1980s.
"Peppermint Candy" is mainly an attempt to rip the pleasant facade off this

Yongho has decided to kill himself for two reasons. As the president of a
small company wrecked on the shoals of the recent economic crisis, he has
no other options. We learn through the most immediate flashback that he is
living in a shack and can not afford the price of a cup of coffee. With the
last little bit of his disposable income, he has bought a pistol. Before
shooting himself, he ponders over who he will take with him. The list
appears endless. In reality, it is the system that is at fault. He is also
ready to kill himself for the pain he has inflicted on others, both those
close to him and those who have wandered into his murderous path as soldier
and cop.

Each flashback is preceded by camera shots of a train speeding along the
South Korean countryside played in reverse. As people and animals walk
backward along the track, we travel back in time to find out how Yongho
went wrong.

Before becoming a businessman, he learn that he was a cop. In 1987 the cops
have apprehended a student leader who is taken back to the station-house to
be tortured. They want him to divulge the name of a leading pro-democracy
activist. Yongho, the most sadistic and experienced cop, holds the
student's head under water while wearing an impassive, almost bored,
expression on his face.

It wasn't always this easy. In 1984 when he was a rookie cop, he was
initiated into the art of torture. After a trade unionist prisoner shits on
him during a session, he rushes into the bathroom to wash himself off.
While peeing, another more seasoned cop casually mentions to him that he
will not be able to forget the smell. That is what "Peppermint Candy" is
about mostly, a man learning how, but never successfully so, to get over
the smell.

Peppermint candy is something that Yongho is especially fond of. His first
love is Sunim, who works in a candy factory. When he is in the army in
1980, she sends him candy to remind him of home and her love. One night his
company is rousted from bed in the middle of the night for some sort of
mysterious engagement. The sergeant abuses the men, calling them "bitches,"
as they struggle to get their gear together. When Yongho's peppermints pour
out of his knapsack, the sergeant punches and kicks him because candy is
not allowed.

The soldiers are dispatched to Kwangju, where students and workers have
been protesting for democracy. Yongho, a raw recruit, kills a young student
who is not part of the protests. She has wandered into the confrontation,
just trying to make her way home. Besides this young woman, every other
woman he knows on more intimate terms is treated badly by Yongho who treats
the opposite sex as objects to be fucked and then ignored.

When we finally arrive at 1979, we discover an entirely different Yongho at
the banks of the river, where the original picnic took place. He is a shy
young man in love with nature who presents Sunim with a flower that he has
picked from the banks. When he sits beneath the railroad bridge, tears come
to his eyes perhaps because he is overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounds
him. Like Citizen Kane, this kind of innocence will be stolen from him as
he becomes part of the dominant culture in Korean society.

NY critics have had some trouble connecting South Korea with the individual
Yongho. The program notes at the New Directors/New Film series state: "In
epic style, it covers the dissolution of a man and the development of a
nation." It would be more accurately worded: "the simultaneous dissolution
of a man and a nation." The NY Times warns that "a political dimension to
Yongho's malaise is evident, but also, for one not intimately familiar with
recent South Korean history, hard to grasp." Perhaps the critic suffers
from relying on the NY Times coverage on South Korea, which goes a long way
to explaining why things are hard to grasp. The systematic brutality
depicted in the film never made its way to the front pages of the
newspaper, which was much more interested in "economic miracle" and the
dictatorship's support for anti-Communist initiatives in the region.

"Peppermint Candy" was directed and written by Lee Chang Dong and stars Sol
Kyung Gu as Yongho in the most impressive acting performance that I have
witnessed this year. In the unlikely event that "Peppermint Candy" is
released for general distribution, it is not to be missed.

Louis Proyect
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