After his debut feature “Green Fish” (1997) South-Korean director Lee Chang-dong made what is possibly one of his most commercially and critically acclaimed films, “Peppermint Candy”. Especially with the success of his latest film “Burning”, Chang-dong’s body of work has to be regarded as one of the most interesting focusing on topics such as his home country’s history, masculinity, human relations and art. Similar to his work as a novelist previous to his film career, art, as the director explains in an interview with writer Andrew Chan, is a way “to communicate with all those certain somebodies out there […] whose names and faces I didn’t know” and to explore new worlds and environments.
Over the course of 130 minutes, the film accompanies the events which led to the suicide of Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu). Starting with him standing on a railway bridge facing an oncoming train, we see various stations of his life in reverse chronological order. As it begins, we are only set back three days as we observe Yong-ho, homeless, alone and left by his wife, wandering the streets of Seoul, looking for the people responsible for his misfortune. When he is picked up by a strange man introducing himself as the husband to his first girlfriend, he visits her at the hospital at her deathbed. In the following segments of the film, we eventually venture back 20 years in Yong-ho’s life exploring the person he ultimately becomes and was, how the events have changed himself and what his dreams were when he was still a young man.
Given its international acclaim, its many awards and honors at festivals around the globe, “Peppermint Candy” has experienced a plethora of analytical essays and exploration, specifically with the focus on the theme of masculinity. While these issues are definitely worth looking into, perhaps the most interesting concepts is the way Chang-dong discusses memory and time. Using the leitmotif of the train with fitting images and sounds underlining the significance of certain events in each of the segments, the film re-traces a person’s life while asking the question whether there was an alternative to these decisions or whether it was pre-determined like the journey of a train always following the tracks in front of it.
Ultimately, this supposedly anti-climatic structure allows for a more detailed insight into a person’s life. Similar to a detective story, the viewer is able to focus on various clues laid out in the dialogues and the images and sounds designed as a closely-knit web of motives or a puzzle which makes all the more sense as you watch the last episode of the film. Aspects the songs used in the film and performed by the characters, the titular peppermint candy or the recurring images of water and streams are just pieces of a puzzle showing the great skill of Lee Chang-dong as a visual storyteller.
However, the performances of his cast deserve equal credit to the film’s appeal. Especially Sol Kyung-gu deserves much recognition, for his approach to the character of Yong-ho is both psychologically and physically demanding. Going from the suave businessman, the struggling police officer to the desperate man screaming in unspeakable agony at the beginning, demonstrates the enormous range of this actor. At the same time, he remains something of an enigma to the viewer, unpredictable in his acts of kindness and cruelty, but struggling with issues deeply buried inside of him, only revealed in the last segments of the film.
In the end, “Peppermint Candy” is a powerful drama, a visually stunning exploration of issues like fate, time and memory and how they shape our lives. With a brilliant leading performance by Sol Kyung-gu and a cleverly constructed script written by the director himself, “Peppermint Candy” remains a great entry into a body of work which has yet to be discovered by many cinephiles out there.