Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) – Film Review

Peppermint Candy

Image credit to Asia Beam

As part of the Moon So-ri line up of films in the ‘Year of the Four Actors’, the Korean Culture Centre UK screened Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy. This film, released in 1999, was Director Lee Chang-dong’s second film, and it certainly left a deep impression on audiences for it’s ability to portray huge themes and historical events through the troubled life of one man. Picking up numerous awards, such as Best Director and Best Actor, the film was received with acclaim and rightly so.

Spoilers ahoy….

The film follows the story of Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu), and looks over instrumental events in his life leading up to the point where we see him in when the film starts. The story is told in reverse chronology, and at the starting point of the film we’re introduced to Yong-ho as a man on the edge. Turning up to a reunion picnic in a drunk and erratic state, he startles old friends and eventually ends up standing on train tracks, facing an incoming train, and ends his life. It’s from this point that the film takes us back through several moments from his life, each revealing more about the man he’d become and how he’d changed over the years. The segments of his life are all linked in some way to learning about Yong-ho’s first love, Yoon Sun-im (Moon So-ri). As we reach the end of the film, and see the moment where Yong-ho and Sun-im first meet, Yong-ho’s motivations and reasons as to how be became the man we see at the beginning of the film are all revealed.

There are so many unique, interesting and engaging points to this film. The way this film is structured is one of these things. A lot of films, when they do flash backs, go right to the beginning of the timeline and progress to the present. In Peppermint Candy we follow the story as it starts from the present and reverses to the beginning of the timeline by looking at snippets of Yong-ho’s life from the present to the past. Using this technique, Yong-ho’s life is revealed in such a way that some of the most tragic parts of his life are kept until near the end of the film. The use of train imagery to signify the turning back of time was great way to link each section of the story together, creating a thread that ran through the whole film. Connecting Yong-ho’s life together is also done in another way, where each section is presented as a chapter, with it’s own title, like ‘The Prayer’. Using the train and chapters together smoothly helped the progression back in time and helped separate the chunks of plot. The way the film begins and ends is another well thought out part to the structure. The film begins at the picnic spot Yong-ho met Sun-im at years ago, and the film ends at this same spot. At the end of the film, the young Yong-ho remarks he feels he’s been to the picnic area before even though it’s his first time there, and this line immediately makes the audience think back to the beginning of the film where Yong-ho ends his life at the same spot. There’s a great symmetry to the plot by finishing the film where it started.

The portrayal of characters in this film is amazing. Yong-ho, played by Sol Kyung-gu, is outstanding. Starting off the film as a truly unlikeable man with little to no redeeming qualities, the viewer is left at the end of the film with conflicting emotions for him. The way he can switch from charming to manic expressions in seconds is scary. As the film goes on and more is revealed about his past, we see different sides of him, and how past incidents shape him as he’s unable to escape the memory of them. Sol Kyung-gu shows through his character how the effects of what someone goes through is escapable. When a young Yong-ho kills a girl during his military service, you can see this is the turning point for him, and the way Sol Kyung-gu plays this scene is so well done. Sol Kyung-gu’s acting is so great to watch and whether you end up feeling sorry for his character or not, you’ll be left in no doubt that he’s a brilliant actor.

Of course, there’s no way we could talk about this film and not mention Moon So-ri. Her character, Yun Sun-im, is only seen a few times throughout the film, but it’s the memory of her that is constantly referred to. The first time we see her, in the hospital near the beginning of the film, leaves a deep impact. The next time we see her, where she’s in her youth, we see Moon So-ri’s character as emotionally broken by Yongo-ho’s rejection when he’s beginning his career as a cop. Moon So-ri doesn’t need a lot of lines to get her emotions across. She has a very elegant air to her which you can see in many of her roles. Her character in this film, in the final scenes of the film when she first meets Yong-ho, has a playful and fresh air to her, which matches Yong-ho’s character at that point in his life. For a lot of this film, we hear about Sun-im as Yong-ho’s first love and the image of her is built up throughout the film; she’s talked about a lot but we don’t actually see her too much. When we do see her, Moon So-ri plays Sun-im just as we have expected her to be, especially at the end of the film where her character is innocent and charming.

The use of imagery and the atmosphere in the film in general is beautiful. During the film, quite often during important events happening in Yong-ho’s life, a train will go past or there will be a train nearby. For instance, when Yong-ho shoots the girl, this takes place next to stationary trains. This constantly reminds the audience of the beginning of the film and of Yong-ho’s eventual death by a train. It’s thoughtful additions into the film such as this that really help this film stand apart. The settings and scenery of the film are also very evocative, creating the perfect moods to accompany the writing.

There are quite a few overriding themes in the film, which are mostly shown through the character of Yong-ho. The idea of innocence is one of these themes. Yong-ho starts off innocent, as seen in the last scenes of the film where he’s an aspiring photographer, shyly passing looks at Sun-im. As the film plays out, we see points at which this innocence is slowly crushed by Yong-ho’s circumstances. Showing incidents with Yong-ho like when he refused to take the camera from Sun-mi’s husband at the hospital and later in the film, from Sun-mi herself, or when the peppermints are crushed underfoot when Yong-ho is in the army, are all points in Yong-ho’s life where the audience is shown where his innocence is slightly broken, or he purposefully rejects it.

Another thing the film shows through Yong-ho’s life are some big events in Korea’s history, such as the Gwangju Massacre, where he kills the school girl. Showing these historical events through Yong-ho’s story gives the audience a chance to ponder what the effects of experiencing such trials has on a person and how going through such events unwillingly can change someone irrevocably. It’s very well done how these big stories in Korean history are slipped into the film without expressly naming them. This means the story is still focused on Yong-ho and doesn’t detract from him in any way, yet still helps explain how he ended up the man we see at the beginning of the film.

Overall, this is a beautiful film. The way the story is told in all its aspects is well thought out and each part of the plot is carefully woven together with integral points strategically placed throughout the story so the viewer can find out more about Yong-ho’s life. The symbolism and themes shown in the film are cleverly used to give the film more depth and dimension, adding to the storytelling.  The acting is superb from all the cast members, particularly Sol Kyung-gu, and it’s no wonder he won several Best Actor awards for this film. Although quite gritty and graphic in places, which may initially deter some people, this is a film that will engage and immerse people and definitely worth the watch!

Obviously, this film gets a… Daebak Star

Sources: Wiki

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