Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Peppermint Candy

Director Lee Chang-dong made Peppermint Candy in 1999 and, in common with many a Korean film of the period, it positively shakes with rage. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 had had a two-fold effect: While it undeniably left many a Korean citizen in the shit financially, it opened doors for filmmakers. To quote myself in Asia Shock, "Big corporations pulled out of the movie biz, private investors came in, and a new atmosphere of creative freedom and artistic daring nurtured the birth of a new wave of phenomenal South Korean films." [p. 17-18] That's how it is in this crazy world: Turmoil leads to creativity. Remember Orson Welles' famous speech in The Third Man? "In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed -- and they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Peppermint Candy opens with the suicide of a disillusioned man (he stands before an oncoming train with predictable results). We then look on as his life flashes before his eyes ... backwards (just like they say it does in all the esoteric books). Bear in mind this is a full year before Christoper Nolan's Memento. Was something in the air, or did Nolan just steal the idea outright?

Actually, the flashback sequences only cover the last twenty years of the man's life, from 1979 to 1999, but nevertheless serve as an historical and cultural through-line for the repression and upheaval of Korean life during this period. Fresh out of high school, he's in the army, hunting down political dissidents. Then he's a cop, interrogating suspects using enhanced interrogation techniques we're all familiar with by now (hint: you're naked, handcuffed, and your head is in a bathtub full of water). Then he's a business owner, but not for long ...

And through it all, he is haunted by the memory of his first love, a sweet young thing who worked for a confectioner making ... wait for it ... peppermint candies. Because of the backwards narrative, we first encounter her on her death bed, only to meet her younger incarnation much later -- an emotionally powerful scene.

This is the second Lee Chang-dong film I've reviewed -- a link to the other review can be found here. He's a remarkable filmmaker, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.

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