Even if it were 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 on 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 image.
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.