Lee Chang-dong's emotional powerhouse of a sophomore feature Peppermint Candy (1999) is perhaps his most structurally inventive, starting with a man's suicide going backwards--an idea possibly borrowed from Harold Pinter's play and later film Betrayal, and executed contemporaneously alongside Christopher Nolan's Memento.
What distinguishes Lee's film from Nolan's (aside from looking and feeling as far from Westernized neo-noir as a film can get, with its deceptively simple camerawork and bright Rohmerlike sunlight) is the former's deft interweaving of South Korean politico-economic history, from 1980 to 1999, with the life of one Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu). A few days before (we learn) Kim lost his business due to an embezzling business partner, lost most of his money due to a stock market crash (The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis) the rest to a loanshark, lost his wife and child because--but I get ahead of myself.
Films like these you know the first question that comes to mind: is the structure justified? Is the backwards time scheme just a gimmick to draw the audience's attention or a crucial tactic for presenting the film's main theme? For the first half hour you're not quite sure: we first find Kim lying on a pebbled riverside, blinking at the harsh sun. He walks into a riverside picnic and you get the sense the man is staggering drunk--he blinks uncomprehendingly even when they recognize him, shrieks words into an offered karaoke mike ("What should I do? You left so suddenly! What should I do? I can't live without you! Do you have a secret no one knew? You were so tender! Na-na-na-na! Na-na-na! Na-na-na-na!"). He walks onto the nearby railroad bridge, which worries the picnickers, one of whom pleads for him to get down. Then the train blows its whistle.
Fade to black. Footage of rails rushing past, as if the camera was mounted on the train's nose. We realize as we see onlookers and pedestrians walking in reverse that this is the rear view, that the train is going the other direction, that Lee is running the film backwards--another odd detail that makes us wonder at the relevance.
The first flashback takes place only three days before. Kim is living in a wretched shack, cadging coffee off of hapless vendors and pleading to see his daughter or their dog; his ex-wife Hong-ja (Kim Yeo-jin) won't even let him in the door ("What should I do? I can't live without you!"). He receives news about his first love, Yun Sun-im (Moon So-ri)--she's in the hospital, unresponsive and on life support. He brings her a gift of peppermint candies, which he offers with pathetic futility; a single tear rolls down her cheek. He leaves, and for the first time we notice a limp to his walk, often during times of emotional duress.
As we go back in time we learn more of the man; his business seems prosperous enough (the crisis caught most people by surprise), his new house and loving family beautiful enough. But then he learns that his wife is having an affair with her driving instructor, and--under the gaze of an impassive fixed camera--shoves his way into their motel room to beat the driver, beat his wife; wife and her lover cower and grovel on all fours naked, howling their bestial dismay.
Pure hypocrisy, of course; after punishing his wife's faithlessness Kim meets his co-worker girlfriend for some adulterous sex. Later both attend a housewarming at Kim's new residence, and both Hong-ja and Kim's coworker/mistress prepare the food. Hong-ja asks to pray before eating; when she pleads that the family love each other the enormity of what she's asking becomes too much and she breaks down weeping. Kim quietly gets up to leave, presumably forever ("What should I do? You left so suddenly!"); Hong-ja calls after him, inexplicably limping.
Moving further backwards we learn that Kim was previously a police officer, one of the better more experienced interrogators out there (about this time we hear a second mention of Yun, who shares a hometown with Kim's suspect). If a metaphor helps, Kim is basically an onion that Lee's film peels open skin after skin; by telling Kim's story ending first Lee employs the Hitchcockian tactic of foregoing surprise in favor of suspense, the shock of seeing a man kill himself for the narrative hook of learning why. Along the way the director pieces together a portrait of Kim as instrument of South Korea's Fifth Republic--an officer for whom torture is not just a special skill but an essential work tool (Comparisons to the Philippines in the '70s and today not just possible but inevitable). Why did Kim kill himself? Possibly because what he was, what he did, who he tormented and why, are all knowledge he couldn't live with.
We see what he's become; we know (from his opening act) how he feels about it. Lee moves further back, to Kim's first time interrogating a prisoner (a nicely positioned medium shot where Kim and his fellow officers walk in through a door and look down offscreen, the camera following Kim as he kneels down beside the subject on the floor, naked and trussed like a pig). We learn that he wasn't always a hardened veteran, that his professional cruelty was earned through years of practice, past the initial hesitation.
Lee goes further into Kim's military history to the trauma that helped define him (sometime during the Gwangju Massacre); along the way we also learn the source of his limp (a bad fall). We finally realize the shape of Kim's (the film's, Lee's, our) journey, from bizarre party crasher to pathetic financial victim to physically abusive husband and adulterer to police torturer to reluctant rookie to terrified soldier. Lee has built up before us a monster, then compounds our feelings for that monster by showing the original man, the pieces reassembled and recovered from his process of transformation.*
*(Not unlike Robert Louis Stevenson, who in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde first shocks us with the unexplained entrance of Hyde, then horrifies us with the tragic story of Jekyll)
At the same time Yun flits in and out of Kim's life, her mentioned name provoking him, her memory haunting him, her presence evoked on occasion by Kim's fondness for the eponymous candy. The film's turning point comes with the scene--carefully prepared for, much anticipated--where Kim rejects Yun. Lee--with his degree in Korean literature, his experience writing plays, screenplays, and two novels--stages the scene in simple terms: two people at a table, talking. Yun compliments his hands: "they're so sweet!" Kim gives Yun a long look, takes his right hand--the same hand he had used earlier to torment his prisoner--and does something. A shit-eating smile slowly spreads across his face; Yun is mortally stricken, her eyes downcast; a single tear rolls down her cheek. The net effect is moral and emotional evisceration--the equivalent of Kim yanking his gentler, more innocent self out through a hole in his side ("You were so tender!").
What do the rail sequences bridging each flashback mean? A clever way to depict time unreeling, yes, but any form of transport--any object in motion--would have worked just as fine. A car or bike (or boat or plane for that matter) going backwards, however, is instantly recognizable; with a train there's continuum (the sense that here and there and now and then are, thanks to the rails, physically connected) and ambiguity (one point of the journey looks much like another). There's an inevitability to trains--as Tennessee Williams must have known when he named his most famous play after a New Orleans streetcar--they move in only one direction, forwards (backwards if you use a little imagination), and make only a limited number of stops. There's also finality to a train, especially when standing on its tracks; as with the course of history the impact is immense and often fatal.
By the film's final flashback you realize what Lee has been striving for all along: a quiet closing image where Kim has managed to win back much (if not all) of our sympathy, where every detail we have puzzled over--the railroad tracks, the peppermint sweets, his limp, that ridiculous karaoke song ("Do you have a secret no one knew?")--now registers onscreen like muffled cathedral bells finally unleashed. Lee exposes each layer, each secret, until we're left marveling at the piece of work that is a man sunning himself on a pebbled riverside; in the distance a train whistle blows. A breathlessly great film.
First published in Businessworld, 5.20.16