Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Lee Chang-dong, 1999)

Peppermint Candy 4K posterA wise man once said that the tragedy of life is that you have to live it forwards but it can only be understood in reverse. Lee Chang-dong’s second feature, the poignantly titled Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Bakha Satang), lays bare the wounded innocence of 20th century Korea through the story of one man betrayed by the world in which he lived, eventually destroying himself in a protracted act of self-harm intended as a perverse attempt either at atonement or grudging conformity with a society he could not resist.

Beginning and ending with a picnic, Lee opens in 1999 as a hopelessly drunk Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) crashes a reunion party he wasn’t technically invited to held to mark 20 years of friendship among former factory workers now approaching middle age. Dressed in a suit which looks somehow wrong on him, Yong-ho hogs the karaoke mic to sing a maudlin song about failed love, dances wildly, and sobs with the crushing hopelessness of a man entirely alone in the world. While his old friends try to reclaim the cheerful atmosphere, he climbs up to a nearby railway bridge where he waits for a train with outstretched arms, screaming “I’m going back” as he prepares to greet it.

Yong-ho does indeed “go back” as the train bears us ceaselessly back into the past, showing us the moments of Yong-ho’s life which struck him like a hammer to the soul and turned him into the defeated figure on the railway bridge, howling into the wind. At 40, Yong-ho is a hollowed out shell of a man, divorced and living in a greenhouse after falling foul of the volatile late ‘90s stock market, subsequently cheated out of all his money and the possibility of a new start by a man he thought was his friend. Given what we later learn about the middle-aged Yong-ho, it’s difficult to believe he had any kind of friends at all, and even if we’re conditioned to pity him as a man already dead he does nothing to earn our sympathy, cheating a poor roadside coffee seller out of a few pennies and then quietly smirking to himself in the safety of his car.

Yet, he begins to soften when a kindly man shows up and tells him that his first love, Sun-im (Moon So-ri) – now apparently this good man’s wife, is close to death and wants to see him one last time never having given up on the man he once was. Given the suit which doesn’t suit him by Sun-Im’s husband so that she won’t realise Yong-ho has made a mess of his life and be upset, Yong-ho stops to pick up a small jar filled with the titular “peppermint candy”, suddenly revealing that perhaps he never quite gave up on that man either and that may be his tragedy.

Before he was an arch capitalist making a few shady bucks in the pre-financial crisis economic boomtown of the newly democratised Korea, Yong-ho was a policeman working for the authoritarian government brutally torturing teenage democracy activists during the dying days of the regime. As a young rookie we see him squeamishly try to resist, only to be pressured into violence and then snap. The suspect fouls Yong-ho’s hand with the kind of smell that never really washes off, but it’s just one more stop on Yong-ho’s journey to spiritual ruination. Finally we reach his breaking point, in Gwangju in 1980, where his soul is forever soiled.

The Gwangju Massacre, in the story of Yong-ho’s life which is also the story of Korea, is the great festering wound which can never be healed. He carries it with him in an intermittent limp that resurfaces at times of emotional difficulty, and convinces himself that he is unworthy of everything good or innocent in the world. He breaks with Sun-im, cruelly betraying her faith in him with a crude gesture that wounds them both equally, mutually understood as a perverse act of kindness. Becoming what he thinks he’s supposed to be, what this society has made him, he wilfully destroys himself in a decades-long act of self harm that leads only back to the train which haunts him throughout all of his encounters, so painfully central to the arc of his life. Literally railroaded by an inexorable fate, Yong-ho lacks the will to resist believing he is no better than the hand he has been dealt but consumed by self-loathing and infinite regret. There is no way back, only forward, but for Yong-ho, and perhaps for Korea, Lee sees only one way out and the soft of heart will not survive it.


Peppermint Candy was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Last Child (살아남은 아이, Shin Dong-seok, 2017)

Last Child posterPeople grieve in different ways. Some stop altogether, lost in a fog of confusion and regret, while others try to keep themselves busy or at least feel as if they are doing “something” to try and find whatever positivity they can in the midst of such terrible tragedy. The parents at the centre of Shin Dong-seok’s extraordinarily accomplished debut feature Last Child (살아남은 아이, Salanameun Ayi) find themselves on opposite sides of a grief divide after their son is killed trying to save another boy from drowning. While the mother is angry and resentful, the father finds strength in pride for his son’s act of heroism, nominating him for a local heroes award and donating the compensation money they have been awarded to their son’s school to fund a new scholarship place in his name.

Eunchan, the teenage son of Misook (Kim Yeo-jin) and Sungcheol (Choi Moo-seong), passed away some months ago leaving his parents numb and grief stricken. As far as they’re aware, Eunchan lost his life while valiantly trying to save that of another boy – Kihyun (Seong Yu-bin). Asking after the boy whom his son sacrificed his life to save, Sungcheol is dismayed to learn that he’s dropped out of school, possibly as a consequence of bullying and social stigma because of the well publicised incident he has been involved in.

Spotting Kihyun around town riding his delivery scooter, Sungcheol later decides to intervene when he catches sight of some other boys harassing him. Sungcheol buys the boy dinner and tells him to call if he ever needs anything. Kihyun, despite his obvious discomfort calls when the manager of the fast food restaurant he had been delivering for accuses him of lying about his bike being stolen. As Kihyun is a minor, he needs a responsible adult to talk to the police but his mother abandoned him years ago and though his father used to send money for his upkeep, he has now remarried and severed all connection with his son. Feeling sorry for the boy and not wanting Eunchan’s sacrifice to go to “waste”, Sungcheol offers Kihyun a job in his interior construction company as a trainee apprentice.

Though originally shy and afraid, Kihyun begins to blossom under the gentle, positive parental input of Sungcheol as he picks up the paternal reins, not only teaching him a trade but investing in him the confidence to succeed. Misook, horrified at first by her husband’s decision, begins to come around to this wounded young man who perhaps reminds her a little of her own son. Despite his lingering feelings of shame and guilt in accepting such kindness from the people he feels may continue to suffer solely because of his continued existence, Kihyun slowly starts to look on Misook and Sungcheol  as surrogate parents as they provide the love and care he has never really known from Sungcheol’s down to earth fatherly pep talks to Misook’s home cooked dinners.

Kihyun does, however, have a secret he has been withholding from Misook and Sungcheol which becomes increasingly difficult for him to keep the nicer they are to him and the more he comes to respect them. Though he might have been able to push it to the back of his mind, an unexpected meeting with another friend of Eunchan’s who was also there that fateful day convinces him he has to speak the truth no matter how much more pain it may to cause to all concerned (including himself).

Sungcheol had invested heavily in the heroic nature of his son’s death and finding out it might not have been quite so straightforwardly noble as originally described is a crushing blow for him. The reopening of a wound which had begun to scar pushes Misook and Sungcheol back into their respective corners as they each attempt to process the situation in their own particular way, beginning to mildly resent each other in the process. Meanwhile, having considered the matter closed, there is little appetite to reopen the investigation into Eunchan’s death. The other parents club together to keep their kids out of it while the school sends a polite message asking Misook and Sungcheol to leave it alone to avoid damaging the school’s reputation. Sungcheol, filled with a righteous anger and a need to find out what really happened to his son, is advised to drop the matter, that it’s better to be remembered as a “hero” rather than a “victim”, implying that Sungcheol ’s quest for “truth” is in someway sullying his son’s memory.

Kihyun, meanwhile, is a mess of conflicted emotions. Grieving himself for the family he’d begun to form with Misook and Sungcheol , he tries to move on with his life whilst hoping to somehow repair what has been broken. Kihyun is not a bad kid at heart, whether changed by his experiences or simply freed from a destructive environment, but he has done bad things which fill him with guilt and remorse compounded by the faith and kindness Misook and Sungcheol have tried to show him.

Yet good as they are, the intensity of their rage and pain threatens to consume the bereaved parents who begin to turn their thoughts towards poetic justice and exacting their own revenge even if they also know it will only bring them more suffering. Isolated by their grief, ostracised for the need for truth, and torn apart by their ambivalent emotions towards each other, the trio walk headlong into a spiralling abyss of nihilistic violence and despair, rejecting the idea of a future in which the concept of family continues to exist. Shin’s drama is bleak in the extreme but strangely hopeful in its clear hearted determination to believe in human goodness which just might be the only way back from the brink.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Shin Dong-seok from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival. (scenes from the film not subtitled, interview subtitled in English)