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Peppermint Candy
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"Scientology rocks!"

Sul Kyung-Gu meets an oncoming train in Peppermint Candy.
Korean: 박하사탕  
Year: 1999  
Director: Lee Chang-Dong  
  Producer: Myung Kye-Nam
  Cast: Sul Kyung-Gu, Moon So-Ri, Kim Yeo-Jin, Koh Seo-Hee, Seo Jeong, Park Ji-Young, Park Se-Beom, Lee Dae-Yeon, Kim Kyoung-Ik
  The Skinny: The bittersweet chronicle of twenty years in the life of one man, told in reverse. Although the premise could be written off as a simple gimmick, Peppermint Candy is a masterfully told tale of love and loss that invites repeat viewings. Sul Kyung-Gu is magnetic as the film's tragic protagonist.
Review by Calvin McMillin:

How did it all come to this? That's the unstated, but ever-present question that lies at the heart of Peppermint Candy, the second film from writer-turned-director Lee Chang-Dong. His 1999 follow-up to Green Fish bears an intriguing premise. Like Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) and Gaspar Noe's Irreversible (2002), Peppermint Candy begins at the chronological "ending" and works its way backwards. But Peppermint Candy differs from the other two films in part due to its epic scope, which chronicles twenty years in the life of one man, divided into seven episodes, each of which reveal new insights into how the character became the man we meet in the opening scene.

The film kicks off in the spring of 1999 as a sharp-dressed, but obviously distraught man stumbles upon a high school reunion of sorts that's taking place at a tranquil riverbank overlooked by a railroad bridge. These revelers recognize the man as Yong-Ho (Sul Kyung-Gu), a long-lost classmate that they failed to get in touch with for this twenty-year reunion. The people are generally friendly to Yong-Ho and try to include him in the festivities, but the man seems mentally disturbed. Soon enough, Yong-Ho reveals his mental state by climbing the railroad track to await his demise. With a train bearing down on him, Yong-Ho shouts, "I wanna go back!" And in a manner of speaking, he does just that. At the moment of impact, the film freezes, then transitions to footage shot from the back of a train moving in reverse. The film resets three days prior to Yong-Ho's suicide, bringing the viewer up to speed on what drove him to such a desperate action.

We soon find that Yong-Ho has lost just about everything: his wife, his child, his job, his money, and as we will come to see, his innocence and his one true love. In this portion of the timeline, Yong-Ho has a final encounter with his high school sweetheart, Sun-Im (Moon So-Ri), a meeting that will push him over the edge. The film then flashes back to other key moments in Yong-Ho's past, which help illuminate his dark character. In these episodes, the film delves into his unhappy marriage with Hong-Ja (Kim Yeo-Jin), his brutal tactics while working for the police department, and the life-changing incident that traumatized Yong-Ho during his time in the military, just to name a few. Eventually, the film reaches its chronological "beginning" in 1979, returning to the setting and the characters of the film's opening. We find those very same reunion-goers, full of youthful exuberance, as well as Sun-Im in the prime of her life. We also find a youthful Yong-Ho, one so dramatically different from the man we met at the start of the film. Armed with all the knowledge of what will happen to this poor character in the coming decades, viewers can only lament the bittersweet, if not outright tragic fate of the once-innocent Yong-Ho.

One of the more interesting aspects of Peppermint Candy's backwards structure is the fact that it can be read in at least two different ways. On one hand, it can be seen simply as a device imposed on the narrative from outside the story. On the other hand, the final shot in the film suggests something more. Like Pascual Aubier's 1985 short film Flashback, in which a man's life flashes before him in reverse all the way back to infancy, so, too, can Peppermint Candy's trip into the past be considered in some sense, Yong-Ho's spiritual journey backwards to reclaim his lost innocence. In the film's final, moving shot there is a sense that Yong-Ho is overwhelmed by the scene's beauty, yet prior to that moment, there is also the suggestion that he is experiencing a case of déjà vu. The ambiguity of exactly what is going through Yong-Ho's mind in this moment of realization gives the film an extra dimension and creates a jumping-off point for viewers to debate the film's ending.

Sul Kyung-Gu is a revelation as Yong-Ho. He effectively portrays the character as a slightly different kind of man in each episode, although always rooted to a core personality. At times, the character is like a wild animal, prone to outbursts of violence at seemingly any moment, a characteristic which Sul would revisit in later films like Public Enemy and Rikidozan. As the sole anchor of the film, Sul Kyung-Gu is a magnetic presence, holding the viewer's attention throughout the narrative.

Although Peppermint Candy suggests that Yong-Ho's journey into darkness was a gradual decline, it could also be argued that his innocence was lost in a single instant and completely by accident. Certainly, his reaction to that traumatic event and the choices he made in its aftermath put him on the road to becoming the the tragic monster seen in the film's opening scene, but the film also suggests that who we are depends not just on choice, but chance. Intellectually-stimulating and heartbreaking to the last, Peppermint Candy is undoubtedly a modern classic of Korean cinema. (Calvin McMillin, 2005)

Awards: 37th Daejong Film Festival
• Winner - Best Picture
• Winner - Best Director (Lee Chang-Dong)
• Winner - Best Screenplay (Lee Chang-Dong)
• Winner - Best Supporting Actress (Kim Yeo-Jin)
• Winner - Best New Actor (Sul Kyung-Gu)
Availability: DVD (USA)
Region 1 NTSC
YA Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Reference Guide, Trailer, Sneak Peeks of Singles and Turning Gate
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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   Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen