Peppermint Candy

November, 2004, Thriller

One of the advantages of spending time in New York City is the opportunity it provides to catch up on movies that have already left commercial release. The Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center provides a perfect venue for getting out-of-towners updated, as it often gathers the best output from various countries and presents them, festival style, for those who missed them the first time around. Such is the case with this film by South Korean writer/director Chang-dong Lee, whose Oasis provoked so much praise and controversy two years ago. Two years before the release of that picture, Lee gave audiences this excruciating examination of the brutalizing effect the tensions between the two Koreas have had on the young men charged with military duty there. It's brilliantly conceived and stunningly shot, but its disquieting message about the corrosive effects of officially tolerated violent behavior won't appeal to many Americans.

Like Memento, (also released in 2000) Candy's story begins with its climax-in this case, the suicide of a handsome young man attending the reunion picnic of his former factory colleagues. He climbs a railroad trestle and hurls himself in front of an oncoming train, screaming "I want to go back!" The director then accomplishes a masterpiece of deconstruction, unfolding the events which led up to this tragedy--not by taking us to the beginning of his story--but by peeling back its layers, from the most recent to the earliest, as one would disassemble one of those Russian pyramid dolls, to discover its deeply hidden, tiny core. What emerges is the tale of a potential everyman, de-sensitized by his exposure to and participation in increasing levels of brutality and torture.  

The film traces the career of Hongja, (Yeo-jin Kim) thru its four occupational phases-factory worker, service in South Korea's army, a stint as a police detective and finally as failed small businessman, all interwoven with his first love affair and subsequent marriage to another woman. At each stage in the screenplay, his inexplicably brutish behavior and escalating despair are presented in a deliberately matter-of-fact manner, only to be explained by the next, (i.e. earlier) part of his biography. At each such juncture, the audience discovers what caused those later responses. Since the outcome of the story is already known, the movie becomes a search for motive, for ultimate meaning in this apparently unappealing life. As each sequence presents less reprehensible behavior but increasingly painful sources of Hongja's conduct, the awful trajectory of his life becomes more apparent and tragic. 

Given the heightened anxiety to which the citizens of  the Korean peninsula have been constantly exposed since the end of the war there a half-century ago, it comes as no surprise to learn that the young men in the army of the Republic of South Korea are encouraged to prepare for and expect the worst. But what price do those soldiers pay for carrying that potential for sudden and lethal action? Can a victimizer also suffer at the hands of his victim? Candy's answer to those questions may go a long way in explaining the dehumanized behavior of American military personnel so vividly displayed in the pictures that have emerged from the Abu Grab prison in Iraq. Lee's examinations of the appalling effects of the self-loathing that can result from those actions and the fear which inescapably flow from it give this film a level of emotional impact as disturbing as the events it so graphically depicts. 

Lee's skills behind the camera are as subtle as the action in front of it is blatant. The segments of Hongja's past are connected by lushly shot images from a train rolling through Korea's verdant countryside, his stake-outs observed through the rain-drenched windows of a police surveillance car, his emotional confusion caught in bicycle rides that succeed only in bringing him back where he started, his ambivalence conveyed by placing the initiation of his brutal conduct in long shots and its culmination in agonizing close-ups. 

This is a confrontational movie, challenging its audience to deal with the implications of the methods employed by the very governments we choose to defend us. The results are artistically superb and profoundly disturbing.    


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