Some barely-there SPOILERS here
Peppermint Candy is another masterpiece in a filmography full of them and without a single misstep. Chang-dong Lee’s 1999 film, his second feature, tells the story of Young-Ho (Kyung-gu Sol) in reverse and over a period of twenty years.
Lee’s film moves sometimes in 5 year gaps, other times in single year jumps backwards. The reversal does some obvious things – the suspense is not what will happen, but why what happened happened. But also, and more importantly for Lee, I think, because it’s a trait of all of his films (and probably the main reason I love his movies so much), it really keeps Young-Ho hidden. Without a linear explanation of his motivations and history it’s impossible to nail him down until the final few minutes of the film. The end is somewhat neat and cohesive, and definitely circular, but the point is the constant switching of sympathies. Is Young-Ho a bad guy or not? He comes off differently every 10 minutes. The same is true of the narrative and genre. About 2/3 of the way through this film I was convinced that we were watching a love story. Then it was a cop drama. Then PTSD treatise. But for something that sounds like it could be so disjointed, this film really works.
Lee demonstrates an Ozu-like obsession with trains in this film.
They appear in nearly every segment of the film. Unlike Ozu’s, they’re not really there as a modernizing Japan (or for Lee, Korea), but rather to tie into Young-Ho’s history (the same is true of his limp, which seems to curiously show up only when in the direct or indirect company of Sunim (So-ri Moon), and as a literal vehicle to move (Lee uses a train in reverse to leap from section to section of the film).
Peppermint Candy, like Oasis, Secret Sunshine, and Poetry (I have yet to see Green Fish), is violent and gentle at once. Young-Ho teeters on the edge of insanity, and many times crosses over into it. He’s dangerous and magnetic and really frightening. Other times he’s sorrowful and nearly pathetic. The performance is truly incredible. Part of it is his ability to get menace from his lanky body. His smile is evil and happy at the same time and he’s too close to people-
Other times it’s the awkwardness and how Lee frames it. Like this shot, where Young-Ho has lunch with Sunim (across from him), but simultaneously hits on the waitress. This is a reverse shot and not the only angle on the scene, but it’s the one that Lee sticks on, framing it so we really only see the reaction of Sunim, though it’s still ostensibly a 3-shot. It’s uncomfortably crowded and centered:
Kyung-gu Sol’s best moments are his desperate interactions with other people. Talking to his estranged wife and her dog through her apartment door chain; speaking placidly with her after finding her in an affair; a friendly-not friendly discussion at a bathroom urinal. All of these are one-on-one and are quietly maniacal.
I find it somewhat difficult to describe Lee’s camera style. He uses handheld, but not exclusively. Sometimes there’s elaborate blocking, like in this scene – another of my favorites, but I could say that for a lot of this film – where Young-Ho screams at his colleagues in a bar. It’s only two stills from a pretty long scene, but Young-Ho moves to and from camera, believably wielding a broken mop handle. It’s aggressive, but also fluid. The kind of blocking that feels unplanned but was probably a long time in the making:
Other times the camera is smooth, dollying in and out of characters, though only occasionally with typical motivation. Most of the time, it’s just expert camera placement. There’s this scene, where Young-Ho confronts a young student in a moment of heightened danger. Lee gives us this single on Young-Ho:
It’s this reverse angle though that’s completely open and potentially dangerous. As soon as Lee cuts to it you know – because we’re over Young-Ho’s shoulder, because of the gap between the two characters, because of the depth (all of these things seem to point to some kind of emptiness; it’s too wide of a world. Something bad’s going to happen) – that this may not end well. A simple reverse shot on the girl would have entirely negated the effect. This shot, also so unnervingly still, is perfect:
Maybe it’s because I recently watched La Promesse that this film makes me think of the Dardennes a little bit. They’re very, very different, but both like a slight handheld camera, favor lower-middle class characters in extreme emotional situations, and, perhaps what stuck out to me most, both include a moment of extreme joy in the midst of all the pain. For Lee that’s a fantasy sequence, a critical one, that reminds me of something similar in Oasis.