Backwards narration has become a rather fashionable way to present a story on screen. Memento and Irréversible are two recent examples of films utilising reverse-narrative structures. Some of the dominant characteristics of this technique are its systematic engagements with notions of temporal linearity, the past, of memory and the state of remembering (or, in Memento’s case, the inability to remember). If the act of observing and listening to a story told backwards is fascinating, it is perhaps due to a resemblance in the way we as individuals recall our own experiences and narrate our personal histories. Peppermint Candy takes this relationship a step further by entangling the subjective history of its central character with crucial socio-political moments in the history of the Republic of Korea. What distinguishes this film from another like Memento is the overt and, I think, successful thematic suggestion that Young-ho’s (Sol Kyung-gu) severely affected life is representative of a national populace collectively traumatised by its unstable social past.
In March 2003, director Lee Chang-dong was appointed Korea’s Minister of Culture and Tourism. Evidently, the current government sanctions whatever kinds of political statements Lee has made in his films (Green Fish, Oasis are the others). It is interesting, then, to ask how Peppermint Candy might express Lee’s concerns for specific national problems. Each of the seven segments is worth consideration in this respect. In different ways, the film describes the effects of marriage infidelity, business malpractice, police brutality, enforced military service and so on. But I think an important point about all of these issues is the way in which Lee chooses to present them. Lee emphasises the idea that interpersonal problems, if not sufficiently dealt with as they arise, will gather momentum and generate inescapable long-term consequences. The backwards narration enhances the illustration of this point because (a) it places us in an initial state of unawareness that relates to Young-ho’s state of repression, and (b) it shows us how Young-ho’s increasingly harmful personal decisions are the result of earlier problematic choices – which all stem from one appalling incident. The implication is that this single moment in time has made Young-ho’s life miserable. Since this life-defining event is something that transpires during the 1980 Kwangju massacre, Lee’s criticism of recent political history is obvious. But I am not sure that this amounts to any precise statement on Lee’s behalf. The importance of Lee as a novelist, filmmaker and now politician, rests in his desire and ability to confront and articulate difficult aspects of Korean society. Young-ho is quite the opposite type of individual: as I understand it, he represents for Lee a kind of weak link in the national psyche, for if Korea is to overcome its traumatic history, the past must be expressed rather than ignored.
For some this is an extremely meaningful and significant film, but in order to better appreciate Peppermint Candy it is probably necessary to have some awareness of Korean culture and history — especially the Kwangju massacre and the concept of han.