Peppermint Candy 박하 사탕 (1999) – S. Korea


Peppermint Candy 박하 사탕 (1999)

Chong-dong Lee’s Peppermint Candy crafts an intricate backward paddling kind of a linearity, providing scenes from the narrative’s end first and then the beginning, inverted. The approach is a unique one, using a slow burn cadence with eccentricity of writing in characters and flashbacks, unconventional, to bring a popping sophistication to on-screen contrasts, rebellious and reserved. Uber revealing and unusually sad, this 1999 piece tells a moving story on the sometimes draining effect of life on Earth. It’s exhausting, but, if you’re patient, also capable of accepting some open-endedness, the result is an insightful reward, complementary, finally, to a seemingly bizarre approach for a one man’s regurgitated, desperate reflections on time and opportunity.

Pains & Trains

You begin with protagonist Yongho (Kyung-gu Sol) in existential crisis at a quasi crossroads atop a high rising rail track. He gasps one last big breath before a timely death by train, supposed friends of his, distant school buddies from years ago, in the background participating in song and dance, a contrast. The camera freezes for just one moment then, the loud roaring of something big coming, just a blink before he’s struck, and you witness a shot of his mouth agape, his utmost vulnerability before death. Perhaps it’s his acknowledging defeat, a confession of sorts, him being open to the punishments due unto him. You don’t know. It fades into black, and he is dead. You’re drawn in now though, because of it, strange but quick, so sharp and jarring. The protagonist, the one you’re suppose to follow, is gone, begging the question: why? You now obviously know how.


Quite the question it is. But delving deeper into that one question, to explore it, to solve it, is an effort, one that requires some endurance in observation and interpretation. You want to dissect Yongho’s past, but to understand of his late life, his real starting point, you must magnify the aesthetic details, recurring shots on trains, fast living, and loudness of personalities. Add to that repetitive music, especially that of the beginning and end, and you’ll begin to see the scope.

Early on Yongho seems too arrogant, too self-centered to be of your concern, a focal subject for pity. Rather than embrace, you push him away. He’s not deserving of your attention (I assume), and so you move him further back, into your periphery, neglecting him and his uppity nature. But as the narrative moves backward in his life, through Yongho’s late adulthood, his many jobs, and very few personal relationships, you’ll soon realize the man you’ve ended up with, to watch and study, is altogether complex, not to blame, directly, for his initial attitudes, visceral and counter.


The film is successful in having an elderly identity, one ready to reveal heart and development with small things rather than allow larger themes take you away; you and I, after watching, are no longer expected to be passive. It is communication in fable, a warning that calls us into action, to add weight in between scenes all across its timeline. With the rubbing of a hand up a girl’s skirt, interrogating a suspect, and longing for genuine companionship, you listen and watch as Yongho first dabbles into meanness, becoming the monster you had first seen, earlier meaning later, and, for that, it’s a special ride, intimate and intricate.


Lee’s film is powerful in its edits especially, and then its positioning the camera, usually far off, distant, is a pleasure, seemingly shoddy but oh so inspired. By using a dissolving technique to blur the lines between flashbacks, always abrupt, the work keeps your progression for plot reveals aesthetically gritty and uneven, compelling like no other films likely can, though the story has certainly been accepted and attempted before. Its seemingly untreated environments, the characters, the silence, they make Yongho’s crawling into residual memories of the past appealing in a twisted, cathartic kind of a way. I appreciate that, and so will you as it reminds of filmic voyeurism. Notice the train track vistas, always in the back, rear-cart, played in reverse. Like Being John Malkovich, the approach to see from another’s eyes is easier than assumed for you, and it adds to its replayability.


It’s never brutal in its on-screen violence nor its dialogue (though you’d expect it), but you can feel the pain, that seething, whimpered cowardice of Yongho and other characters. What Lee has done is create a deliberately sentimental mystery murder, and it’s up to you to answer the question, again, why? Is his life really at a point so low that he has to kill himself? You’ll soon discover, perhaps not all of it, but enough to answer that question more confidently. Its containing much contrast alone is worth the watch.

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