Peppermint Candy Review
Just months after Green Fish hit theatres in February of 1997, South Korea’s economy was hit hard as a direct result of the Asian Financial Crisis. It was one of its worst victims, yet in the midst of a major reform it recovered remarkably well and in hindsight the ordeal even served toward bolstering the South Korean film industry. By 1999 several distribution houses had sought to embrace not only their homeland’s increasing box-office popularity brought on at the beginning of the decade, but also looked toward international distribution and joint-ventures. It was during this boom that Lee Chang-dong would release his second film, this time using the aforementioned crisis as a springboard for a tale about the spiraling destruction of a single man jaded by his country’s imperfect ideals and undermined by few who have used him for their own gain.
Lee Chang-dong’s passion toward his vocation has made him one of Korean cinema’s strongest contemporary voices. With Green Fish his intention was to bring to the table very real social concerns which would see his audience sit up and take stock of his country’s road to modernization. Peppermint Candy, then, feels like an extension of sorts. In order to make its point all the more valued here, Lee plots out a chronologically reversed time-line. While initially it may not seem like an entirely original concept its execution creatively proves otherwise, with the director winding back the clock in taking us through twenty years of tumultuous growth and showing how it ultimately destroyed the souls of minds once filled with perfect youthful aspirations and ideologies.
As we travel backwards from 1999-1979, beginning with our protagonist’s suicide, Lee sets about presenting us with some of the pivotal moments in South Korea’s fight for democracy and economical stability. The Asian Financial Crisis, 1987’s Great Workers’ Struggle, and the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement all serve as poignant historical backdrops; the director’s pessimism is stronger than ever and there is little depiction here of hope as he picks at such unfortunate remnants, which further provide gateways into Yong-ho’s home life and his past relationships. Through the good and bad times and the recollections of a love that could have made everything turn out differently, we watch cautiously as Yong-ho’s predetermined fate takes him from being a young budding photographer to unwitting solider, jaded police officer, successful businessman, and finally an irreparably broken man. However, in doing so Lee creates an awful lot of work for himself, which means that even on account of a lengthy run time there is occasionally very little elaborating upon certain elements behind Yong-ho’s downfall, which does leave the impression that we are looking at a series of incomplete vignettes.
Sol Kyung-gu’s performance is indeed a highlight throughout, with the actor pitch-perfectly selling every bit of pain and dejection, yet despite his sincerity and Lee’s heart being in the right place, Peppermint Candy is another distanced affair in which its politically-charged setting carries more weight than its actual characters, who appear as little more than ciphers through which to echo the sentiments of an entire generation. As such it’s an emotionally unrewarding feature that does little but numb the heart to its seemingly hopeless conclusion, despite its cries of life being a beautiful thing.
Third Window Films presents Peppermint Candy anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The NTSC progressively flagged transfer looks to be sourced from the same master used for Spectrum’s R3 release, which is getting on a bit now, but remained the best-looking presentation we had seen until today. The biggest letdown is the ghastly application of edge enhancement (also afflicting the R3 DVD); given how good detail is anyway it only proves how ultimately pointless it is. There are specks and dust here and there, but it’s a stretch to expect any serious remastering, besides which nothing is particularly distracting. Contrast is a tad high, though black levels are balanced well enough, while the overall colour scheme - occasionally showing slightly reddish skin tones - offers a fair amount of vibrancy amidst the murkier subject matter.
Sound comes in two flavours: Korean DD5.1 Surround and Korean DD 2.0. The latter appears to be a down-mix of the 5.1; it offers slightly less by way of ambience, though does utilize the surround channels and presents dialogue cleanly. The larger mix has a nice amount of bass, and takes the environmental sounds to pleasing highs; particular moments are made all the more tense thanks to some aggressive subwoofer action, with an overall stronger sense of Young-ho’s surrounds enveloping him.
The optional English subtitles on the other hand are a little ropey in places. It’s a newly translated set, but I’m guessing it’s still based on the old Spectrum translations. There is still a few oddly structured sentences to be had, though nothing bad enough to prevent the viewer from understanding what’s going on.
The main feature is a 47-minute behind the scenes look at production, though unlike the majority of filler material put on these kinds of things, there’s actually a decent amount of insight into the film. Not only are we presented with the typical on-location footage in which the cast and crew had to work through tough conditions, but also director Lee Chang-dong takes time out to discuss the feature’s themes and metaphors, with input from key cast members as we journey back through each important phase.
An original theatrical trailer is also included.