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Bakha satang (Peppermint Candy)

Posted by martinteller on January 23, 2013

The film begins with a lively picnic by the river.  Old friends — former employees of the same factory — are recreating a festive event at the same spot some 20 years earlier.  Lee Yongho (Sol Kyung-gu) shows up late, and clearly a bit off his rocker.  He stumbles around, starts raving, and climbs up on the train tracks.  As the engine bears down on him he screams, “I want to go back!”

And so the film goes back, Memento-style (or Irreversible-style, if you like, though not exactly like either), going through seven (if I counted right) significant periods in Yongho’s life back to that first picnic.  We see him become less and less unhinged, until we reach the event where things started to change for him.  His disturbance — which manifests itself as flashes of violence, inappropriate behavior, and resentment — has its roots in the Kwangju Massacre of 1980.  My knowledge of Korean history is exceptionally limited, and I never heard of this massacre before seeing this movie.  I’m sure the film has greater significance and impact for a Korean audience.  But even without a history lesson, we get the point.  Lee’s damaged psyche is reflective of the nation’s psyche, and problems not properly dealt with have a way of compounding themselves.

It’s a nicely constructed movie, with plenty of little tidbits dropped throughout that pay off later (i.e., earlier).  Yongho’s recurring limp, a turn of phrase, the candy of the title.  It’s done cleverly, but usually not so cleverly that it keeps calling attention to itself.  The time jumps are separated by images shot from a train in motion… it’s only when you notice the surrounding action that you realize it’s going backwards in time.  Maybe a little too clever there, but I thought it was a nice touch, at least the first couple of times.  More bothersome was at the end when Yongho says he feels like he’s been there before.  That’s just putting too bright a bow on it.  What does that serve?  Also, Sol’s performance is uneven.  At times I thought it was quite subtle, but when the part calls for more extreme behavior, he can get pretty hammy.

This is the fourth film I’ve seen by Lee Chang-dong, and my favorite of them so far.  But like the others, it’s a bit underwhelming and spotty.  There’s definitely some interesting stuff going on, and I was genuinely curious to see how Yongho’s life would unravel.  Lee has deft placement of hints and callbacks (trains are a recurring motif, not just in the transitions between times but also at key moments in Yongho’s journey), and it has some fairly interesting psychological and political angles.  But he has yet to come up with anything that truly sticks with me.  Rating: Good (73)


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