December 30, 2012

Peppermint Candy: Off to a Sweet Start

There are certain works of art -- Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop; Thornton Wilder's Our Town; much of Shakespeare -- that somehow capture the totality of life so completely that they feel practically omniscient. Art-house darling (and mine too) Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy is one such work. Told in reverse chronology with unerring compassion and merciless honesty, this brilliantly searing movie surveys the life of Yang-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) -- a suicidal businessman who initially comes across as the universe's whipping boy -- with a scientist's methodicalness. But as Lee peels back all the layers of corruption and cynicism, self-loathing and loss that have accumulated for Yang-ho, you end up simultaneously confronted by the man's complicity and his misfortune. A person can make grave mistakes and still be worthy of our sympathy. Isn't there an unsure, hopeful, longing being existing in each and every one of us? Isn't the loss of innocence the most universal tale?

If that sounds like sentimental hogwash, take note: Lee's film is a rattling scream of anguish. I didn't cry once although I was pretty upset for most of it. Unrelenting in its intensity, Peppermint Candy keeps throwing cold water in your face the moment you start to get the warm fuzzies. Check out the seriocomic scene in the car where Yang-ho is literally performing on his cell phone for each caller or the surreally discordant marital scene that features his nude wife Hongja (Kim Yeo-jin) running around on all fours like a golem or the seemingly straightforward hospital scene in which he sweet talks his first love (Moon So-ri) while her husband stands in the background. Every time you think you've figured out what's going on, Lee gives a wrenching twist to the action that reminds you that you can NEVER really know what's going on in anyone's life, head, heart, or world.

Peppermint Candy is Lee's sophomore effort as a writer-director and like Oasis, the heartbreaking film which followed it, this movie has a magical quality that's hard to explain. Between each sequence, for instance, dreamlike footage reveals a train's journey but backwards: Nearby cars drive in reverse, people retrace their steps, a dog seems to dance to on unheard command. It's nothing you haven't seen before and yet it feels as though it is. The ability to make the familiar new may be what makes a piece of art, art anyway. Don't you think?

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