Catastrophe and Finitude in Lee Chang Dong's Peppermint Candy: Temporality, Narrative, and Korean History

By Choe, Steve | Post Script, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Catastrophe and Finitude in Lee Chang Dong's Peppermint Candy: Temporality, Narrative, and Korean History


Choe, Steve, Post Script


I

The photo (Fig. 10.1) that graces the theatrical release poster for Lee Chang Dong's 1999 film, Peppermint Candy ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], South Korea 1999), represents one of the most significant turning points in the film. In it actor Seol Kyeong-gu is pictured in medium shot, sporting a grey suit and disheveled hair. He stands precariously against train tracks that disappear in perspective behind him, leaning backward as if being pulled into the vanishing point of the image. The pose of his body is especially striking: with outstretched arms and a distorted face that encircles a wide, gaping mouth, he screams in anguish. The pose is remarkably similar to that one described by German Enlightenment writer, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in his 1766 critique of the Laocoon: "The wide-open mouth, aside from the fact that the rest of the face is thereby twisted and distorted in an unnatural and loathsome manner, becomes in painting a mere spot and in sculpture a cavity, with most repulsive effect" (17). Although Lessing speaks of painting and sculpture in the essay, the central critique remains apposite to the present still image. The face in this poster, "unnatural and loathsome," indeed bespeaks an agonized and tormented soul, eliciting a "most repulsive" response by those who look upon it. Lessing argues that it is this extreme moment surrounded by those preceding and immediately following that provokes this distress, such that "if he cries out, it can neither go one step higher nor one step lower than this representation without seeing him in a more tolerable and hence less interesting condition" (20). For the representation of Seol Kyeonggu's anguished scream stands at the very climax of his grief, and while beauty is sacrificed, suffering gains its most definitive expression in the unsightly distortion of his face.

[FIGURE 10.1 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 10.2 OMITTED]

Lessing's critique reminds us of the need to consider the frozen image within the narrative trajectory of Peppermint Candy itself. We are able to recreate the motivation leading up to the moment represented in the poster, if only by recalling the moments which precede it. As he stands on suspended tracks, a train rumbles toward him, repeatedly blowing its whistle and giving warning to get out of the way. Tension builds by the second with the nearing confrontation, underscored by the accelerated rhythm of the editing. Cross-cut with this stand-off between man and machine is an overhead shot of his long-time friend, who stands motionless and helpless beneath the tracks (Fig.10.2). He frantically screams his suicidal friend's name above the mechanical noise of the train, "Kim Young-ho!" As the heavy train comes treacherously close, Young-ho suddenly turns around to face it while the film quickly cuts to a point of view from the metal machine itself. The camera-train relentlessly rails toward him, and with outspread arms and wide-open mouth, he yells out, "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" ("I am going back!") The image suddenly stops on a close-up of his anguished face while the clanging of the train continues. It is these precise moments that are meant to collide with the still image reproduced by the theatrical poster: the tense, tragic moments immediately preceding his death, Young-ho's suicide and the close of the first act.

The film then unfolds in this way, chronologically backward, retrospectively narrating the course of Young-Ho's adult life, depicting significant, watershed scenes from his personal history. This temporal movement is clearly indicated in the poster in large lettering: "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" ("I want to start again!") By its end, Peppermint Candy will span twenty years, taking the viewer back to his young adulthood in the Fall of 1979, the moment at which he emerges into the sparkle of life, full of hopes and dreams for the future. …

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