I recently came across a box set of Lee Chang-Dong's first three films: Green Fish (1996), Peppermint Candy (1999), and Oasis (2002). Being a great admirer of Lee's two most recent films, Secret Sunshine and Oasis, I was anxious to see his first two films, and started with Peppermint Candy.
Lee began his career as an artist as a novelist, and Peppermint Candy is very much influenced by literary structure. The film uses a backwards time construct, starting with a man's suicide. The story in many ways is the reverse of Hollywood melodrama, especially the way in which social and political concerns are handled. Typically, Hollywood attempts to solve social issues through melodrama. There are numerous examples, the locus classicus being Casablanca. It can even be seen in political dramas like JFK with its insertion of the family melodrama into the assassination investigation. Peppermint Candy, on the other hand, starts with the personal and gradually begins to explore the political and social landscape of South Korea over the previous 20 years.
The film achieves, like Lee's other work, a curious and extremely effective mixture of realism and formalism. The style of the film features a great many long takes and favors a naturalistic acting approach. However, there are many motifs that self-consciously call attention to themselves throughout. This begins of course with the artificial narrative form. The hero starts by allowing himself to be run over by a train while screaming "I want to go home". There are then six flashbacks in reverse chronological order. In between each "chapter" there are shots of a train going in reverse. And each chapter contains a scene with a train, which eventually causes the viewer to note this motif. The hero also contains a limp that reappears throughout at key moments.
The film thus works on two levels. On the one hand, it is an emotionally engaging male melodrama about lost love a la Wong Kar-Wai. At the same time, it is a politically astute tale that is both an introduction to recent Korean history and an all-too-relevant commentary on the use of brutality to control dissent.